Fail Safe


The Psychic Readings Co., The Failures, 2016. Performance view, November 4, 2016.

FAILURE HAS ALWAYS BEEN a ripe subject for theater. The stars don’t ever align for Romeo and Juliet. The three Prozorov sisters will never live happily ever after. Godot won’t arrive.

The world’s stage is no different. The current spectacle of the forty-fifth President—his sociopathic twists of fact and fiction, stories told to seize the spotlight, to succeed—promises no happy endings either. It is part of the dispirit of our age that we must recognize that certain people seek not only to align themselves with power and money, but, barring real access to these things, they land their pride on the right to entertainment. Call it zeitgeist, or writing our own fate, but three recent productions in New York took on the subjects of failure and entertainment and how, to some degree, one might triumph over, perhaps even trump, the endless onslaught of both.

“Here I am, a successful man, with a lotta good stuff going on, full of vigor and yeah, I have that little something.” So brags Ric (Ric Royer), the jittery-slick game-show host–cum–motivational speaker at the center of The Psychic Readings Co.’s sublimely absurd comedy-of-terrors, The Failures. Written by Royer and Peter Mills Weiss, the play is as crackerjack as it is crackpot, presenting for our viewing pleasure a pair of failures, played by Mills Weiss and Sarah Lamar as pitch-perfect portraits of deflation in gold-sequined sweatshirts and blue hospital pants. “They do not like their life,” explains Ric. “They don’t like being perpetually locked in an inescapable cycle of incapacity.” Tonight, we’re told, the failures will be given mundane tasks to perform. If they fail, then all remains as it is. If they succeed, they will unleash the wrath of Zothe (Anoushe Shoja)—“a merciless and heartless administrator of cosmic consequence”—on the hapless and unsuspecting Loth (Jon Swift), freshly plucked from the front row. No matter the outcome, the audience is, of course, encouraged to enjoy the show.

Needless to say, the failures fail. (It’s their destiny as well as their duty, after all.) We watch as Zothe shanks Loth in the kidneys with a screw, forces him to drink expired Drano, cuts off his thumb and shreds it between the whirring blades of a fan, sending pieces flying everywhere. As he’s tortured, Loth howls in mortal agony, spewing some of the play’s most disarmingly astute lines: “The real horror here is that it’s not experienced as horror, but as comedy!” and “It’s fear of failure that leads one to design systems in which failure is the desired outcome.”

“The key to success is failure!” sings the cast in the play’s buoyant but sinister denouement, which involves Zothe becoming “not weird anymore,” finding a romantic partner, and opening a chain of donut shops. As it turns out, success can seem a lot like failure, depending on how you look at it. As a monster, Zothe was at least charismatic, strange, determined. Now she’s smug, well-off, and not as fun to watch. Why choose success? As Loth says in the moments before his death: “There are only three independent impulses in the human nature! And none of them are to entertain! They are to survive, survive, survive.”

Forced Entertainment, Real Magic , 2016. Performance view, La MaMa Theater, New York, January 5, 2017. Richard Lowdon, Claire Marshall, and Jerry Killick. Photo: Maria Baranova.

Survive—of course we must—but to what end? There’s no mortal threat hanging over the three characters in Forced Entertainment’s exasperating comedy Real Magic. Rather, the condition in which company members Claire Marshall, Jerry Killick, and Richard Lowdon find themselves is that of eternal return, stuck as they are in an endless, tedious game show from which they cannot seem to free themselves. The consequence of their failure is repetition: They keep going round and round for more rounds. Think of it as Sartre’s No Exit for the twenty-four-hour infotainment era: It’s never made clear if an escape from all this canned dazzle is impossible, or if in truth, is “wanted.”

The game that Claire, Jerry, and Richard play seems designed to fail: They’re asked to read one another’s minds to guess the word that one of them is thinking. Each in their turn plays one of three roles: guesser, thinker, and host. The guesser has three chances to get it right, the thinker holds up a sign for the audience with their word written on it, and the host oversees the game. Claire’s word is CARAVAN. Jerry’s is ALGEBRA. Richard’s is SAUSAGE. Yet every time, every guesser guesses the same three wrong words—money, electricity, hole. After the game is lost they swap places and start all over again. The contradiction of their condition is that, of course, they play because they lose, and they lose because they play. Even as their patience, steam, and focus wane, they remain in the game. In fact, they can’t even cheat their way out of it.

Real Magic is in part a theatrical essay on one of the most bewitching forms in contemporary culture: the loop. As distinct from, say, Dante’s infamous circles, which led to deeper realms, a loop is stagnation in motion: self-arresting, ouroboric, collapsing backward and forward momentums into the same direction. A loop produces erosion, fatigue, confusion—a devolving that certainly incites change, though not the rousing kind. Forced Entertainment never lets up on this point, refusing to buoy the pummeling experience of watching the play by granting motivation or meaning to Claire, Jerry, and Richard. “Sometimes the answer to your problem is right in front of you,” says Claire as she and Jerry try to prompt Richard into just reading the sign when it’s his turn to guess. (He doesn’t.) Perhaps we’re to understand that one possible way forward—of up and out—is to simply pay better attention.

Philippe Quesne, La Mélancolie des dragons, 2015. Performance view, Théâtre Nanterre-Amandiers, Nanterre, France, January 6, 2015. Photo: Martin Argyroglo.

A similar spirit possesses Philippe Quesne’s La Mélancolie des dragons, a languorous and enchanting production that recalibrates the scales with which to measure magic and wonder, both in the theater and out in the world. Failure too kicks off this story: A stalled Volkswagen Rabbit has stranded a merry band of metalheads and their trailer in a snowy wood. They’re soon discovered by Isabelle, a mechanic—what luck!—who assumes they’re in a band. As it turns out, the men run a touring amusement park—we are independent, one explains—a series of spectacles that they offer to put on just for her. What unfolds is at once silly, sweet, and profound, as Isabelle (and we the audience) are treated to modest yet magnificent sights.

Their first trick: “Invisible Men,” an installation of wigs suspended on fishing wire, lit by stage lights, and blown around by a fan while loud music plays. Incredible, says Isabelle, agog. They show her how the trailer doubles as a library, housing a few stacks of art books, children’s books, and a copy of Artaud’s The Theater and Its Double. One machine fills the air with bubbles, another with smoke, a third with snow, “so that we can make winter in the summertime!” they tell Isabelle. Images of warm places appear in the cold landscape via a video projector. A bucket of water and a hose become a gurgling fountain. Enormous black plastic bags are inflated to become quivering monoliths in which the people move, but the floats stay in place.

The men explain every amusement as they go along, leaving no mystery as to how it’s all made. All the while, Isabelle oohs and ahhs, her amazement growing for the strange and funny show played before her. Seams out, the metalheads’ park creates real magic simply by failing illusion—or at least by proving that the power to produce wonder, via art, literature, theater, requires the eye of the beholder too. In other words, what we see is what we beget in the world. The only failure that must be guarded against is that of the imagination.

Jennifer Krasinski

The Psychic Readings Co.’s The Failures was presented on January 13 and 14 at Vital Joint as part of The Exponential Festival; Forced Entertainment’s Real Magic was presented from January 5 to 8 at La MaMa as part of P.S. 122’s 2017 COIL Festival; Philippe Quesne’s La Mélancolie des dragons was presented from January 10 to 14 at the Kitchen as part of The Public Theater’s Under the Radar Festival.

Charlotte Moorman, Neon Cello, c. 1989, Plexiglas, neon tubing, and electrical parts, 48 1/2 x 16".

ONE TELEVISION MONITOR in “A Feast of Astonishments: Charlotte Moorman and the Avant-Garde, 1960s–1980s,” screened clips of Charlotte Moorman’s TV appearances. On the Merv Griffin Show in June 1967, Moorman performed John Cage’s 26’1.1499” for a String Player with the help of comedian Jerry Lewis. Holding a military-grade practice bomb that Moorman had converted into a cello, he asked the audiences, “Does she know I’m famous?” Gingerly, he kneeled down before her, his head bent toward her bare shoulders while she pulled a cello string taut up along his back, playing it with her bow. It’s a beguiling, confounding scene: Charlotte Moorman on Merv Griffin, interpreting a score by John Cage, treating Jerry Lewis as a human instrument—a role that, in previous renditions of 26’1.1499”, was filled by Nam June Paik, whose composition Opera Sextronique had landed Moorman in jail for indecent exposure the February prior, earning her the “topless cellist” notoriety that likely precipitated her booking on Merv Griffin in the first place.

This brief clip, funny and fraught, captures the complexities of “Charlotte’s Web.” Few figures are so exemplary of the neo-avant-garde’s sustained assault against modernist principles of medium specificity and artistic autonomy. A Juilliard-trained cellist, Moorman fused experimental composition with audio-visual theater; performed a repertoire of scores written by others; organized annual New York Avant Garde Festivals that assembled artists, musicians, and dancers from around the world in settings as varied as the Staten Island Ferry or Shea Stadium; and demonstrated a taste and talent for mobilizing technology toward spectacle and engaging audiences through mass media. From the start, she cultivated a sweetly demure and frankly sexual “Southern belle” persona, presenting herself in formal clothing or no clothing at all, which led to the catch-22 allegation that either she was a passive object deferring to the desires of her (mostly male) collaborators, or a narcissistic subject hiding behind shared authorship as an alibi for exhibitionism. (Should anyone believe we’ve moved past the era of judging women musicians for their sartorial choices, I recommend looking up Janet Malcolm’s recent New Yorker profile of virtuoso pianist Yuja Wang.) To untangle an incident like Moorman’s Merv Griffin spot, it’s helpful to look toward her personal copy of Cage’s 26’1.1499” score. In the exhibition’s catalogue, musicologist Jason Rosenholtz-Witt details how Moorman listed multiple solutions for each of the composition’s many technical challenges. This palimpsest of possibilities helped Moorman tailor her renditions to specific contexts, whether Carnegie Hall or Johnny Carson. However seemingly chaotic, her manhandling of Jerry Lewis on Merv Griffin followed fixed notations.

Nam June Paik, TV Bed, 1972–91. Performance view, Bochum Art Week, Bochum, West Germany, 1973. Charlotte Moorman. Photo: Hartmut Beifuss.

Rosenholtz-Witt’s discussion of 26’1.1499” is just one of several nuanced, informative analyses in the “Feast of Astonishments” catalogue. Musicologist Ryan Dohoney, for instance, decodes Moorman’s annotations to scores by Morton Feldman. On another register, art historian Hannah Higgins shows how Moorman planned the first Avant Garde Festival—its participants, publicity, personnel, and paraphernalia—on a single scribbled-over paper scrap. I point to these excellent contributions to raise a question: How can the sophistication of current scholarly approaches to the neo-avant-garde be better reflected in curatorial practice? That is, how does Dohoney’s expert reading of graphic scores, or Higgins’s attentiveness to hybrid forms of authorship, extend into an exhibition’s arrangement of objects in space? Organized by a team of curators at Northwestern University’s Block Museum of Art, “Feast of Astonishments” falls into many familiar traps: an overreliance on placards to provide narration; low-hanging vitrines dense with documents and inimical to close study; displays that, without further contextualization, come off as relics, memorabilia, or props.

“Feast of Astonishments” is hardly the first exhibition to confront the difficulty of curating music. (Recall—as if you could forget—the Museum of Modern Art, New York’s deeply disheartening Björk retrospective.) An alternative approach might have showcased a fuller selection of her annotated scores, or more methodically parsed her individual collaborations, such as her technological experiments with Paik, her arrangements for photo-documentation with Peter Moore, her dialogue with Carolee Schneemann, or even her competition with that other indefatigable organizer, George Maciunas. It’s only through a canny focus on Moorman the interpreter, or Moorman the impresario, that an exhibition will offer much insight into Moorman the artist.

Colby Chamberlain

“A Feast of Astonishments: Charlotte Moorman and the Avant-Garde, 1960s–1980s” ran September 8 through December 10 at the Grey Art Gallery in New York.

Richard Maxwell, Showcase, 2003. Performance view, Bern, 2004. Jim Fletcher. Photo: NYC Players.

YOU ARE MEETING A STRANGER AT THE HOTEL BAR. This is not your regular watering hole: velvet curtains, coffered ceilings, outstretched columns that hold up nothing. Everything is in the style of a ruin that doesn’t know it’s a ruin yet. You finger the thin straw plunged in a gin and tonic, unsure. Are you waiting to be found, or are you supposed to be looking?

On the eighth floor, the room is dark. Shuffling in, you glimpse the outline of a recumbent figure. When the lights come up, a man is lying naked on one of two beds, phone in hand. You wait for him to speak first.

His nakedness is not surprising (men often are when you go up to their rooms); his loneliness isn’t either. The man says he isn’t feeling well. He can’t even play with his penis. He wakes up cold, his nightgown is drafty, the dry air cracks his lips. A middle-aged businessman, there are a hundred other Willy Lomans like him down at the bar. But this man’s skin radiates unexpected softness. His name is Jim.

Jim likes to shit before showering, but can’t always. He likes to watch reruns of funny shows, but each time the credits roll, there’s another maw of emptiness. He has a shadow that follows him, matching his every move, except when it doesn’t. Atop the covers, both Jim’s and the shadow’s legs splay: Their feet overlap in a tender, impermanent alliance.

You can’t imagine anything more excruciating than having your murkier self externalized. It seems like Jim can’t either; when the shadow lopes off to the bathroom, he asks, “Should I really kill him?” The sound of a toilet flushing gives way to a chorus of nervy laughter.

Jim is at once Jim the businessman and Jim Fletcher, the stunning actor who wreaks quiet devastation. His shadow is a catsuited actor named Bob Feldman. This is both a hotel room encounter and a Richard Maxwell play called Showcase. It debuted in 2003, when it seemed like Bush II would be the worst president of your lifetime. Perhaps masculinity felt plush and laughable then, but Maxwell, the playwright and director, has always ambitiously scaled the lives of men.

His most recent work was The Evening, performed at the Kitchen in 2015. It took place on a stage that was also a dive, populated by two barflies, their waitress, and a band. Reviewers seemed displeased with the insinuation that Beatrice, played by Cammisa Buerhaus, was not only a bartender but also a prostitute. Throughout that play she longs to escape; she flatters, cajoles, and soothes the men around her. She freshens their beers and sits on their laps, but mostly, she listens. Until she grabs a gun.

Only a naïve moralist would find sex work more disconcerting than the exhausting labor of listening to men. How many Johns—or Willys or Jims—pay for time just to be heard, to be held?

Richard Maxwell, Showcase, 2003. Performance view, Bern, 2004. Jim Fletcher. Photo: NYC Players.

The Evening muscles its way into your thoughts from the moment Jim sits up, asking the crowd, “How ya’ll doing tonight?” Out of the hush that meets his direct address, you reply: “Good.” Now he is pointing, others are looking. You’re chastised for being “a troublemaker” in the tone that middle-aged businessmen reserve for younger women whose defiance entertains them.

Turning his attention away from you, Jim generously uses your humiliation as an object lesson, to pivot toward the principles of wielding dominance. This, after all, is how you make deals.

Showcase, too, was a kind of power move. It was made for the 2003 Association of Performing Arts Presenters (APAP) conference in New York, an annual networking event-cum-marketplace that takes place in drab hotel conference rooms, where artists brave the indignity of lanyard-strung nametags and vie for their work to be seen by venue representatives rushing between works in progress.

There, perhaps you object thoroughly to the selling and being sold. You also want desperately to be chosen. It is this contradiction that Jim lives three times a night.

After all, the playbook providing white men with the bluster of prerogative and unimpededness is just that, a script. Jim knows his own contrivance—Fletcher knows it too—and both character and actor allow the veneer to fissure, delicately. Jim’s monologue turns to voyeurism, to the enhanced capacities of looking outward by turning off the lights within, and to “Victor”—were they roommates or lovers? He can’t be sure.

Jim goes to the window. His thumbs press into his lower back, making a quiet arc of lightened flesh. He stoops over the desk, rallying himself in the mirror, and begins to dress.

As he puts on his underwear, then his pants—and eventually a shirt, a tie, and a plasticky lanyard—he slowly becomes the man that exists outside the room’s confines, the one who shakes hands and dominates conversations.

The scraping of a belt buckle dragging along the desk is familiar; you know what it sounds like when a man is leaving.

Stories of white-collar workers are often characterized as those of desperation. Such men are the leavers, never the left. But Maxwell’s work is always about desire, the texture of wanting.

If there’s a difference between desperation and desire, it’s hazy, and now the confession comes tumbling out: the cold tile of a bathroom corner, dinner with Victor and his boyfriend escaped, and then Victor’s hands groping where they shouldn’t.

How do you grieve the loss of something you weren’t allowed in the first place? Jim ends cradled in his shadow’s arms, tape-player in hand, singing a tune that does what pop songs do best: want ravenously, unabashedly, on a loop outside time or place.

Catherine Damman

Richard Maxwell’s Showcase ran December 10 and 11 at the Millennium Biltmore Hotel in Los Angeles.

Simone Forti, Steve Paxton, and Yvonne Rainer, Tea for Three, 2016. Performance view, The Box, Los Angeles, November 19, 2016. Simone Forti, Steve Paxton, and Yvonne Rainer. Photo: Bruce Hainley.

November 21, 2016 at 8:54 PM EST

Dear Mr. B,

I’ve just come home from an event of much love at the Kitchen, part of the rollout of Douglas [Crimp]’s superb memoir [Before Pictures]. Three exemplary interlocutors from three different dance worlds: Adrian Danchig-Waring (New York City Ballet/Balanchine), Silas Riener (Merce Cunningham), and Yvonne Rainer (Yvonne Rainer). 

A little asymmetrical, I suppose, since Rainer got to play herself, though everyone did a very good job representing. 

Rainer, at the end, was trying to respond to a question from the audience, and failing a bit. She said her mind was all “constipated” because she’d just come back from an event in L.A. that she’d participated in with Steve [Paxton] and Simone [Forti].

“They’re very experienced with improvisation, whereas I haven’t danced on stage since 1972…” she said. But she also reminded us/herself that she lives to be in front of an audience. (Sudden flashback to Warren Beatty on Madonna in Truth or Dare…: “She doesn’t want to live off-camera, much less talk. There’s nothing to say off-camera.”)

Rainer asked Danchig-Waring to help demonstrate this thing she and Paxton had come up with while making dinner one night in the late-’60s, apparently something that made its way into the L.A. performance. It was very moving, and she seemed very moved. 

I remember you saying you went to this.

What happened in L.A.??

(She mentioned some picture frames…?)


Sent from my iPhone

November 21, 2016 at 6:50 PM PST

it was a roast chicken dinner they were having, if i recall that bit of proto-contact-improv—facing each other, arms bent, forearms and hands in front of their torsos, each arm and hand lightly placed on top of the other person’s. it seemed to be about both resisting and giving in to the contact and weight of the other’s forearms on top of yours, letting your arms go slack and your partner’s slide off, falling away into some always nearby oblivion; beginning again, but alternating who’s on top, whose arms fall away. it’s not a bad metaphor for the ebb and flow of friendship, or even of something more intimate.

rainer did cry during this bit of the performance with paxton—i wish i could remember precisely what forti was doing at that point. it might have been when she was crawling slowly on the floor, eventually underneath a large leather jacket, into which she slowly rose, always hidden underneath, turning herself, one arm slipped partially into a sleeve, into a sort of blind elephant. but i might be mistaken.

when i returned home after Friday’s performance, i wrote this to my friend charlie: “i just got back from seeing steve paxton, simone forti and yvonne rainer perform together, i guess, for the first time since the early 1970s. so much history. what’s curious—or it’s my first thought: rainer is the most ambitious and the least interesting performer, or, i should say, her performance is the one most concerned with and driven by ego, with needing attention, with being the star, and she’s instrumentalized this need into a place in history. her place in history has as much to do with her desire for a place in history. forti and paxton just don’t care about that, or don’t care about it in the same way. rainer’s a ham, but i’m not sure a lot of her schtick works in this moment, especially when compared to paxton and forti, who are funnier without the effort of being funny, riveting without any need to be important or fawned over. nevertheless it was wonderful to watch. forti at one point, mid-rolling around on the floor with rainer—forti was teaching her ‘zoo mantras,’ in exchange for, at the start of the perf., rainer teaching forti parts of the solo from trio a. forti: ‘see, yvonne, i told you they wouldn’t mind watching some oldsters roll around on the floor.’

rainer asked paxton if he’d like to learn it (her notorious solo), after she’d finished with forti, and he said he’d just forget it. rainer said, ‘but you already know it.’ paxton: ‘i’d just forget it again.’ ”

yes, rainer did cry, but i’m not sure what to think of this. or, rather, i want to reflect on what triggered the crying, and i’m not sure it was only memory: it was moving, but, and i don’t wish to sound harsh, but it is part of what i’m sorting through: her ambition, or her drive to be seen, however “dance is hard to see,” is tied to a certain hamminess, which encompasses slapstick and politics, but, as performed, engages “slapstick” and “politics.” rainer was the most diligent about wanting a performance to be seen—it started with her teaching, yet again, steps for her most famous work; she seemed invested in reading aloud, stressing the politics of the texts read/performed, rather than the politics put into action by their three bodies going forth. one could read a new york vs. those who leave NYC attitude being played out, if one were so inclined.

at the end of my note to charlie, i added: “i think sturtevant understood that ambition when she did her rainer [Sturtevant’s Study for Yvonne Rainer’s ‘Three Seascapes’, 1967].” and when she (sturt) wrote, in the early ’70s: “to be a Great Artist is the least interesting thing I can think of / to be a Great Artist is the most ego-binding thing I can think of.”

i felt the trunk of the tree that forti, paxton, and rainer helped plant, but now the branches have taken them very different places. 

paxton seemed the most serious and inward, and the most on his own journey. if he enters a certain scene partnered with rauschenberg, he’s had decades to mull over the exigencies of “fame” and “career” and “history”—which tea for three couldn’t help but be, in some way, “about.”

paxton had constructed simple wooden frames, in three sizes (the largest almost as tall as he is, the smallest a foot-and-a-half or so tall) that could be propped up (each had a simple “leg” attached to it), but it took some work to get them to do what they were supposed to do (a metaphor for the dancer’s body?). at times, he would pick up one of them and “frame” a scene, as if taking a picture (not a selfie, twice-over).

forti appears to be the most supple. she’s, what, like shakespeare’s puck? generously she allows those who care to see what puck is like grown old—captivating and nimble, full of wit.

i sent the one picture i took to you, and then to my friend christine, a dancer and translator and sage. her reply: “they look so punk.”

my thought: definition of.

i’ve seen forti dance many times since moving to L.A. 20 years ago, from her first performance at her first show at the box [in 2009], when it was on chung king road, downtown.

does any of this make sense? you saw paxton’s dia beacon perfs. [in 2010]; am i off the mark in my read of his movement?

November 21, 2016 at 11:58 PM EST

Lots of sense. Too much sense to make sense of. (Maybe the only time it’s worth making sense.)

We know what happens to ambitious women, even now. Especially now. But one thing I’ve always enjoyed about Rainer (one of many things), is her interest in lifting others up and giving credit, hogging the spotlight only long enough to grab it and point it at others. (Same with the camera. Become a filmmaker, vibe with the theory maestros. She gets PR.) It’s a collective lifting-up, I like to think. (What would that weird nomenclature “Judson” be without her and her hamminess, and the way it so smartly dovetailed with the sometimes understated grace of her comrades?) In this way, some kinship perhaps with Ms. S.

What a crew. All the right pieces coming together. I hate to idealize their friendship (have to leave room for other friendships down the line). But I do. I remember running into the critic Nancy Dalva at a show at Danspace involving some Judson folks. I remember her turning to me and saying, “One thing that people don’t really talk about is that… they were so hot!”

It was a roast-chicken dinner, in 1968, and apparently they were both stoned. I think this is important, the stoner-scape being a shared mental space that to some extent allows us to move diagonally through history. Paxton says: “You [Rainer] made the chicken. And I asked, ‘What’s in that chicken?’ ” and Rainer replies, “Chicken.” Deadpan-Judson-stoner-hilarity. And while they’re joking they’re making “arm-drop,” which you describe, I think, accurately, so far as I understand it. Though I should add one minor detail: that the goal is for the person whose arms are on top to catch the bottom’s arms as the bottom’s arms fall and the support slips away.

It is proto-contact-improv—this focused negotiation of two bodies supporting each other, allowing one to go slack so that the other can go slack and on and on—though it’s still only the most tentative exploration of gravity. Not the full-on falling that became foundational to contact-improv (exposed in a gymnasium at Oberlin in 1972: Magnesium, it was called). A kitchen in 1968: no physical risk; fun for all ages. Just a simple back-and-forth. This before all the illnesses, attempted suicides, flights from the city. This while they’re both still in New York, intimate, getting stoned, in the years between laying the groundwork for what came to be known as postmodern dance and what came to be known as contact-improv, two of the most moving developments in movement and movement-thinking of the past fifty years.

A little window into that kitchen. 

I’ve only seen Paxton dance a few times. He’s remarkable. Both on stage and in life. Quiet, confident, full of potential and so unconcerned with demonstrating that potential. People say he was both the most virtuosic and the least concerned with virtuosity—the most interested in what other kinds of bodies could do—of that group of punks. Rainer more or less says he was the most punk of all.

I want to know more about what Forti was doing. Always off my radar, off in L.A., not “officially” a part of the Judson crowd, since she laid the groundwork with her Dance Constructions just prior (1961) and then ran off and let Rainer and Paxton and then Lucinda Childs and Trisha Brown et al run with the discoveries. Always a mystery to me.

I wish Trisha B. could have been there.


November 22, 2016 at 11:18 PM PST

oh, friendship is crucial—especially now! but let’s acknowledge that friendships can be tricky—not tricky, but that friendships, however strong, are also friable, fragile, delicate things, and must be tended to be sustained. 

is forti the magnet, really, too often, until recently, drawing things and people together, influencing? so often the shiny (live) wires moved to garner attention, instead of the force that allows them to. i’m mixing metaphors.

let’s go to the source.

paxton, about forti’s dance constructions, 1961, in which both he and rainer, with others, performed, at yoko ono’s loft, stated it all quite clearly: “all i know is that this small, radical group of works by forti was like a pebble tossed into a large, still, and complacent pond. the ripples radiated. most notably, forti’s event happened prior to the first performance at judson memorial church by the choreographers from robert dunn’s composition class, and they took courage from it.”

rainer, about the same forti work, wrote: “it seemed that a vacuum sealed that evening for over a year until her performers could get the judson dance theater up and running. simone was its inspiration and fountainhead. we all owe her.”

the stoner-scape, did it encourage free love?  

in terms of the challenge of relations—friendships, affairs, marriages, divorces, comings-together which defy rote relational systems (what is, say a “company”?)—i wonder about the shift from simone forti and robert morris as husband and wife to yvonne rainer and robert morris as partners. what new textures and moods did it bring to the dancing and the writing and the sculpture, not to mention the friendship? while so much of the biographical challenges easy labanotation, ignoring it helps nothing either, even if it’s put into shadow by her pursuit of her work, its experimentation, its vitality, the force of her spirit: all of it allowed forti to invite rainer and paxton and others to rome, when she was living there in the late 1960s, before she returned to the u.s.—eventually settling in or around L.A. in 1970.

what was put on display last weekend was the élan vital of a particular history, of friendship, friends, conspirators, together again. tea for three allowed for solo actions as well as duets and trios, as if tracing the complex kinds of coordinates—biographical, psychic, aesthetic, political—which make up art. the potential comedy of an aging body and its grace riveted, on full display. i kept thinking of the decades of work, dancing, the audience got to witness in every planned step and every improvisational bit: e.g., big red plastic buckets, almost cauldrons, which, at different points, rainer and forti used to great effect for choreographed activity and for impromptu shenanigans, sinking into them, needing help to get back out. it’s a funny but poignant metaphor for how we can’t do everything alone, or else we risk, like a turtle on its back, going nowhere. friends come to the rescue, dumping or flipping us over, so that the work, life, can proceed.   

November 22, 2016 at 9:58 PM EST

They were barrels! Maybe? 

Another favorite diagonal: Yvonne recalling her rehearsals of Trio A with David Gordon and Paxton just prior to that signal dance’s first performance, January 10, 1966: “At one session something David was doing looked strange to me. I asked him what kind of imagery he was using. He said ‘I’m thinking of myself as a faun.’ I said ‘Try thinking of yourself as a barrel.’ ”

Barrels, mattresses, airplanes—the plodding oof iconography of Judson. As opposed to the soaring (/sinking) romantic-natural ooo of dance “prior.” Fauns and swans and all that. (Not to be confused with the nature of, say, Cunningham’s Beach Birds, 1991—Swan Lake after the falls.)

Now things are so complicated, and we like (anyway I like) the oofs alongside some ooos. 

There’s friendship and then there’s Friendship. The friendship that we all have (I’m being optimistic), and the Friendship that gets picked up and picked apart and that forms history’s macadam. That gets turned into some weird word like “postmodern.” Or something.

Sorry, I’m tipsy (on Manhattans! long live Manhattan dance) and trying to think of this thing called Friendship that goes beyond (or sustains) thinking, and so maybe can’t be “thought.” The passing along of lovers, erotic constellations and accidental affinities emerging from and sometimes if you’re lucky disturbing the quandaries of class, brains, race, attractiveness, location (very important, location, which is inscribed by all these other things but which introduces the politics of performance, i.e. that you had to be there element—even if I never know where there is—or you or had for that matter. Remember FOMO?), education, gender, etc.

“O my friends, there is no friend,” Derrida quotes Montaigne quoting Aristotle quoting some archaic incog who never got credited. Probably a woman.

Foucault: “They have to invent, from A to Z, a relationship that is still formless, which is friendship.” Sounds like what we used to mean by “art.”

We’re going to need a lot of friends and lovers in the coming years. 

Do you think Tea for Three is a good example for us? 

Who or what are your friends?


November 22, 2016 at 8:08 PM PST

i flash on root beer barrels, suckable candy.

i embrace the lowercase to recall jill johnston, her importance and example in so much we’re discussing.  

but, hey, aren’t barrels tall? their red containers were squat, and forti and rainer oofed themselves into them, butt-first. it would take buster keaton, nijinsky, or one of the five moons to leap out—ooo—of a barrel, or into one, gazelle-ish. where did the schtick come from of someone naked in a landscape and finding a barrel to cover himself with?

say hello to my little friend.  

say hello to my little friends.

friend of dorothy.

friends with benefits.

dionne warwick singing “that’s what friends are for”—with elton john, gladys knight, and stevie wonder.

à l’ami qui ne m’a pas suavé la vie.

contact tipsiness from your manhattans, here in tinseltown. 

as a single man, a solo act, i value friendship—for all its formlessness, sometimes difficult sometimes not—more than coupledom, a regime that often fatigues. coupledom is not coupling, which can be a quickie or something more prolonged. i’m wary of those who have no friends, only family. why the president-elect’s (seemingly?) having no friends and only family didn’t unnerve people more dismays me.

a friend is the one you can call in your darkest hour, no matter what, but it’s difficult to maintain friendships over decades, although those that manage to continue become more and more precious, rare. in demonstrating the possibility of maintaining contact, maintaining balance, a sense of humor, and curiosity, tea for three performed an exemplariness the likes of which i’ve almost never before encountered. so many of the soft gestures, quick antics, and quietudes, even quasi-longueurs, shimmered with the possibility and indulgence, simultaneously metaphorical as well as point-blank and actual, that only friendship, as opposed to other forms of relationality, allows. the possibility, the potential, of a cohort that can survive any night, however long. 

Bruce Hainley is a contributing editor of Artforum. David Velasco is editor of

Tea for Three ran Friday, November 18 and Saturday, November 19 at The Box in Los Angeles.

Laugh Lines


Deborah Hay, Figure a Sea, 2015. Photo: Urban Jörén.

“IT’S A TERRIBLE WORD FOR A YOUNG ARTIST—creative dance; it’s oppressive.”

“I hope you can understand how absurd my practice is.”

These are two of the many very good lines Deborah Hay tossed off Saturday night on the stage of Zellerbach Hall, during a pre-performance lecture (a first for her and, no surprise, she nailed it) at Cal Performances in Berkeley. The occasion was her Figure a Sea, a 2015 collaboration with Sweden’s Cullberg Ballet.

Here’s a third: “They both happened to laugh a lot, and that helped me.” This in reference to John Cage and Robert Rauschenberg, whose art and thinking were an important part of her formative years in midcentury New York—which are, by now, synonymous with the formative years of postmodern dance. Talk about an oppressive weight for an artist—no one describes what Hay is doing now without foregrounding what she was doing in the 1960s (sorry). It makes sense that Hay also laughs a lot; how else to stave off being locked into your larger-than-life past?

Maybe making a ballet isn’t a bad idea, either. And Figure a Sea is most definitely a ballet, despite Hay’s ideas of multiplicity and uncertainty that are at odds with much of what the ballet industry churns out these days (insert predictable parenthetical about how dumb it is that the big American ballet companies have pretty much chosen to ignore the entire Judson Dance Theater crowd), and with apologies to the disgruntled audience members who trundled up the aisle once they, presumably, figured out their expectations were not to be met.

Fair enough. But the material of Figure a Sea is its dancers, and what they in turn make of their material, as much as anything else. And the majority of the work’s twenty performers (despite much more contemporary exposure than American ballet company dancers typically have) are shot through with ballet technique.

Deborah Hay, Figure a Sea, 2015. Photo: Urban Jörén.

This, and the size of the ensemble as it intermittently flocks, clusters, scatters, and grows still, lends Figure a Sea a different sort of plush and scope than other Hay dances I’ve seen. As Hay noted in her lecture, she one day had an epiphany that she was being “idiotic” in assigning a stage front to her dancing, and consequently ignoring as material “the space between these cardinal lines.” You see this space continually exploited and explored in Hay’s own dancing (not to mention her lecturing), or in master practitioners in her lineage, such as Juliette Mapp and Jeanine Durning, both of whom appeared in video clips while Hay spoke. The Cullberg dancers aren’t attuned in this same way; front still holds too much sway for them to consistently inhabit the strangest (most absurd?) depths of her choreographic practice.

Or perhaps it was just not so easy for me to see those depths in a large concert hall: While allowing for a grandness of shifting landscapes, this setting doesn’t love a close up. (Too bad: Strangeness loves details.)

Still, it was a pleasure to observe, from a remove, how these dancers constantly spilled over the proscenium margins of Zellerbach, noodling around in the exposed but dark wing space beyond the central stage design: white Marley and a bisected backdrop flooded by Minna Tiikkainen’s light grid. The backdrop’s central horizontal line was, of course, a horizon line; depending on how the light shifted, this looked like any number of northern land or seascapes, ever rich with impending snow. The simple stagecraft trick of that was an ongoing pleasure, altering how I perceived the dancers but oh so lightly. (Not so, disappointingly, the heavy shifts in Laurie Anderson’s score, which was best when silent and never as interesting as the initial murmur of the crowd before the house lights went down; I kept wondering how a real-time electronic wizard such as John Bischoff would have responded to Hay’s delicately shifting tides.)

When the stage grew very busy I thought of being on the far end of that horizon. Would I see any of this frenetic activity from there? What if, as Hay asked, “my past and future were now?”

Or there’s this: “The simultaneous experience of seeing and dis-attaching from what I see becomes how I see.”

The critics behind me at one point were kvetching about how the first part of the evening “should’ve been an optional” talk. But I found the pre-framing delicious, especially in its refusal to straightforwardly do the assigned task of explaining. I kept thinking of seeing the choreographer Sara Shelton Mann earlier in the week at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, as she engaged in her own preshow ritual of sorts, addressing the assembled audience members without a microphone, until someone complained that he couldn’t hear:

“You don’t hear? I don’t hear either. Well this is supposed to be subliminal. Never mind.”

Exactly. Or, at least I think that’s what she said. But back to that horizon line. And to a lone dancer bounding around in a field of white, pausing periodically to rise up on wide-legged half toe. And to Hay’s ongoing experiments in how she chooses to relate to time, and space, and perception. There is a figure. There is a sea. Other things are up for grabs.

Deborah Hay’s Figure a Sea ran October 22 and 23 at Cal Performances in Berkeley, California.

Claudia La Rocco is a writer and the editor of Open Space.

Morgan Thorson, Still Life, 2016. Performance view, September 10, 2016, Portland Museum of Art, Portland, Oregon. Photo: Kat Jarvinen.

THE ARTISTS, MUSICIANS, CURATORS, AND WRITERS that work in and support time-based art are a small, necessarily close-knit tribe. Performance is, after all, easily the least lucrative of genres, a fact that has consistently made it the repository for work that is less monetarily driven and less safe, but which has also sometimes made it feel insular and uninterested in courting an audience outside its fold. This is why the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art’s Time-Based Art Festival, one of only a handful of such festivals in the US, feels so consistently fresh, both in its programming and in its outreach. The festival, now in its fourteenth edition, encompasses exhibitions, lectures, films, and workshops alongside performances by internationally acclaimed artists. I saw a number of exceptional pieces at this year’s TBA, most accompanied by my mom, whose presence lent the trip additional resonance. When you strip away the jargony shorthand and inside jokes that usually pass for discussion of art among the same-generation peers that see each other at every opening, the conversation can take unexpected, often illuminating, turns. On this journey two works, both dance, lingered with us.

Besides its uniquely pecuniary status, another condition of time-based art is its insistence that the viewer submit to the maker’s conception of the work’s duration. One is implicitly obligated to remain present for the piece’s entirety or until the video loop catches up to the point where you walked in. In this regard Minneapolis-based choreographer Morgan Thorson’s Still Life, 2016, performed in a small side gallery of the Portland Museum of Art, was unusually generous, even to the point of masochism, allowing the viewer to come and go as she pleased while the dancers themselves remained “on” for the work’s five-hour run. During this time both its cyclical choreography and its performers gradually broke down—a gambit that recalled Ragnar Kjartansson’s six-hour A Lot of Sorrow, 2013–14, in which the slowly unraveling band The National performed a single song on repeat.

Still Life is a danced meditation on temporality and geological time. Thorson developed the work over the course of a residency at the Maggie Allesee National Center for Choreography at Florida State University, during which she spoke to scholars and professionals from various fields including religious studies, forensic anthropology, and contemporary hospice care. Twelve dancers from Thorson’s company, suited up with track shoes and kneepads for the long slog, filled the gallery with spurts of frenetic activity countered by moments of undulating calm, often with a single clique embodying a spastic mode while another group swayed slowly around them. Their movements were partly inspired by the choreographer’s research into physical decay and the subtle, time-lapse-visible movement of decomposition.

As dancers hugged the gallery floor, the viewer could readily imagine the gradual swelling of bloated bodies and their subsequent flattening as seeping and atrophying flesh merges with ground. At other times they seemed to follow unspoken improvisatory commands, with a single dancer setting off a chain reaction as if demonstrating evolution in fast-forward. The marathon, with its ambient sound-track, was divided into cycles signaled by oval pools of light that periodically raked over the audience members seated against the walls. Each projection marked the start of a new and diminished stage, and after each spot had run its course, an element (a dancer, an aural tone) was removed. As the performance wore on and its components dwindled, the remaining dancers began to visibly exhaust their reserves, until, by work’s end, they were spent.

Meg Wolfe, New Faithful Disco, 2016. Performance view, September 10, 2016, PICA, Portland, Oregon. Marbles Jumble Radio, taisha paggett, and Meg Wolfe. Photo: Meghann Gilligan.

While Thorson took the long view, examining biological systems over single lifespans and geological epochs, Los Angeles–based choreographer Meg Wolfe staked her claim in the recent past, positioning the discothèque as a site of liberation. Wolfe’s New Faithful Disco, 2016, was a joyful counterpoint to Thorson’s piece, revisiting a seminal space of celebration for gay men and other minorities, extending its berth to be even more inclusive of the wide spectrum of queer identities. Wolfe’s forty-minute fantasy disco routine came replete with high-drama props including massive lamé blankets and, at one point, and inexplicably, antler-like headgear.

New Faithful Disco’s trio (which included Wolfe herself alongside 2014 Whitney Biennial artist taisha paggett and the phenomenal Marbles Jumble Radio) rose from spotlit denim patchwork quilts, pulsing to abstracted beats that had been mixed by composer Maria de Los Angeles “Cuca” Esteves using samples and distortions of disco standards like Anita Ward’s “Ring My Bell” and Shalamar’s “Make That Move.” By the work’s end, the homespun quilts had been flipped to reveal gold brocade undersides on which the dancers writhed in a dogpile of undifferentiated bliss. Yet Wolfe also hinted at the limits of revisionary politics. “The hardest part is knowing I’ll survive,” warbles Emmylou Harris in another sample (“Boulder to Birmingham,” 1975), in a melancholic precursor to Gloria Gaynor’s 1978 disco anthem. “I have come to listen for the sound / of the trucks as they move down / out on ninety-five / and pretend that it’s the ocean / coming down to wash me clean.” Taken another way, New Faithful Disco is less an attempt to rewrite history than a celebration of survival and possibility, in which the highway may just reveal itself to be the ocean after all.

Cat Kron

The fourteenth Time-Based Art Festival ran September 8 through 18 in Portland, Oregon.