New York

Boris Charmatz, Flip Book Part of Musée de la Danse: Three Collective Gestures, 2008/2013. Performance view, Museum of Modern Art, New York, November 1, 2013.

Boris Charmatz, Flip Book Part of Musée de la Danse: Three Collective Gestures, 2008/2013. Performance view, Museum of Modern Art, New York, November 1, 2013.

Performa 13

Boris Charmatz, Flip Book Part of Musée de la Danse: Three Collective Gestures, 2008/2013. Performance view, Museum of Modern Art, New York, November 1, 2013.

In her groundbreaking book Performance Art: From Futurism to the Present, first published in 1979, RoseLee Goldberg traced the history of her subject within the context of the art world. This world turned out to be broadly defined, allowing the author to discuss many events that others might label dance, music, or theater. Performa, which Goldberg launched in New York in 2005 as the first biennial dedicated to “visual art performance,” is similarly catholic in its offerings. While featuring numerous artists’ virgin efforts in live performance, Performa has frequently presented choreographers, composers, and even standup comics.

Performa 13, which took place this past November, was no exception. The month was a mix of multiple curators’ projects and co-presentations with museums and theaters, spread throughout Manhattan, Brooklyn, and the Bronx. Whereas a typical biennial can be seen in two or three days, Performa offers a continuous calendar of events, with as many as ten performances programmed for any ten-hour period. Audience members are left to navigate the schedule as best they can, relying heavily on word of mouth and stamina. One path through the month was a fascinating range of vocal performances, organized by Mark Beasley. I focused primarily on dance, a strand largely curated by Charles Aubin and Lana Wilson.

French “conceptual” choreographers Boris Charmatz and Jérôme Bel, both featured in previous Performas, returned with US premieres of high-profile pieces at the Museum of Modern Art and New York Live Arts, respectively. Charmatz’s Flip Book, 2008/2013, a japing take on Merce Cunningham via the reenactment of some 250 photographs in company archivist David Vaughan’s half-century-spanning chronicle, felt like an empty gesture—especially after a panel discussion in which Charmatz admitted to having little interest in his American elder; he further flummoxed fans of the late choreographer by stating that the documented poses strung together basically add up to a Cunningham dance.

Bel presented the latest in his series of performer “portraits,” a look at a Zurich-based troupe of mentally disabled actors. First performed at Documenta 13 in 2012, the unfortunately titled Disabled Theater—calling it Theater HORA, after the company, would have fallen more in line with the rest of the series’s proper names—featured ten actors from the group performing one by one. While Bel’s previous portraits focused principally on his subjects’ professional lives, here the content was almost entirely personal. In a Q&A after the performance, an audience member asked the actors to describe their usual repertoire: They mentioned past productions based on Of Mice and Men and The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Bel has said that Disabled Theater is about “confronting alterity,” but it seems the group got there first.

Less starry productions proved more rewarding. Pieter Ampe and Guilherme Garrido’s Still Standing You, 2010, combined acrobatics, theater games, and genital origami in a humorous and surprisingly touching investigation of male friendship. Maria Hassabi’s Premiere, 2013, a coproduction with The Kitchen, continued the choreographer’s years-long inquiry into tension and anticipation with a slow-moving piece for five performers. In Ryan McNamara’s ME3M: A Story Ballet About the Internet, 2013, audience members were separated to watch different performances in the various spaces of a single theater, recalling the way we click from one YouTube clip to the next, with multiple windows open on our computers. (Because we were always aware that another, possibly better dance was happening around the corner, the work also dramatized FOMO—fear of missing out—that pervasive social anxiety as yet unlisted in the DSM.) However, instead of allowing viewers to wander freely from one room to the next, McNamara employed “people movers” to wheel us around as we sat in chairs, exaggerating our passivity and atomizing our experience. Featuring an array of talented dancers, pop songs, music-video choreography, and fantastic leggings, ME3M rightfully won the biennial’s “grand prize,” the Malcolm McLaren Award.

Attitudes toward performance art have changed substantially since the publication of Goldberg’s book, and even in the nine years since Performa began—just think of the evolution of Marina Abramović over this same period. Long past being the transgressive stepchild of the art world, today the medium is invoked by pop stars who want to be artists, movie stars who want to be authentic, and hip-hop stars who want to cement their blue-chip status. Performa manages the tricky task of embracing its newfound stature without losing the unpredictability that gives live art its edge.

Nikki Columbus