Vaslav Nijinsky’s L’Apres-midi d’un Faune, 1912. Performance view, May 23, 2015, Paramount theater, Oakland, California. Faun (Matthew Roberts). Photo: John Hefti.


IF THERE IS A HEAVEN, there will be a theater. And if there is a theater, it will be Oakland’s Paramount, a marvel of kitschy and sublime Art Deco grandeur. And if there is a ballet for you to watch, while you fill out the necessary forms (there will always be necessary forms) and your martini is shaken or stirred, I wouldn’t mind at all if it’s Vaslav Nijinsky’s L’Apres-midi d’un Faune.

I’d never seen this ballet live until a few weeks ago, when I arrived, with no small amount of trepidation, at the Paramount for the Oakland Ballet’s fiftieth anniversary gala. Galas generally make me want to die, and ballet galas, forget it. After you’ve gorged on pomp and circumstance and been dazzled by the first dozen fouettes et al., the returns diminish, and how. Three hours of pyrotechnic-laden excerpts later, you stagger back up the aisle, wondering if you actually like ballet at all.

But there was cause for hope in Oakland: For starters, this was an afternoon gala, with a fighting trim length of two hours. It was at the Paramount. And the program was studded with the Ballets Russes gems the company is known for, works by Fokine, Massine, Nijinska, and Nijinsky.

Most of these ballets were presented in excerpts, those efficient thieves of meaning and moment. But we got L’Apres-midi (1912) in its entirety, including Leon Bakst’s decor. Matthew Roberts’s faun was both sexual and alien, stirring to Debussy’s Prélude and provoked by the arrival of the regal and remote nymphs (led by Emily Kerr, one of Oakland Ballet’s many appealing performers).

Nijinsky’s flattened, bas-relief presentation of bodies and languid pacing is arresting and inevitable—the dancers slowly curl and scythe across Bakst’s richly muddy backdrop like cutout dolls becoming almost real. (You see this almost-ness as well in Fokine’s Petrouchka—an excerpt of which was convincingly embodied by Evan Flood, with Patience Gordon as The Ballerina—which premiered the year before L’Apres-midi; so little faith, at the turn of centuries.) The ballet’s depiction of masturbation scandalized; watching the faun pleasure himself against the departed nymph’s diaphanous garb, I was struck by the implication that the faun desires the nymph’s identity more than he desires her body.

It’s gloriously queer, in all meanings of the word. And it reminds, as if one needed another reminder, how tediously straight, and straitlaced, ballets tend to be these days (the mysteries of art, that contemporary and present-day needn’t mean the same thing; Nijinsky seems to have more to say to our ideas about identity than any ballet I’ve seen made in my lifetime). They give themselves away within moments of announcing their arrival. Everything about L’Apres-midi, on the other hand, is laden with subtext—yet nowhere is this text burdensome.

I was thinking about the delicate balance of secrets and messages again earlier this month when I spent some time at the CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Art in San Francisco, where Julia Heyward is getting her first monographic survey, “Consciousness Knocks Unconscious,” a finely honed selection of video and performance documentation from 1971 to 1984, curated by Jamie Stevens. (You can feel the weight of the boxes he had to sift through to choose what he chose.)

Maybe Nijinsky and Heyward aren’t natural column companions (though hell, if there is a heaven, there’s an antechamber, and for sure Heyward’s hypnotic proto-music videos run on a never-ending loop on gigantic, bulky period televisions). But both experiences knocked me sideways, and both made space for endless interpretation to sit side by side with dizzying sensorial feedback. It felt like some weirdo freakish conflagration that I have also been revisiting Susan Sontag’s “Against Interpretation” while thinking about these works, or maybe they’re what led me back to her. In either case, the longer I sat watching the title piece in Heyward’s show, the more I had to say about it and the less I understood what, entirely, it was trying to say.

There’s some unerring combination of cunning and innocence at work in both these videos and in Nijinsky’s ballets (or at least what we know, or think we know of those lost dances this far out). I kept thinking about form, how it can become and elude content (sorry, Sontag): that there was a way in which each of these artists was able to burrow so deeply into their respective forms that these containers became strange to them, and to us. They knew those containers well enough to un-know them. And once that happened, anything could fit inside.

Claudia La Rocco

Sleeper Hit

06.25.15

Yvonne Rainer, The Concept of Dust, or How do you look when there’s nothing left to move?, 2015. Performance view, The Werner and Elaine Dannheisser Lobby Gallery, fourth floor, the Museum of Modern Art, New York, June 10, 2015. Yvonne Rainer, Pat Catterson, Patricia Hoffbauer, and Keith Sabado. Photo: Julieta Cervantes.


THE FLOOR, like the walls, is bright white. Rectangular floodlights line its perimeter on three sides, angled upward in the manner of expectant faces. This eagerness is mirrored by the audience; tickets sold out quickly and seats filled up fast.

None of this surprises me. Neither am I surprised that we are given a reading assignment of sorts (typeface Cambria, the default for Microsoft Office), handed out alongside the “official” programs. I read dutifully.

We are here to see Yvonne Rainer, after all. She holds court in a chair on stage right: wiry glasses, hair in a modest French twist, striped socks peeking out from below the cuff of her pants. After a brief solo, the pianist, Vincent Izzo, misses his cue to exit and Rainer waves him off with an impatient, affectionate tsk. This too, feels familiar.

I did not expect, however, that Rainer’s favorite work in the Museum of Modern Art’s collection, at least when she first arrived in New York in 1956, was Henri Rousseau’s The Sleeping Gypsy, 1897. It has been de-installed from the fifth-floor galleries and placed behind the performers, guarded by two art handlers who will slowly roll it out of view over the course of the dance.

Against the bleached setting, the dancers are punctuation: red sneakers, an apricot tank top, blue athletic pants with a satisfying sheen. Though I can’t help but try to make them into an image, they dart too quickly in and out of frame. There are snippets of Rainer’s iconic choreography, such as paths of pedestrian jogging. During the warm-up, a dancer stands in quiet profile with bent knees and arms swinging from side to side (the opening movement from Rainer’s Trio A, 1966). Muscle memory gives way to more showy phrases: Hips roll and chests contract; we are given jazz hands, a few snaps, even a fan kick. The juxtapositions throw into high relief just how attuned Rainer has always been to choreographic tradition and technique even when she is abandoning it. A turned-out waddle takes them off the dance floor upstage, followed by an aggrieved wiggle of an imaginary doorknob, and an earnest wave of greeting that brings them back to center. Then, on a sharp diagonal, the group fights to cut in front of each other on line.

They take turns leaving and returning to one another, interrupted by Rainer’s narration, which includes ruminations on a hedgehog’s ancient fossil and the history of Islam and the Middle East. Rainer leaves her post to chase individual dancers around the floor, pushing the microphone into their face, prompting them to read from her script (and at least once, correcting their pronunciation). It’s an exaggeration of the directorial mode.

All this is done to Gavin Bryar’s atmospheric The Sinking of the Titanic, 1969. First recorded in 1975 on Brian Eno’s Obscure Records, its title is a reminder that America—as both an idea and a real place to which one might take a boat journey—is mostly a catastrophe. Rainer’s citational texts reinforce this notion (quoting Frederic Jameson, “it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.”) Later, I learn that Bryar’s composition draws from a Christian hymn played by the RMS Titanic’s band. They refused to quit as the ship went down.

Yvonne Rainer, The Concept of Dust, or How do you look when there’s nothing left to move?, 2015. Performance view, The Werner and Elaine Dannheisser Lobby Gallery, fourth floor, the Museum of Modern Art, New York, June 10, 2015. David Thomson, Keith Sabado, Patricia Hoffbauer, and Yvonne Rainer. Photo: Julieta Cervantes.


Performers occasionally hold a pillow in their outstretched hands, an offering pressed under a fellow’s dancer’s elbow, or hip, or neck. The moment of contact initiates a slow sink to the floor. The prop recalls a moment from Rainer’s Continuous Project–Altered Daily, performed in March 1970 at the Whitney Museum of American Art. Borrowing its title from another Robert Morris piece at the Whitney, the work was indeterminate, making visible the intimate labor of making dances: teaching, rehearsing, and performing. Within that framework, any dancer could initiate the section, Chair/Pillow, 1969, simply by asking the sound technician to play its score (Ike & Tina Turner’s ecstatic “River Deep Mountain High,” linked to another decline, that of its producer, Phil Spector). The rule was, everyone had to join in.

Some of that logic organizes the present work; within a predetermined structure, the dancers are deputized to make spontaneous choices, stopping or starting phrases at will. The dancers—Pat Catterson, Patricia Hoffbauer, Emmanuèle Phuon, Keith Sabado, and David Thomson—do so magnificently, moving expertly and making decisions with polished tenacity. Glimpses of their personalities emerge like Rainer’s striped socks: a flash of focused determination here, a wobbly insouciance there.

Those socks are encased within Rainer’s all-black Nikes, matched by Sauconys, Asics, and three pair of Keds (for some, a particular squeak is that of basketball players pivoting on the court; for this audience, I imagine the association is always sneaker-wearing dancers). Later, Rainer will make a shooting-hoops “swoosh” gesture with crooked elbow and bent wrist. This too is a delicious surprise, like the childhood scandal of seeing a teacher in the grocery store or the friend of a parent who lets you in on a dirty joke.

Her gesture emerges out of a forcible huddle. The throng has been initiated at Rainer’s imperative: “crush!” It’s a violence that is also a kind of caress. Pressing together, they shove and stutter-step, then recalibrate, beginning again.

The final shock: Rainer has never before performed at MoMA. Afterward, several people express incredulity at this fact: We still believe in the museum as a maker of canons, a legitimizing force, and Rainer’s work has mattered to so many. Our reading assignment, titled “Some Random Ruminations on Value,” has anticipated these questions. Prompted by Ralph Lemon’s 2013–14 series of talks and performances (“On Value”) hosted by MoMA, her essay was to accompany a never-realized performance, Value Talk #5. Rainer was to sleep beneath Rousseau’s painting in the galleries during public hours. In some ways, both the “postponed” performance and the text are addressed to all the ink spilled about dance in the white cube.

But they are also about more. Rainer asks, “But in this age of chronically frustrated desires do we want to see more than a painting of a sleeping gypsy? Do you want to see more than the body of a sleeping dancer? Do you want to touch her? Do you want to test her, feel her?”

I sense that we do. Both rapt and rapacious, we want more from the woman who has wrestled with the authority that authorship implies (and can now make jokes about it), and with representation, the threat and mangle of it. We want her to tell us what it is to watch bodies in a room, and to disclose everything she knows about desire—both the chronically frustrated and the inadequately fulfilled—and renunciation. Rainer is most famous for saying “no,” but it’s our most unforgivable amnesia that we forget how often she has also said yes. It is worth so much.

Catherine Damman

Yvonne Rainer’s The Concept of Dust, or How do you look when there’s nothing left to move? was organized by Ana Janevski, with Giampaolo Bianconi and ran June 9–10, 13–14 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Pass It On

06.07.15

The Wooster Group, Early Shaker Spirituals: A Record Album Interpretation, 2014. Performance view, St. Ann's Warehouse, Brooklyn, NY, April 14, 2015. Cynthia Hedstrom, Frances McDormand, Suzzy Roche, Bebe Miller. Photo: Paula Court.


IF VISUAL ART sometimes seems only to mine archives for stuff to appropriate or sell or both, performance is the now-action that reanimates and perverts the past, in large part because performance can’t (won’t) calcify time into objects, or objects in time. This is a very obvious thing to say, but running between galleries and theaters these past weeks, I’ve been considering how to better map these spaces’ relationships to the historical, wondering how to think about their differences in a way that isn’t always reduced to capital. Three recent performances—each by female artists—wrestle history, both shared and personal, bringing documents to the stage in one form or another for the audience to chew on. Of course, the reappearance of a text in whatever form reflects more of the present than it does of the past from which it was plucked. For what its worth, these productions are well aware of this fact.

The Wooster Group’s Early Shaker Spirituals is a production of great modesty (and modest perversity), directed by founding Wooster member Kate Valk. Billed as “a record album interpretation,” the performance, which I caught last month at St. Ann’s Warehouse, brings together a cast of fiercely accomplished artists: Elizabeth LeCompte, Suzzy Roche, Frances McDormand, Bebe Miller, and Cynthia Hedstrom. In the parlance of the Shakers, these “Eldresses” take the stage, poker-faced and plainly dressed, to sing Shaker hymns from the titular Rounder Records LP. The songs, piped into the performers’ ears via receivers, were recorded between 1963 and 1976, though were handed down from one generation to another. “We learned from hearing people sing them,” explains McDormand, reciting the words of one of the recorded Shaker sisters.

One of the Wooster Group’s many superpowers is their ability to flay their source materials until the original bodies of text transform into entirely other beasts. Here Valk exercises restraint, opting for subtler cuts into the Shaker LP. The earpieces shift the act of acting into something akin to channeling; we remain acutely aware of the recorded sisters’ voices beneath those of the actresses. Between the songs, a recitation of the liner notes give the hymns both historical and personal context. Apart from these twists, the performance is relatively straightforward.

“Come life shaker life/come life eternal/shake shake out of me/all that is carnal,” sing the women as the audience giggles. Though there are moments that foreground how oddball the Shakers are, Early Shaker Spirituals doesn’t wholly send up its subjects. Though faith through celibacy always feels a punitive and repressed practice, listening to these women sing and stomp for some greater good—outside themselves, inside a harmonious community where all members are valued—one begins to wonder if we might rethink our notion of radical kink. The Shakers practice equality of the sexes, both in labor and in leadership. They are devout pacifists, and live communally, giving up traditional family structure for the good of all its members. In this age of endless parenting wars and “feminist” lessons on how to lean in—when in the ongoing debates about marriage rights, every side, no matter how alternative the sexuality or lifestyle proposes to be, still upholds family values as the great unimpeachable, the highest achievement of American grace—maybe, just maybe, the Shakers have a point.

Sibyl Kempson, Let Us Now Praise Susan Sontag, 2015. Performance view, Abrons Arts Center, New York, April 30, 2015. Becca Blackwell and Rolls Andre. Photo: Maria Baranova.


Also wrestling morality and the material world, Sibyl Kempson’s latest play Let Us Now Praise Susan Sontag is a meditation on photography and poverty, taking as its springboard James Agee’s essays and Walker Evans’s photographs of Depression-era sharecroppers published in the 1941 book titled Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Agee and Evans were later criticized for depicting its subjects in a manner to which they did not consent. Kempson plays out this conundrum: “Pretty starving child, do not smile,” leers Jay (Robert M. Johanson), the photographer who descends on a family of tenant farmers along with his journalist pal Ben (Gavin Price). “You will ruin my picture.” Throughout the first act, the family—played by the vibrant ensemble of Eleanor Hutchins, Rolls Andre, Tanya Selvaratnam, Sarah Willis, Becca Blackwell, and Amanda Villalobos—tells and sings their life stories, allowing the interlopers in only to be left behind when Jay and Ben return to the big city.

Kempson’s tale isn’t historical as much as it is hysterical; hers is maximalist, whirligig prose. As the title predicts, the second act is punctuated by a Sontag ex machine, in which the author of On Photography (played by both Kempson and Selvaratnam, a whip of gray hair pinned to their heads) explains to Jay how the aesthetic achievements of his photographs ensured their moral failure. In effect, his images were too beautiful to inspire action, or to save the farmers from being

doomed to the eternal profanity of preserved death and endless life in a series of pretty pictures which slowly drain of impact on account of their overuse in an emerging mass culture as starved of meaning as these families were of food, education, opportunity.

Read Kempson’s play as taking up the challenge to return context and content—albeit fictional—to images. Regarding this point, an intriguing question of stagecraft propels the production: how to theatricalize a photograph? There is no prop camera. No images are projected onto the stage. Kempson chooses instead to sew a certain disbelief in the powers of both photography and theater to show us anything real at all. She smartly locates the birth of an image in words—Poof! Click! Snap! Shoot!—occasionally punctuated by surges of light. The action is interrupted but never captured, never frozen. Time continues. The moment is the only real matter. In a lovely marriage of these media—performance and photography—now you see the image, and you don’t.

Sophia Cleary, Emerging Artist, 2015. Performance view, Performing Garage, New York, May 2015. Sophia Cleary.


A video screen in the shape of a smart phone looms center stage like a blank totem at the top of artist Sophia Cleary’s performance Emerging Artist, which premiered May 8 and 9 at the Performing Garage in Soho. “I wanted to make a solo,” she explains at the outset, also referring to her act as “doing a solo.” The one-hander has never sounded so masturbatory (or scatological), and that’s certainly part of her point. This sharp and funny show twists the usual possession of “youthful narcissism” into the burden of acute awareness—awareness of self, and of other—poking fun at the plight of an aspiring performer in New York.

Wryly crediting both trauma and therapy as the forces that shaped the artist she is today, Cleary’s “I” travels as she speaks both as herself and as other people. When an image of Jordan Wolfson’s 2014 Untitled (Female figure) flashes on screen, Cleary tells us that she is the creepy lizard lady in the picture. “I return the male gaze,” she explains as the audience snickers. (Insider-ism puts the punch in her punch-lines.) “I do look gorgeous,” she adds, but then acquiesces, “You can’t quite tell because of the mask.” She confesses that she considers the sculpture a total failure, but no matter: She’s moved on.

Later in the show she name-checks Leo Bersani, mentioning his signal essay “Is the Rectum a Grave?” on the potential pleasures of self-destruction. But here Cleary is dying only in the comedic sense, slowly losing her command of the stage, and of herself. In the piece’s coup de grâce, she dances for us in that contemporary genre best described as “Sexy Millennial in the Mirror.” As a bounding, sinuous beat plays, she rolls her pelvis, undulating, turning herself, rubbing herself, and—finally—peeing herself. Wild abandon and a weak bladder: That’s one way to make something happen in this town.

Cleary also tries to give the show points of emotional gravity. At the end, she plays back old tapes that her parents made the day she was born (June 8, 1988), as well as their recordings of her first words. As Cleary performs catharsis, the audience may not be as moved as she is, perhaps because the show’s arc is still finding its feet. My advice to a gifted young artist able to risk and deliver as Cleary does? Just give it time.

Jennifer Krasinski

The Wooster Group’s Early Shaker Spirituals: A Record Album Interpretation ran April 23 – May 4 at St Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn. Sibyl Kempson’s Let Us Now Praise Susan Sontag ran April 28 – May 17 at Abrons Arts Center in New York. Sophia Cleary’s Emerging Artist ran May 8 and 9 at The Performing Garage in New York.