IN A THREE-NIGHT STRETCH earlier this month, I saw jazz legend Cecil Taylor’s concert with Min Tanaka and Tony Oxley at the Whitney, Miami City Ballet at Lincoln Center, and Vicky Shick at Danspace Project. “This is a totally weird amalgamation,” I wrote to my editor, “and so I’m thinking it might make for a good column.”
Such, it seems, are the dubious writerly frames I devise when faced with an overabundance of choices. I should have Shick choreograph this column for me; Another Spell, which marked the twentieth anniversary of her first commission at Danspace, showed yet again how skilled this echt downtown choreographer is at placing incongruent moments next to each other and letting them float down the same gossamer stream.
Echt downtown—what a weird thing to say in 2016. (I mean, my god, the Whitney just sent out a press release celebrating its “first anniversary downtown.”) But the crisscrossing lines of influence among artists like Shick, Susan Rethorst, Jodi Melnick, Jon Kinzel, and Juliette Mapp, many of them leading back in some way to Trisha Brown, still feel rooted in an aesthetic of time and place.
It’s an aesthetic with which I’ve been intimately engaged as a watcher for the past decade; I was aware of that on Saturday night, at a full house in Saint Mark’s Church, having felt just the opposite at the Taylor concert. I don’t belong here, I haven’t earned this, I thought to myself several times during that sold-out, buzzy show—such as when an artist-friend in the audience (I only think jokingly) scolded me with “This is Cecil Taylor. You’d better put that notebook away.” Or when the audience roared at the entrance of the man—this is when art is like church, and you know when you’re not part of the congregation.
The seven women in Another Spell come and go in restless eddies and bursts, going one way, going another. Finger snaps, forward rushes, the slow figure-eighting of pelvises and hips: eternity at the center of a wayward gravity.
At the risk of overextending the church metaphor, that’s what it felt like to me, as a very young critic, when older dance-goers talked about New York City Ballet during Balanchine’s reign. The literature reinforced their fervor. Here is Edwin Denby, in 1957, describing the opening night of Agon: “The balcony stood up shouting and whistling when the choreographer took his bow. Downstairs, people came out into the lobby, their eyes bright as if the piece had been champagne. Marcel Duchamp, the painter, said he felt the way he had after the opening of Le Sacre.”
There wasn’t any shouting or whistling, as I recall, for Miami City Ballet’s performance—though there is a flow and speed and attack in this company that is easy to feel swept up in. One could imagine this was Justin Peck’s experience when he made Heatscape for them last year—though he seems perpetually swept up. In this ballet and in his new work for San Francisco Ballet, In the Countenance of Kings, he sends the dancers rushing to the lip of the stage, as if they would overflow its bounds and pool into the orchestra and beyond. He hasn’t yet sent them any further, I don’t think, but one holds out hope.
Taylor’s intense charges and elusive breaks, it’s restlessness not, in the end, so unlike Shick’s feints of movement—but what Tanaka did with it, and with the dark, softly thick underlining of Oxley’s electronics, was something more akin to Petrushka on acid.
The body never finds the right position. How can it when beset by delicate anvils?
Taylor didn’t move very far at all, not once he had been helped to his piano. But his eyes tracked Tanaka everywhere, until the dancer curled down behind the musician, finally finding a core of stillness.
Petrushka on acid isn’t really right—it’s a placeholder, something an outsider would say in trying to describe what was coursing around that night. After the sunset darkened the glorious view from the fifth-floor wall of windows overlooking the Hudson River, a reflection of the gallery space seemed to extend out into the night sky, like the belly of an alien ship.
There was a second, impromptu act. There was more applause, the audience on its feet.
“Open Plan: Cecil Taylor” ran April 15 through 24 at the Whitney Museum of American Art; Vicky Shick and dancer’s Another Spell ran April 14 through 16 at Danspace Project; Miami City Ballet ran April 13 through 17 at Lincoln Center.
IS DEATH A CRUELER FATE for those who have lived a creative life? Is it a greater tragedy that one day a body that has channeled dance or theater or poetry will betray not just life, but art too? These questions surfaced in two recent productions, each of which consider the condition of the male artist in his golden years: Alvis Hermanis’s Brodsky/Baryshnikov starring Mikhail Baryshnikov, and Robert Wilson’s performance of Samuel Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape. At the center of both plays are the words of long-dead authors, ego ideals for the artists on stage. In the face of their own mortality, Baryshnikov and Wilson look to Brodsky and Beckett respectively for a form that can both contain and express gratitude, anxiety, rage, and grief. But where one production succeeds in creating a work of theater that bangs against the inevitable with great life force, the other falls to a different kind of death: that of the lively imagination.
My slurred and hurried voice
will trouble you with bitterness.
But someday, bent over my tired smirk
in belated sorrow,
perhaps forgetting everything on earth,
in another country—sorry!—another century,
you’ll whisper my name without anger,
and I’ll shudder in my grave.
So reads Baryshnikov in the entrancing, incantatory Brodsky/Baryshnikov, devised by Hermanis, artistic director of The New Riga Theater, to pay respects to the late Nobel Prize–winning poet, Joseph Brodsky. The words heard over the ninety-minute piece are all Brodsky’s, clipped and collaged by Hermanis to create a text through which the poet is given a presence that is at once his own and not his own—a theatrical concoction, a wistful conjuring, his words in some sense casting an immeasurable shadow that illuminates the man himself. (“Why did black light come pouring from his eyes?”)
Brodsky chased The Grand Themes—life, nature, love, death—capturing the muses of his voracious mind with the aim and focus of a big-game hunter. Hermanis claims that when he first read Brodsky’s poems as a young man, they shook him to the core. Baryshnikov and the poet were famously close friends, both Russian exiles landing in 1970s New York to live as Western artists live. Although neither man can restore a body to Brodsky, together they can, and do, give him the power to move. We hear his words spoken from the stage by Baryshnikov; we hear them in taped recordings of the poet made during his lifetime. In the space of this performance, these two artists make Brodsky’s words physical—connecting poem to sound and sensation and action and reaction. Reverent, quixotic, Brodsky/Baryshnikov is a genteel meditation on what and who a writer’s life leaves behind, and what they can forge in his memory.
The action takes place in and around an empty, dilapidating solarium possessed of a fading elegance: Moss laces itself along the room’s ribs, and fraying wires spit sparks from an overstuffed fusebox hanging above its doors. (“Ruins are a celebration of oxygen and time,” wrote Brodsky). When Baryshnikov enters, the lights flicker, an electrical surge that might otherwise signal the beginning of a séance. (Someone is coming through.) From a briefcase, the dancer unpacks books, an alarm clock, and a bottle of Jameson whiskey, Brodsky’s favorite. He picks up one of the volumes, and begins to read, and from there the performance unfolds.
Baryshnikov recites, listens and moves to Brodsky’s words, which are all spoken in Russian. A reel-to-reel tape recorder sits on a bench, turning itself on and off, playing back the poet’s voice. (English supertitles scroll up the top of the solarium.) The dancer does not dance, per se; his movements are more an act of translation, of language and its images running through the body. In moments, his gestures are sweet, even a bit hokey, as though illustrating the text. “Watch the centuries pass, disappear around the corner,” we hear as Baryshnikov takes off his shirt, jacket, and shoes, pulls his trousers up over his knees, and smears his bare chest with what looks like cold cream. “See how moss grows in the groin, / and dust settles on the shoulders—it’s the tan of time.” Others are more poetic: He breathes on the solarium’s windows to fog them, his breath made visible only to disappear as quickly. Still others are more inscrutable. Toward the end of the play—at its de facto climax—Baryshnikov opens the double doors of the solarium and sits on a chair in the center of the threshold. “Let’s look at tragedy’s face,” we hear, as he convulses, goes rigid, his body pivoting in place, stiff as an antenna. “Hello tragedy, your clothes are out of fashion.” He begins to smacks himself in the stomach, to mime pulling out his guts, becoming some kind of writhing, awful creature.
We are parting forever, my friend,
draw a circle on paper.
That will be me: nothing inside.
Take a look, then erase the line.
When all is said and done by Brodsky and Baryshnikov, the performer packs up. A sip of whiskey, a look around, a last poem, and then he exits, leaving only what was there, having disturbed the air for a little while before going, before being gone.
KRAPP ISN’T A POET. He’s a writer. At least, he wrote. “Seventeen copies sold,” he recounts into the microphone of his reel-to-reel recorder. It’s his sixty-ninth birthday, and he marks the occasion as he has for decades: recording the details of his previous year onto tape. His last book may have been a failure, but words are still what jolt him from the doldrums that seem to have descended long ago. He delights—revels is the verb he uses—in the word spool; he stirs from his desk to retrieve a dictionary when he can’t remember the meanings of viduity. He weeps rereading Fontane’s Effie Briest; and he listens, enrapt, when he plays back the words he recorded for his thirty-ninth year. Time and drink and solitude have withered old Krapp, now hollow as an eardrum; the words he hears echo in the space where memory would otherwise be. His younger self is fuller of himself: his voice, pompous, his mind clear as a newly frozen lake beneath which life is beginning to go dormant. Perhaps the elder Krapp clings to words in part because words have almost all but left him. “Nothing to say, not a squeak,” he dictates into the microphone, not long before he speaks his last.
“Language is the barrier of the imagination,” theater artist Robert Wilson famously declared, which is one reason it’s so odd that he would choose to direct and perform Samuel Beckett’s hallowed 1958 one-act Krapp’s Last Tape. Words have never been Wilson’s muse; if anything, they’ve been his bugaboo, a medium he deranges inside of his spectaculars. So if not for love of the playwright’s words, Wilson seems to find something else of interest in Beckett’s tale: the opportunity to watch this grand elder statesman of the avant-garde take on the story of a man nearing the end of his tape, so to speak.
“I think my work will not be around fifty years from now,” Wilson said in a 2015 interview. Is posterity even a possibility in the theater? Beckett believed so, and he took great pains to ensure that his plays were precisely mapped for those who wished to stage them. In a famous 1974 letter to a Dr. Kleinschmidt of Cologne, Beckett shared this thought on the matter of altering his work:
I am totally opposed to your idea of bringing Endgame up to date in an Alterscheim or other fashionable hell. This play can only function if performed strictly as written and in accordance with its stage directions, nothing added and nothing removed. The director’s job is to ensure this, not invent improvements.
Alas, for poor Beckett, Wilson may well be the reigning czar of invented improvements. He belongs to that irritating ilk of director who, having established their aesthetic—their brand, more to the point—seem to clang their theatrical style over a work of literature like cold armor over a warm body. (William Kentridge and Ivo van Hove are two others in line for this crown.) Rather than engage with the text in a collaborative spirit—in which the play and the director remain porous, open to each other—these artists inoculate themselves against a text, lest it infect or defect their vision. It appears (to this writer, at least) a self-serving auteurism, a paralyzing holdover from the era when it was discovered that killing daddy was a lot more work than just borrowing his stuff. Of course, Beckett’s dead, and there’s no reason to believe that an author should always have the last word on her or his plays, but Wilson’s Krapp evacuates the playwright where it would be far more interesting—at this point in the director’s esteemed career—to watch Wilson take Beckett in, metabolize him, and create a performance that belongs to neither, that bridges the wide space between the two.
For Beckett, Krapp may be an old fool—wearish is the word the playwright uses—but he’s no clown. Unfortunately, Wilson can’t do without his kabuki-ish makeup and cartoonish gestures, can’t appear unpainted, unhidden, on view for an audience to get a good long look at. He designs Krapp’s den so that it looks like a pristine, steely bunker, bound ledgers stacked neatly on both sides, in a grayscale palette interrupted only by Krapp’s ruby red socks. (Beckett had him in a “surprising pair of dirty white boots.”) The space is stunning, as ever. Wilson’s eye is never not brilliant; his sets and lighting are always possessed of the foreboding perfection of a fairy-tale land.
The director chooses to begin the play with the invented improvement of a deafening thunderstorm, as though a B-horror movie and Krapp—standing there stiff-haired and dumbstruck, like a deer in the footlights—is some kind of monster. Wilson’s movements channel Buster Keaton (star of Beckett’s only screenplay, Film), lumbering, stumbling, and occasionally leaping across the stage; his face, however, is more Gloria Swanson (Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard), eyebrows high, expressions extreme in imitation of emotion—a performance style that utterly flattens the nuanced emotional registers of Krapp’s tragicomic condition. “Writing words, words more words,” Desmond famously laments. (Like Wilson, she didn’t much care for them either.) It’s his disregard for Krapp’s words that’s the most disappointing and frustrating of all his choices. Wilson’s refusal to entertain the usefulness of Beckett’s strain of naturalism ripens the play into a pulpy version of itself. Krapp’s speech echoes that of a cartoon. “Spooool!” he rhapsodizes in what he describes as the “happiest moment of the past half million.” But out of Wilson’s mouth, this beloved word sounds like a slide whistle, careening up up up and away from the play.
The exaggerations continue. Wilson mugs and cackles throughout. He waves his hands in the air, and kicks up his feet. In what may be the most telling of his inventions, he looks out into the audience, performing for us, aware of us. Out with the delicacy, in with the ham. All sadly falls to near-parody, both of Beckett and of Wilson himself. At its most interesting, the production could be read as the director making a case against posterity—my work will not be around fifty years from now—performing the devastating effects the unknown future can have on a work of theater once its creator is gone. Perhaps. But to give Beckett the last words in the matter of Wilson’s Krapp: “Fail better.”
Trajal Harrell, The Ghost of Montpellier Meets the Samurai, 2015. Performance view, Zellerbach Playhouse. Thibault Lac and Stephen Thompson. Photo: Orpheas Emirzas.
AS WITH HIS PREVIOUS SERIES, Twenty Looks or Paris Is Burning at the Judson Church, 2009–2013, Trajal Harrell’s new production, The Ghost of Montpellier Meets the Samurai, is explicitly concerned with speculative history. But this time around, instead of imagining a meeting between the Harlem voguing and Judson Dance Theater worlds, Harrell turns abroad, to a choreographic encounter between two enigmatic figures: Tatsumi Hijikata, a founder of Japanese butoh dance, and Dominique Bagouet, of France’s Nouvelle Danse movement.
He also dreams up a midwife: Ellen Stewart, the inimitable force behind the East Village theater La MaMa. In a show with numerous false starts and identities, it’s tempting to think of Stewart as a Harrell avatar: a black New York performance celebrity engendering unwieldy and ambitious artistic collisions.
Stewart was an American figure, and despite its international cast, The Ghost of Montpellier Meets the Samurai, which I caught last weekend at Cal Performances in Berkeley, feels deeply American in its freewheeling repositioning of foreign pasts and grief-stricken grappling with an overwhelming present. Or maybe that’s an overreach (typically American). Maybe I should just say that, through all the brashly whirring motors of this ninety-minute machine, the set of intractable realities Harrell is rubbing up against seems familiar. Familial.
The work unfurls across slick feints at contemporary culture—most centrally, the runway, which has long been a fixture in Harrell’s work. We first see Harrell when he rises from a seat in the front row, announcing himself as Anna Wintour and loftily demanding more support for the arts. Shortly after, Thibault Lac, a willowy French dancer who surely must have been a fashion model in another life and who has a rich collaborative history with Harrell, appears on stage as Harrell for a gratingly chatty interview with fellow dancer Perle Palombe, who has established herself as our host.
These casually applied personas don’t have to do with character development or narrative. They feel much like the gorgeously ad hoc outfits the performers cycle in and out of during the fashion show that blooms lusciously in The Ghost’s middle, in stark juxtaposition to the often intensely alienating interactions among the cast, and, in a brisk raffle of stage detritus orchestrated by the dancer Stephen Thompson, the cast and audience.
Trajal Harrell, The Ghost of Montpellier Meets the Samurai, 2015. Performance view. Stephen Thompson and Christina Vasileiou. Photo: Orpheas Emirzas.
The disposability of such stagey actions—their wink-wink knowingness and promise of brevity—lies in telling contrast to the overarching demands on audience attention that this intermissionless work makes. You can’t sink into any of this, Harrell seems to be saying, and you don’t have to—but you also can’t escape. And maybe, at a certain point, you won’t want to.
All of these exchanges gesture to a cult of celebrity often deployed on contemporary stages, in which the marginal and the throwaway are held up at the center of the spectacle. They are also theater executed as tasks. Watching this work in Berkeley, I couldn’t avoid Parades & Changes (1965), the germinal Anna Halprin dance that remains resonant in its task-based, modular scoring system and its (once scandalous) use of nudity as a matter of fact. I first saw it in 2009 as parades & changes, reenactment, a French version led by the choreographer Anne Collod that itself featured an international cast reaching toward a past that was both theirs and not theirs. And of course when I looked up the piece I’d written about this project back then, what should I find but a quote from Harrell:
“ ‘This historical material becomes a repertoire that everyone is pulling from,’ [Harrell said], especially as it has grown common for choreographers to country-hop for various projects, instead of spending their careers with one company.”
This, and the notion of the post–Culture Wars artist unmoored from place, recalls “The Bohemian Diaspora,” Cynthia Carr’s 1992 essay in the Village Voice, which ends with the following lines: “Of course, bohemia was always part of the exile tradition, the place where the lost ones went to find each other. But it was exile from one tangible place to another. Now that there is no place, the exiles have become nomads, and there’s a whole culture of the disappeared.”
Carr was writing within the storm of the Culture Wars and the AIDS crisis, in a year in which HIV infection became the leading cause of death for men in the US between the ages of twenty-five and forty-four. (Bagouet was forty-one when he died in 1992). The context is different now, but it’s still indelibly marked by the events Carr so finely and painfully chronicled. (I can’t help but think of another French choreographer, Alain Buffard, who was in parades & changes, reenactment; he died in 2013 at the age of fifty-three, and was also HIV-positive.)
Which isn’t to say that The Ghost of Montpellier Meets the Samurai is about any of these things. It certainly isn’t about Bagouet or Hijikata. “Ghost” might be the most salient word in the title: Everything is at these performers’ fingertips, but there is nothing for them, or us, to grab hold of. If nothing can exist as itself, everything can become something else—it’s up to us whether we see in this a heaven or a hell.
The Ghost of Montpellier Meets the Samurai had its US premiere March 11–13 at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis and played March 18 and 19 at Cal Performances at the University of California, Berkeley.
Maria Hassabi, PLASTIC, 2015. Rehearsal view, Museum of Modern Art, New York, October 30, 2015. Photo: Julieta Cervantes.
THE WOMAN IS sitting on a couch in the museum. She is only sitting. She isn’t looking distractedly at a brochure, or taking a picture of art, or herself, or herself and art. She isn’t doing anything with her phone, even just holding it like a talisman, and in fact it appears that she doesn’t even have a phone. In a room full of chaotic, barely-there bodies, she simply and powerfully is.
Soon enough she will not be sitting. She will, slowly and with a coiled, liquid purpose that seems to originate at a cellular level, flow into less conventional poses, coming up for air periodically to level her makeup-smudged gaze at people who, inevitably, will return that gaze through electronic mediation.
The woman is the singular, gorgeously intelligent American dancer Kennis Hawkins, who is these days based in Brussels and seen all too rarely in New York. Hawkins is part of a continual rotation of dancers: Each performs a two-hour solo on and near a sofa, one of several pieces of sleek furniture placed in the atrium. And the solo is part of Maria Hassabi’s PLASTIC, installed through March 20th in the Museum of Modern Art’s atrium and the lobby and fourth-floor staircases. Accompanied by Morten Norbye Halvorsen’s atmospheric sound design, studded with Marina Rosenfeld’s lushly romantic song fragments, it features some of the most compelling dancers currently working today.
In other sections of PLASTIC, these dancers are more obtrusive than the sofa solo, their focused movements forming slowly migrating islands within heavily trafficked pedestrian passageways. They wear uniforms (by threeASFOUR): pristine sneakers, and shirts tucked into tight jeans bedecked with jewels. And they are watched over by another uniformed ensemble: the museum guards, who attempt to balance traffic flow with access to and protection of the artists. I’ve never been told I couldn’t do so many seemingly innocuous things: No sitting on the floor near a sitting dancer, no leaning against a wall bare of any art save a leaning dancer, and, most absurdly, no pausing on the stairs unless I was doing it to take a picture. Museum guards, for me, are always on the side of the angels; but it’s feeling increasingly urgent that museums figure out what kind of public spaces they want to be beyond staging sites for Instagram.
A finely honed work like PLASTIC, the latest iteration of Hassabi’s sustained investigation of presence, brings such twenty-first century dilemmas to the fore. I don’t think of Hassabi as a political artist, but the steady insistence of this piece feels like a political gesture in a way that, say, Marina Abramović’s The Artist Is Present never did.
Maria Hassabi talks with artforum.com about PLASTIC.
PLASTIC endlessly rewards attention, creating a sort of spectacle of intimacy both generous and radical. Yet it also allows for a porousness of viewer focus, creating a continuum in itself, and with past Hassabi creations. Spending time with it in its opening week, I thought of something the choreographer Rashaun Mitchell said to me days earlier when we were at the Joyce Theater to see Pam Tanowitz, and the lights went down before we could see what the first work on the program was: “It doesn’t matter. It’s all one dance.”
Mitchell, who has performed with Tanowitz, meant it as a compliment, and he’s right, I think: Tanowitz and Hassabi, like many mature artists, have found freedom in working and reworking the same plot of land. True to its title, the story progresses as if in a dream of glittering surfaces, Tanowitz’s latest premiere, is an unknown but familiar world, one that, in ways not so dissimilar from PLASTIC, delights in its attention to detail while permitting—perhaps even asking—its public to move in and out of its formal parries and thrusts.
The performers are, as usual, studded with alumni from the Merce Cunningham Dance Company—no surprise, given the exactitude and speed of Tanowitz’s phrasework. There is in every moment (and echoed by Reid Bartelme and Harriet Jung’s jauntily understated costumes) a juxtaposition or witticism to delight the eye. But it’s saved from being clever eye-candy by its fierce, singular concentration; there is something worked out here in the doing, as the dancers attack along and within Davison Scandrett’s subtly shifting planes of light, and terrifically spiny music that moves from Julia Wolfe’s “Four Marys,” performed live by the FLUX Quartet, to Dan Siegler’s luxuriously mercurial score.
Justin Peck, The Most Incredible Thing, 2016. Performance view, New York City Ballet, January 29, 2016. Photo: Paul Kolnik.
Watching Tanowitz’s concert, I had, as I invariably do when watching her work, an insistent question in my head: Why on earth isn’t this woman choreographing for New York City Ballet? I’ve asked this before in print, I’m pretty sure in this column. Tedious repetition! Sorry. But it’s tedious to keep seeing the utter lack of gender (and etc.) diversity on ballet stages. The night before Tanowitz, I caught a City Ballet bill featuring the founder George Balanchine, and present-day makers Peter Martins, Justin Peck, and Christopher Wheeldon, and the only thing that stood out as remarkable difference is that Peck is the sole American—which, yes, when we’re talking talented ballet choreographers these days, counts as a serious minority in an already tiny group.
Peck is abundantly talented. He is also very young, just twenty-eight, and still making more than one dance. His contribution to the bill I caught is The Most Incredible Thing, a splashy premiere with involved décor by Marcel Dzama. It’s a big departure for Peck, and what doesn’t work about this ballet, namely its muddled but thin telling of an actual story (by Hans Christian Andersen), underscores his proclivities. Like Tanowitz, Peck communicates through structure, working within and around, and sometimes momentarily resisting or reorienting, a highly codified movement language.
He pulls drama from friction of textures and from buoyant flows of material; and it’s clear that he’s still studying, digesting the steps he continues to dance as a City Ballet soloist, and appropriating them for his own purposes, within ridiculous fishbowl conditions. That’s not derivative, it’s apprenticeship—something that’s important to keep in mind as the ballet industry pushes to make him its next great heir apparent. He’s twenty-eight. He has time. How good that we get to watch him figure out how to spend it.
Maria Hassabi’s PLASTIC runs through March 20 at the Museum of Modern Art; Pam Tanowitz’s the story progresses as if in a dream of glittering surfaces premiered February 18–21 at the Joyce Theater; Justin Peck’s The Most Incredible Thing premiered February 2 at New York City Ballet.
Martine Syms, Misdirected Kiss, 2016. Performance view, The Broad, Los Angeles, January 21, 2016. Photo: Dori Scherer.
QUEEN LATIFAH looks at the camera, smiling with lips lined, hair pressed, blazer on. A headshot from her days starring as Khadijah James in the 1990s FOX sitcom Living Single, the image’s caption betrays an earlier, discarded title for the show: “My Girls.”
To whom, in fact, do these girls belong? The artist Martine Syms calls photos like this—purchased on eBay and at flea markets—a type of “prosthetic memory,” a means of claiming a past that is not, conventionally speaking, your own. Speaking to an audience at The Broad in Los Angeles, Syms tells us that the term (from cultural historian Alison Landsberg) has been rechristened by her friend, artist Steffani Jemison, as “weave memory.”
From a virtual backstage, Syms drags the source, a video clip, into the fore of a collage she’s arranging on the projected screen. Vine user DisforDivinee—like Queen Latifah before her—looks directly at the camera, at us. Hands running through her twists, she says, “I go to work and all the white ladies say ‘I love your hair, it’s so long,’ ” brows furrowing as she stretches the vowels in “love” and “so” into a mock-beatific drawl. Cut to: “It’s mine, I bought it!” a declaration tinted with both exasperation and more than just a hint of glee. It’s a capitalist model of ownership, to be sure, but one that feels radical nonetheless.
Without sound, these six seconds loop over and over again, becoming a silent refrain as the performative lecture moves associatively on. Syms riffs on photos of her aunt (affectionately known as “Bunt”) and the afterlife of a 1968 James Taylor lyric (“there’s something in the way she moves”), as it was borrowed first by George Harrison, then by a 2001 made-for-TV movie, and compressed still further into the title of yet another film, about a female dancer trying to break into the male-dominated world of stepping.
Backflips from that film, How She Move (2007), become a kaleidoscopic background for yet another layer of Syms’s onscreen choreography. This time it’s the 1907 Edison-produced gag film, Laughing Gas, starring Bertha Regustus. After a dose of nitrous oxide, her character’s uninhibited, uncontrollable laughter traverses the city in a racialized spectacle that is also contagious, inducing those around her to laugh along too.
Next we hear from Maxine Powell, giving a 1986 interview about her role as the self-appointed head of Motown Records’s “charm school” in the ’60s, a program aimed at getting the artists out of the so-called chitlin’ circuit and into “first-rate” (read: white) venues. In her impeccably tailored suit and hat, Powell admonishes, “Class will turn the heads of kings and queens.” In the audience, heads both nodded and rolled, well-schooled in respectability’s nefarious double-bind.
Even as she delves into the current vogue for “power poses” in the corporate world, Syms’s own body language is casual, in control. Her voice alternates from deadpan delivery to a tone of collusion, divulging childhood artifacts as if they were secrets. (A photo of the artist as a preteen at “T-Zone,” the summer camp for girl empowerment run by supermodel Tyra Banks, elicits both giggles and recognition.)
Among these confessions were Syms’s own “rules for presentation,” which include a three-step process of hair conditioning, a mandate to “be scuffed” (i.e. not too polished), and, when in public, an imperative to read books with obfuscating titles. These rules for self-care are also a kind of self-governance, both a luxury and a form of defense. As with most things, Audre Lorde said it first and said it best, caring for the self can be an act of political warfare.
Rife with Vines, GIFs, and other media signatures, Syms’s work is rightly considered as that of a digital native. But perhaps more than the techniques of the contemporary observer, it is those of the twenty-first-century art student that shape her oeuvre most.
What is a “performative lecture” after all? Perhaps it is merely a marketing ploy, bound up with the institutionalization of performance and the museum’s growing voracity for public programming, but the form is also emphatically related to the professionalization of artists of Syms’s generation: so trained in theory, studio visits, crits. They are so good at talking about their work, which, like Syms’s practice, is increasingly research-based. (Syms received her BFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 2007 and is an MFA candidate at Bard College.) Besides a whole lot of debt, the cynic might ask: What is art school but a kind of finishing school anyway?
Syms both masters and subverts that training. Laced with ambivalence—like the artist’s self-designation as a “conceptual entrepreneur”—her work both slakes our thirst and denies it, hews to our expectations and then cleaves brilliantly away.
“ROSE IS A ROSE IS A ROSE IS A ROSE,” wrote Gertrude Stein, her most famous line dissolving the distinctions between a woman, a name, a word, a flower. Identity is, as the writer suggests, a slippery condition, and who we are rarely has much to do with how we’re called. In Erin Markey’s rousing and tender new musical A Ride on the Irish Cream, Irish Cream is a name is a pontoon boat is a horse is a lover, all borne in this production on the body of trans performer/writer Becca Blackwell, who is also Markey’s partner in life. One of the distinct pleasures of this joyful show is how it brings to the stage the vivid and dreamlike experience of intimacy. Markey doesn’t fall for the formulaic oversharing that weighs so heavily on American storytelling. Rather, she writes from the knowledge that intimacy is a song and dance of our own making, tightening language into codes between lovers, and sculpting the grand, imposed narratives around relationships into singular and precise stories we can finally call our own.
On stage, their story arcs as a series of sharp vignettes and soaring musical numbers (by Markey, Emily Bate, and Kenny Mellman), all fueled by Markey’s childhood memories and her present partnership with Blackwell. Markey plays Reagan, a girl-slash-woman who’s in a relationship with Irish Cream, Blackwell’s horse-slash-boat. Over the course of the show, Reagan and Irish Cream by turns seduce and soothe and challenge one another, while always speaking to each other in their very own screwball tongue:
Reagan: Have you ever thought about kissing every inch of my body but with both eyes closed and two hooves tied behind your saddle? With your motor running on idle?
Irish Cream: Yeah. All the time. Like I want to just throw an anchor down and not waste any gas about it.
Reagan: Yeah and then reel it in and put a ski bobber on the line. And gun it.
Irish Cream: Mm hmmm. And peel around and bump on the wake.
The girl-woman and her boat-horse come together and fall apart, a cycle that only proves the power of the magnetism that binds them. Markey and Blackwell are forces of nature on stage, giving so much of themselves to the audience and—perhaps even more strikingly—to each other. After an argument between Reagan and Irish Cream, in which they hurl insults like “You’re a maternal spider and a prisoner inside your own barn!” and “You deserve an F!” they collapse, knocked out from the hurt. Irish Cream falls to the ground, their belly turning white; Reagan shouts for someone to call 911. Then, after a few beats, with mouths open and pressed together, they rise, resuscitating each other—two people entwined, for whom a kiss is a breath is life force is love.
For performer/ventriloquist Jonathan Capdevielle, mouth, breath, and voice are the instruments on which he composes an aural self-portrait in his entrancing and eerie solo piece, Adischatz/Adieu. Simmering just below the surface are questions about what it means to realize oneself in the light and in the shadow of others—about which aspects of ourselves are created in imitation, and which are received as inheritance.
Capdevielle begins downstage center, looking shaggy and unnerved while singing sweetly: “Holiday / celebration / come together / in every nation.” And then: “You must be my lucky star / ’cause you shine on me wherever you are.” And then: “Papa don’t preach / I’m in trouble deep,” and so on until his medley of Madonna hits twists into far darker arrangements, moving from pop to Pop. “No, papa! No, papa!” he cries out in a gruff and ugly French ditty about a ten-year-old boy who gets fucked in the ass as the audience either giggles or goes quiet. A few songs later, he gives a near-angelic interpretation of Henry Purcell’s haunting composition for John Dryden and Nathanial Lee’s 1679 Oedipus: “Music for a while / shall all your cares beguile...”
In part two, Capdevielle sits at a dressing table, putting on makeup, a mini dress and a blonde wig, and all the while ventriloquizing conversations with his father (distant, disconnected, on the telephone), his sister Natalie (dying in the hospital), and his childhood friend Virginie (drunk outside a dance club near his childhood home). His seamless performance of self and others is brilliant, terrifying, and heartbreaking, because Capdevielle is somehow always second to the people he’s parroting. His father makes awkward small talk, which he mostly answers in monosyllables. When Natalie asks in a choking, wheezing voice whether he will return to visit her later, he quietly replies that he can’t because he has a shift at McDonald’s. “This town’s a real shithole,” he sobs as Virginie as we understand that in this place called home, Capdevielle was anything but.
Adieu/Adischatz doesn’t cohere the way it could. Capdevielle puts no fine point on his becoming, a choice which in some moments feels as though he’s breaking himself wide open, in others as though he’s just falling apart. Yet what condition is more essential to a great performer—living in the push-pull of the voices who at once made and unmade you, so that you can stand onstage, forever unbecoming to remain ever-present and wildly applauded for.
Kaneza Schaal, Go Forth, 2016. Performance view, Westbeth Artists Community, January 6, 2016. David Thomson. Photo: Maria Baranova.
In the labyrinthine basement space at the Westbeth Artists Community, where a taped line just below the ceiling marks the height of the floodwaters during Hurricane Sandy, a turntable plays old pop tunes before the beginning of Kaneza Schaal’s stirring production, Go Forth. At one point, The 5th Dimension crackles through the speakers: “Oh tell me why was I so unkind / I still hope he’s still on that line,” they sing, “I’ll make it up to him / if he hasn’t changed his number / if he hasn’t changed his mind.” If these lyrics of longing are catchy and hopeful, what follows are heavier incantations for someone who is now gone for good. Schaal’s show is her first as a theater-maker, and it was propelled in part by the unexpected death of her father from malaria. Performed as a series of seven vignettes lifted and translated from the Egyptian Book of the Dead, Go Forth is a meditation on mourning and the stories we’ve spun to make sense of loss, to believe and accept a loved one’s unbearable absence.
The show opens with “A Hymn of Praise to Ra,” a recitation in pitch darkness that invokes the sun god as well as Osiris, the god of the afterlife. “Thou risest, O thou marvelous Being,” we hear after the lights have slowly returned, “thou art lord of the world and the inhabitants thereof; the company of the gods and, I, the deceased, triumphant, triumphant in peace, adore thee.” Other vignettes follow such as “Opening of the Mouth” and “The Negative Confessions,” during which the performers speak, sing, dance, move, and pray, bringing to life the words of the dead, always pointing us—orienting us—to the new world in which they reside.
What is striking about Schaal’s production is that although it doesn’t push past the grand, ancient myths to arrive at something more personal, every moment is precisely conceived and marvelous to watch. It must be said that the success of Go Forth is in no small part due to its extraordinary cast. Justin Hicks, William Nadylam, and David Thomson are such charismatic, intelligent, and nuanced performers that everything that happens in the space Schaal has carved out for us always feels beautifully, powerfully sacred.
Erin Markey’s A Ride on the Irish Cream runs through February 6th at Abrons Arts Center; Kaneza Schaal’s Go Forth ran from January 7-12 at Westbeth Artists Community as part of P.S.122’s COIL Festival; Jonathan Capdevielle’s Adischatz/Adieu ran January 15-17 at Abrons Art Center, presented by P.S.122 and American Realness as part of P.S.122’s COIL Festival.