ONE WEEK before his performance last month at the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine, I sought out Hu Xiangqian in his Upper East Side studio apartment. Amid dozens of ceiling-high houseplants, in front of a full-length mirror, stood a music-stand, to which were taped copious handwritten scripts. Hu was silent about the details of his upcoming performance, but screened for me instead a video of his most recent work, Speech At The Edge Of The World, made for inclusion in this year’s Gwangju Biennial. The two works share a protagonist, and the format of a public speech.
In his video, Hu plays the role of a motivational speaker, a familiar character in the world of performance art, though one to which Hu brings his own twist. Inspired by the work of the Taiwanese artist Hsieh Tehching, Hu employs a pared-down but theatrical approach, exploiting a highly stylized artist persona and the tension between structure and the caprice of the performance environment. Like any number of contemporary performance artists, documentation plays a constitutive role, and indeed Hu’s most significant and most public New York performance, retroactively titled The Public Speaker Who Forgot His Words, collapsed his emotionally palpable “real-time” performance with its implied future visibility.
The work’s setup was minimal: A low platform was installed in Saint John’s transept crossing, a wooden lectern that aligned perfectly with the nave’s central aisle and the crucifix at the rear of the choir. To the left and right of the lectern were two glass teleprompters. The audience sat in rows near the front, occupying just one-fifth of the space—at 121,000 square feet, Saint John’s is the largest gothic church in the world.
Hu emerged from a side corridor dressed in a striking, 1970s-vintage Easter egg–blue suit. His long hair was swept back, and he beamed with a practiced smile. Hu gripped the podium and began to read from the teleprompter, in English, but with an impenetrably thick accent. His camera crew scuttled around, documenting every possible angle. As Hu recited the text—an empowering talk on the potency of human presence and the enlivening effect of bodies filling a space—he drew on his repertoire of ostentatious hand gestures, affirmative head nods, and assured postures.
Hu is interested in psychology and in the boundary between truth and fiction, and both were evident in the performance’s staging. Standing between Xu Bing’s imposing Phoenix (2008–10), which has been installed in Saint John’s nave since earlier this year, and the crucified Christ, Hu situated himself between two symbols of resurrection. This point became all the more relevant when, several minutes into his energetic delivery, the artist suddenly collapsed onto the lectern, then onto the floor.
The already diaphanous membrane between Hu’s personal truth and his performance fiction dissolved. In the first seconds of his speech, his voice and hands had quivered. He recovered, and the audience strained to hear his message, which seemed like a hard-won prize. His slow descent––embracing the lectern, then splaying on the ground, then raising to a slouched sitting posture, and then exiting unceremoniously––lasted a silent forty minutes. Ironically, his collapse and recovery evinced just as much bravado as his delivery of a motivational speech in a foreign language.
It was often unclear what percentage of what we were witnessing was “performance” and what was “reality.” My compassion was piqued at the moment when I was no longer convinced of the scripted nature, but the possibility of intervention was largely neutered by the performance context, as Hu’s band of roving photographers became a wedge between performance and reality.
The audience was in limbo, inspired, but seemingly powerless to act. Some were angered and exited; a minority turned to their smartphones. Our participation was both demanded and compromised. His was a condensed display of martyrdom, addressing what exactly? The “agency” activated and undercut by social media? The contraction of our supposed “attention spans”? Whatever the message, those present will surely remember how Hu managed to conquer that immense, overdetermined space with his silence.
Hu Xiangqian’s The Public Speaker Who Forgot His Words occurred at the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine in New York on July 16, 2014.
Christopher Wheeldon, After the Rain, 2005. Performance view, June 10, 2010. Wendy Whelan and Craig Hall. Photo: Paul Kolnik.
YOU ALL KNOW THE DRILL: It’s fall. There are things happening.
Here are just a few of them, as filtered through a sensibility that may in no way be compatible with your own:
1. The inimitable ballerina Wendy Whelan is giving her farewell New York City Ballet performance on October 18, ending an astonishingly fertile thirty-year run that has included collaborations with just about every ballet choreographer of note, and performances of breathtaking command and finesse. Say you were inclined to commit some sort of semi-serious crime to get a ticket to a show this fall—this is the one. Otherwise, good luck.
1a. Once you fail to gain entry to Whelan, you can console your missing an electrifying moment in history by turning to a ballet star who’s just about as far away from Whelan as possible: Natalia Osipova. Her Giselle (and pretty much everything else she does) is astounding, even when the production itself disappoints, as it might well do when the Mikhailovsky Theater rolls into Lincoln Center in all its East-meets-West, former Soviet glory (November 11–23, and the prone-to-pyrotechnics Ivan Vasiliev will also be onstage). There should be plenty of fabulous looking Russians in furs, and, given Osipova’s penchant for company-jumping and the Mikhailovsky’s penchant for star-nabbing, lots of fun rumors swirling about.
2. There’s something numbing about anniversaries. But. Here’s a pair of pretty grand fiftieth ones: Steve Paxton’s Flat was made in 1964, the same year that Meredith Monk began her New York career. Fittingly, both are being feted this fall. “Steve Paxton: Selected Works” (October 17–19 and 24–26) will be the latest dance retrospective to take over the Dia:Beacon galleries, featuring seminal Judson Dance Theater–era works and a recent solo performed by the man himself (he remains understatedly electric onstage). And Monk has gigs all around, including a premiere at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (December 3–7).
3. Speaking of retrospectives, the omnipresent French choreographer Xavier Le Roy is bringing his to America, courtesy of MoMA PS1 and the French Institute Alliance Française’s Crossing the Line festival. Retrospective will hold court from October 2–December 1; while the concept of a gallery show activated by its spectators is by now rather passé, the man’s pervasive influence is inarguable—as is the talent of the performers who will be interpreting his work. MoMA also has several fall performance offerings: presentations of James Lee Byars (September 7) and, with the Studio Museum in Harlem, Charles Gaines (September 27), as well as Trajal Harrell kicking off his two-year residency (September 4–5).
3a. And now for the big splashy museum shows dedicated to all of the women working in dance these days—oh, wait. Right. Nevermind. It’s an off-year for Sarah Michelson, the current exception who proves the neverending rule.
4. I can’t out-summarize this Chocolate Factory Theater blurb: “Screening Room, or, The Return of Andrea Kleine (as revealed through a re-enactment of a 1977 television program about a ‘long and baffling’ film by Yvonne Rainer.) Andrea Kleine, an ‘enigmatic and eccentric’ (the New York Times), ‘brainy, allusive Downtown artist’ (Village Voice), whose work is ‘something like genius’ (ArtVoice), has been absent from the stage for a decade. She resurfaces as the choreographer/filmmaker Yvonne Rainer and Rainer's lion-tamer-turned-dancer character ‘Kristina,’ transforming a verbatim talk show interview into an imaginary film recounting Kleine’s journey of disappearance.”
5. This is probably maybe my favorite new series in New York: “Sundays on Broadway,” curated by Cathy Weis and hosted in WeisAcres, her SoHo loft. The series, which starts September 21, mixes in-progress and improvisational showings with Weis and collaborators (Jon Kinzel! Jennifer Miller! Vicky Shick!), with screenings of films from 9 Evenings: Theater and Engineering, the Armory events held in 1966 (Yvonne Rainer! Alex Hay! Lucinda Childs!). I mean. You guys. It doesn’t get better.
5a. Another newbie but goodie comes via Gibney Dance, which has just taken over 280 Broadway, former home of the bankrupt Dance New Amsterdam. It would be a nice happy ending for that space if artistic director Gina Gibney could do something worthwhile with the real estate, and this is a promising beginning: She’s hired the fantastic producer Craig Peterson as director of programs and presentation, and you can see his sensibilities all over “DoublePlus,” a series featuring the guest artist-curators Annie-B Parson, RoseAnne Spradlin, Miguel Gutierrez, Donna Uchizono, Jon Kinzel, and Bebe Miller.
6. Spradlin has a premiere of her own, at New York Live Arts. g-h-o-s-t-c-r-o-w-n (October 8–11) is part of Carla Peterson’s final curatorial season, one of lots of tempting offerings, including a new work by Neil Greenberg (December 3–6) and Lang Dance (December 12–13), a partnership with the New School’s Eugene Lang College that features work by Jeanine Durning and Reggie Wilson and the student-choreographed results of a research course with Sarah Michelson (whoa). And then there’s this intriguing tidbit tucked into the season press release: “An announcement regarding the search for a new director of programs will be made in the coming months.”
7. What do you guys know about Fred Herko? If you’re anything like me, shamefully little, considering all he was involved with: Judson Dance Theater, Warhol’s Factory, Happenings, the New York Poets Theatre, and on and on in the New York avant-garde. He died young, fifty years ago (YES, this is also an anniversary event. Sorry.) And this fall there will be a week of events dedicated to him, including “Fred Herko: A Crash Course,” a symposium at NYU’s Performance Studies on October 25.
7a. But nevermind about Herko, what do you know about BATAN, this “nomadic arts collective” created by Sasha Frere-Jones, the New Yorker pop-music critic all pop-music people seem to love to hate. (I’m not sure if that includes the pop-music people SFJ himself loves to hate or not?) I don’t know anything, and, gasp, a desultory Google search didn’t turn up much. But listen, F-J will reveal all, or something, during an evening with the public conducted on November 12 as part of his residency at the Park Avenue Armory. I’ll be out of town—someone please go and report back.
8. Abrons Arts Center’s beautiful little Henry Street Settlement Playhouse is celebrating one hundred years (take that, you half-centurians!). Much more importantly (real-estate nostalgia is for suckers, 5a. notwithstanding), Abrons director Jay Wegman is one of the best (and most under-recognized) champions of contemporary performance in New York, mixing international presentations with standout locals. This fall includes September’s Queer New York International Arts Festival (Ivo Dimchev) and the Forest Fringe Microfestival (Tim Etchells), and several promising standalone productions from Aaron Landsman and Findlay/Sandsmark. Progressive hubs are an endangered species in New York—support this one.
9. And also check out JACK, an artist-run, interdisciplinary space in Clinton Hill. Programming runs the gamut: music, poetry, performance art, theater, dance, and so on and so forth. Things kick off September 5–7 with a baby grand and three strong pairings of pianists and writers: Angelica Sanchez and Christian Hawkey, Cooper-Moore and Carl Hancock Rux, Connie Crothers and Eileen Myles. Also, apparently, JACK is putting Ann Liv Young in jail for a few nights in December, for her sins, with visiting hours. So, obviously, that isn’t going to go well.
10. Stockhausen maybe isn’t someone you think about as being influenced by other people. But apparently he did this thing called Originale, which was him responding to Happenings, which just seems, I dunno, impossible. But there it is. And now (yes, ANOTHER fiftieth anniversary), fifty years after its New York premiere, here comes Originale 2.0 at the Kitchen (November 7–8). Curated by Nick Hallett, this one features originals like Justin Vivian Bond and A. L. Steiner, making stuff in conversation with the composer’s electroacoustic works. Ich bin intrigued.
Left: Big Dance Theater, Alan Smithee Directed this Play, Lyon. Photo: Brad Harris. Right: RoseAnne Spradlin, g-h-o-s-t c-r-o-w-n (working title), 2014. Rehearsal view. Natalie Green and Rebecca Warner. Photo: Ryutaro Mishima.
11. One thing about getting older is you’re more and more satisfied with what’s being presented on major stages. Or, you go off the rails entirely. Anyway: The things that make me happiest at BAM’s Next Wave festival are new works by Jodi Melnick and Big Dance Theater. You can look on BAM’s web site to find all the relevant details about what and who and how, but I don’t need to know anything beyond these two names to know that I will be there.
12. FIAF’s Crossing the Line has its usual lineup of progressive blue-chip possibilities: Xavier retrospective! Trajal Harrell’s Judson-Voguing series at the Kitchen in its entirety! And so on. Here’s another: Patti Smith teams up with her daughter Jesse Smith and Soundwalk Collective on October 2nd to channel the poetry of Nico. Killer Road. I can’t tell if this will be dynamite or a train wreck. Well—historically, the two do go hand in hand.
12a. This is the moment you’ve all been waiting for, the shameless plug*. Did you know that Patti Smith read at the Poetry Project’s inaugural New Year’s Day marathon reading in 1974? And do you know that the reading always has lots of great performance folks sprinkled around the actual poets (who are not, I must admit about my people, always the best performers themselves, though sometimes they really are), and that Smith is a regular feature? These things are the perfect way to ease through your New Year’s Eve hangover and into a whole new year of performance events. They never stop, these events. I’ll be back.
*As in, the writer of this column is on the board of the institution she is about to recommend to you.
Merce Cunningham performing on the deck at Anna Halprin's estate.
Last week, I had lunch with Anna Halprin. On her deck, in a little screened in gazebo, surrounded by a cathedral-like cluster of redwoods. She made a really good salad, which I ate more of than she did.
The hillside around us was buzzing with insect and bird life. The water pitcher was cool to the touch. Her hands, it should go without saying, were amazing, thick with ropey wrinkles, tanned and strong. She wore two gold wedding bands on her left hand, one on her middle finger—I didn’t ask, but I assume, that the larger one belonged to her late husband, the architect Lawrence Halprin.
I want to say something clever about My Lunch with Anna. But of course it wasn’t like that at all. Well anyway that’s a New York artifact, that film, and this was West Coast art royalty all the way, which is another way of saying it was at times difficult for me to let go of all my East Coast art ideas and be fully present. We don’t like what has a soft belly, what is vulnerable, my notes say. I think we get scared, and impatient.
“What we were doing with the San Francisco Dancers Workshop was the forerunner of Judson Dance Theater,” Anna said. “There was such a division between what was happening on the East and West Coast—and there still is.”
She and I were sitting on the bleacher steps ascending from the wooden deck below her house. This is the deck, of course—the one designed by her husband, the one traversed by just about all of the folks involved in changing the world’s ideas about modern dance (the part of the world that had any ideas about modern dance, at any rate), and helping to lay the foundation for so many of the ways in which we think about contemporary performance and how it gets made: scores, task-based choreography, improvisational structures, interdisciplinary collaboration, pedestrian movement. On and on and on.
Plus, the woman gave us nudity on stage, for god’s sake, the kind that gets a girl into trouble (as in full on, calmly, while staring the audience in the eye). “It had nothing to do with sexuality,” she said of the 1967 performance of Parades & Changes in Manhattan. “But we got arrested anyway.” (Or, almost: As Janice Ross tells it in her excellent book Anna Halprin: Experience as Dance, the city’s two major dance reviewers—eat your hearts out, twenty-first century critics—colluded to hold their reviews until the performers had time to skedaddle.)
In Paris they throw things and yell. In New York they issue warrants. And in Marin County, where the energy feels very muted, as if napping? I dunno. I was just visiting.
I can’t believe how big this country is. I can’t believe how anybody feels they can ever say anything coherent about it as an entity (I do it all the time). As a thing.
It isn’t in my notes, but that’s maybe some of what I was thinking while watching Halprin work with a small group of women, young to middle aged, who had come to study at her Tamalpa Institute. They were doing partnering exercises to work out what it is to be physically passive, so that your whole body eases into trusting someone, and also what it is to be the active one, to take responsibility for that. Only someone who has never once tried to do either of those things would say they are easy, or simple.
She was emphatic on the subject: “Every day we live through our eyes. And we’re completely out of our bodies. There is no internal education. I have to spend so much time on step one.”
Her words traveling airily around, subject to subject, sequiturs be damned, in that way only old people manage with any true authority or charm. She had turned ninety-four the Sunday before, and she had a few complaints, which all seemed pretty reasonable to me. There was, for example, a mice infestation that was going to cost $3000 to fix.
“Where am I going to get $3000?”
And there was the lack of recognition commensurate to her contributions.
“Everything is Merce Cunningham, and Rauschenberg blah, blah, blah.”
That was maybe my favorite line of the afternoon. Certainly there couldn’t have been a truer one. I suggested that this had as much to do with gender inequity as it did with New York parochialism, and she nodded in a noncommittal way.
Her right hand was resting on my left thigh, just above the knee, warm and calming through my pants.
The sky was full of action, clouds running interference between earth and sun. Birds wheeling and darting around everywhere—including, as it should be, the Anna’s hummingbird (named after a nineteenth-century Italian duchess, but let’s not quibble).
You can see why people come here (often women and often older, in my admittedly very limited experience, drawn to and orbiting Halprin in a way that makes me think of a sort of nonthreatening cult, though when Halprin talks it’s pretty no-nonsense, pretty non-cult-leader).
You can see why people stay. I so liked that calming hand above my knee.
The women below us were moving so slowly, so carefully with each other and themselves. Halprin, who also moves carefully and slowly, but not that slowly, and seems to ask for help at the right times, twice noted that it was boring to watch this work. I disagreed, though maybe only to myself. We think we keep secrets. But everything is there in plain view, isn’t it? If only we would know what to look for.