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.
David Neumann, I Understand Everything Better, 2015. Performance view, The Chocolate Factory, Long Island City, New York, January 2016. Photo: Maria Baranova.
But to impose is not
To discover. To discover an order as of
A season, to discover summer and know it,
To discover winter and know it well, to find,
Not to impose, not to have reasoned at all,
Out of nothing to have come on major weather,
It is possible, possible, possible. It must
Be possible. It must be that in time
The real will from its crude compoundings come
LAST WEEK I had the great good fortune to secure a hard-to-come-by seat to I Understand Everything Better, a dance-theater work by David Neumann and his Advanced Beginner Group. Co-commissioned last year by Abrons Arts Center and the Chocolate Factory, it was reprised this month as part of P.S.122’s COIL festival.
Afterwards, my mind turned to Wallace Stevens’s gorgeous poem “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction,” with its evocation of major weather, the sort that will not be conjured. And I thought of Big Eater, a 2010 work by Neumann that tried so hard to conjure that place where the deeply personal meets a larger cultural consciousness, and how it seems to me that the attempt needed to happen, and then the next five years needed to happen, for the artist to be ready to make the delicate, finely wrought container that is I Understand Everything Better. The real will from its crude compoundings come.
Big Eater was in part about family—specifically about parents and children, and the complicated, violent ties of responsibility, love and grief that bind us. I Understand Everything Better is also about those ties—and what rips them asunder, in order to join them anew. In the intervening years between the two works came the deaths of Neumann’s parents, his mother going suddenly, just before Hurricane Sandy, and his father dying a few weeks’ after. Major, major weather.
“There are my mother’s hands, my father’s shoulders,” Neumann says toward the end, in one of the very few moments that seems an unadorned aside from artist to audience; the surrounding slipperiness creates space for its stark intensity: “Evidence of them on me, in me, composing me, even though they’re gone. I, however, can’t escape turning into them as I age. They’re still here. Still aging. Still dying.”
David Neumann, I Understand Everything Better, 2015. Performance view, The Chocolate Factory, Long Island City, New York, January 2016. Photo: Maria Baranova.
Both in the text, written in collaboration with the fine playwright Sibyl Kempson, and through a richly collaged sampler of movement styles that runs from modern American dance to classical Japanese theater, Neumann twins his winningly off-kilter humor with heavier forces. Aided by Erica Sweany’s layered costumes and crow’s nest crown, he embodies both a quixotic actor-searcher and a television weatherman, the hapless newsman’s green-screen held aloft by the same folks who help the aging artist embody his final role. (Neumann’s parents were both esteemed New York stage artists.) And of course these men are also one and the same man, just as the production is grounded equally in artifice and autobiography.
Neumann blows through the Chocolate Factory’s small theater (the production had its 2015 premiere at Abrons) in unwieldy gusts, steadied by his fine supporting cast: John Gasper, Jennifer Kidwell, and Tei Blow, who also designed the sound, and spends much of the performance creating that sound and offering dry asides from his perch amid a tangle of musical equipment, books, plants, and objects including a diorama, espresso maker, and other goodies that are deftly incorporated to enhance both the action and Christine Shallenberg’s video design. (Set design is by Mimi Lien.)
Blow, Gasper, and Kidwell periodically join Neumann for whimsical little dance numbers as they trail after his messy wake in an effort to both honor and (somewhat) contain it. And of course they muse about him when he barrels offstage, his out-of-view mischief hinted at by auditory signals both real and broadcast. Increasingly, they cannot follow him, nor barely pick up his trail.
Finally, he departs, a last, stately walk up the theater’s sloping entryway and out into the streets (the afterlife as a New York City sidewalk: perfect). All that cannot be contained is released. Fade to white.
IN 1981, Tony Award–winning actor/singer/dancer Ben Vereen accepted an invitation to perform as part of Ronald Reagan’s All-Star Inaugural Gala. Also slated to entertain the newly elected Republican and his supporters were Frank Sinatra, Charlton Heston, Debbie Boone, Donnie and Marie Osmond, and Johnny Carson, the show’s master of ceremonies. Knowing the event would be broadcast to millions of viewers, Vereen decided to address the troubled history of black performers in America with a tribute to Bert Williams, one of the great vaudevillians (and subject of a forthcoming program at MoMA), a legendary comedian about whom Booker T. Washington once said, “He has done more for our race than I have.”
On the night of the gala, Vereen took to the stage as Williams would have had to: a black man in black face. He sang and danced with great cheer to the song “Waiting for the Robert E. Lee,” but when he finished, his tone and demeanor shifted. “You’re so gracious to allow this,” he told the audience and offered to buy them a drink in gratitude. When Vereen-as-Williams tried to make good on his gesture, the audience watched as he was denied bar service because of the color of his skin. The performance ended with Vereen singing Williams’s plaintive “Nobody,” while sadly wiping the blackface makeup from his skin.
Although the live audience watched Vereen’s performance from beginning to end, the network edited it for broadcast so that viewers at home saw only his first troublesome number. On air, the show abruptly cut after Vereen thanked the audience for their graciousness to Marie Osmond white-belting Stevie Wonder’s “For Once in My Life.” His politically charged ending was scrubbed from the record, and was followed by a career-imploding attack on his appearance in blackface to celebrate America’s new conservative regime. “Ben Vereen: Disgrace to the Race,” read the headline in The Chicago Defender.
Artist Edgar Arceneaux’s smart and chilling Until, Until, Until…, which won Performa 15’s Malcolm McLaren Award, might best be described as a critical reenactment of Vereen’s full number, a performance that attempts to right, and to rewrite, this historical wrong. Arceneaux entwines the televised footage from the inaugural gala with a live performance by the remarkable Frank Lawson as Ben Vereen, while also injecting his own presence into the piece, appearing onstage to give Lawson direction and oversee the show. With his team of collaborators, Arceneaux scripts new dialogue and adds the show-stopping number “Nobody But Ronnie,” in which Lawson and Jess Dugger (as Marie Osmond) sing lines like, “Is this your brain on drugs? / No! / This is your brain on Ron!” As well, Arceneaux loops and remixes the gala’s TV footage, projecting it as the backdrop, so that Until, Until, Until… has something of a séance about it—Lawson channeling Vereen channeling Williams, surrounded by electric phantoms.
It’s never easy to dissuade an audience from the belief that history is a thing of the past, and Arceneaux is wise not to tie up Vereen’s story too neatly. “We haven’t quite figured out how to end the play,” he tells us in the show’s final beat. We believe him, of course, because stories like Vereen’s—of the toxic mediation of racial inequalities in America—are still ongoing.
Wunderbaum, Looking for Paul, 2015. Performance view, New York Live Arts, New York, November 2015. Photo: Steven A. Gunther.
In the Dutch theater group Wunderbaum’s Looking for Paul, which I caught early last month at New York Live Arts, re-creation is both an act of satire and a bid of for artistic survival. This witty if unsatisfying performance takes as its center the controversy surrounding Paul McCarthy’s Tannenbaum, 2001, his notorious public sculpture more commonly known as “The Butt Plug Gnome,” which stands in Rotterdam’s Eendrachtsplein Square. A bronze Santa holding a bell in one hand and a butt plug in the other, Tannenbaum—like so many pieces in McCarthy’s Butt Plug oeuvre—has been called vulgar and offensive by its detractors, while supporters have argued that it’s a lighthearted jab at art and capitalism, both of which apparently stand ready to fuck you in the ass.
Wunderbaum frames sculpture through the eyes of Inez van Dam, a bookseller who cannot escape the sight of Tannenbaum. From her apartment, from her shop, every window on her world overlooks The Butt Plug Gnome, and the imposition of McCarthy’s vision is, she believes, ruining her quality of life. Having been commissioned to create a piece for LA’s Redcat Theater, Wunderbaum decides to take the outraged Inez and her story to Los Angeles and stage a public debate with McCarthy. When that doesn’t materialize, the troupe scrambles to create a show, weighing their commitment to Inez’s cause against their admiration for the artist, or at least for his success. “If you like his work,” Inez asks them in a moment of exasperation, “what am I doing here then?”
For most of the play, the performers read over their email correspondences, sent to one another during the making of the piece we’re now watching (an unfortunate choice that drains a certain liveliness from this production). We listen as they bicker over possible actions and texts, as well as discuss the uncertain fate of arts funding in Holland, which threatens to go “the American way” (i.e. public money will be cut, and an artist’s survival will depend more on popularity and market sales). In the final act, Wunderbaum’s members resign themselves to a piece that weaves McCarthy’s Houseboat Party, 2005, with Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? The result is requisitely nude and crude, though not at all obscene. Edible turds are pulled from a toilet, then licked and savored; cheap condiments and comfort foods are spilled and thrown and sat on; a man masturbates by thrusting himself into a bale of hay. Wunderbaum’s is a weirdo sendup that cuts both ways. Watching everyone dumbly splosh around onstage, one begins to wonder if this performance appears calculated and absurd because McCarthy is inimitable, or because he is overrated.
Looking for Paul doesn’t take the artist to task, but it does offer a rare opportunity to flex ambivalence about his work. The Daffy Pornographic of McCarthy has always been ingenious for the way it baits and deflects criticism, and by burning daddy’s house down as he does over and over again, he has built one of the most successful blue-chip brands in the art world. Is The Butt Plug Gnome art or a cheap bid for notoriety? Is McCarthy’s a vision born of total artistic freedom or a strategy for continued success? Whether opposed or in favor—whether art-world insider or disgruntled outsider—in the end, it seems, we all take McCarthy whatever way we want.
Walid Raad, Scratching on things I could disavow: Walkthrough, 2007–. Performance view, Museum of Modern Art, New York, October 5, 2015. Raad performing with Translator’s introduction: Pension arts in Dubai, 2012. Photo: Julieta Cervantes.
Unequivocally a bid for survival is Artist Pension Trust® (APT), a retirement fund that offers artists from around the world “long-term financial security and international exposure… based on a unique tailor-made financial model.” APT asks its two-thousand-odd participating artists to donate twenty works of art over a twenty-year period, which are then held in trust. As Lebanese artist Walid Raad explains at the outset of his fiercely intelligent and riveting performance/lecture Scratching on things I could disavow: Walkthrough, 2007–, APT then secures the shared investment of these artists by way of basic risk management, understanding that some years an artist will be hot, while in others the market may go cold. “I read somewhere that the lifespan of a contemporary artist is forty months,” Raad says. “This means that for forty months you sell well, and then for months, years, or even decades after, you are lucky to sell anything at all.” Against this depressing statistic, APT bolsters an artist’s longevity with market-stoking strategies under the rubric “APT: Intelligence,” an arm that pays curators to advise investors in the purchase of artworks and, as well, to promote APT’s collection by organizing exhibitions. As Raad reveals more of APT’s insurance schemes, it becomes clear that no work of art is immune from the suspicion that its value is rigged—its content, its narrative, suspect.
Walkthrough is performed by Raad as part of Scratching on things I could disavow, 2007–, his ongoing project tracing the appearance and participation of Arab countries in the international art market, which comprises one half of his current retrospective at MoMA. Yet what begins as a straightforward lecture—didactic, logical—slowly spins over an hour to fray any firm lines between fact and fiction. In the second section of his talk, Raad stands before his installation _Section 88ACT XXXI: Views from outer to inner compartments, 2015, a life-sized architectural outline of open doorways and the perspective lines they frame, while cross-faded images of empty museum galleries are projected above. He speaks about the building of museums in the Middle East, in Qatar and Abu Dhabi specifically, as the means to diversify its economy. As Raad talks, however, one begins to notice slips in his story—not the natural contractions of narrative, but rather eruptions, intrusions of a new force: that of, perhaps, myth.
He recounts how a Gulf resident tries to enter the Guggenheim museum that’s newly built in his country, but cannot for fear he will literally “hit a wall.” Raad claims to read the headline announcing the incident: “Demented Man Disturbs Opening: Claims World Is Flat,” but we know there is no Guggenheim yet in the Middle East. This incident hasn’t happened. “This event has already happened,” Raad assures us, and quickly moves to stand by a scale model of a gallery exhibition. We see the scale is off somehow, we sense something’s wrong, and Raad tells us that as he was preparing this exhibition in Beirut some years ago, he received all of his artworks in miniature. How now? From there, his stories unravel further—he talks of receiving telepathic messages from the future, explains how color can sense disaster and, when threatened, jumps from one work to another to take refuge. “Come closer,” he beckons us to see the disappeared colors throughout several works on paper. In a deft and exhilarating twist, Raad’s lecture becomes a poetic meditation on the consciousness of art objects, which in turn suggests a kind of enlightenment that might stir if art freed itself of human folly.
The objects artist Suzanne Bocanegra features in her intimate, exquisite Studio Visit aren’t infused with consciousness—at least, not yet. Many if not most of the materials she presents during her performance are “pre-art”—not yet used—and as such, they hold idea or memory or both of these forces at once. Bocanegra’s project is a rare art event: Conducted in her studio at The Old American Can Factory for one person at a time, it’s proof that a great performance can happen anywhere and anyhow an artist tells it to.
Studio Visit is presented in three brief acts in three different rooms. In the first, Bocanegra sits across a table from her audience in the pitch dark, runs through a small slideshow of images—some hers, others from history—and speaks about why the artist’s studio has always been a space of interest. In the second act, she disappears into a room in the middle of which all of her studio materials have been organized into a massive, dense installation lit with blinking lights. She explains that she’s shopping for objects, and that she’ll pull as many from the pile as she can as a swell of classical music plays. Finally, Bocanegra leads her audience to a table in a third room. She sits down and says that she’ll speak on twelve of the objects for one minute each—telling the story of each thing and what she remembers about it, why she has it in her studio—after which the performance will end.
During my visit, Bocanegra placed each object beneath an overhead camera so that it loomed over her shoulder, the thing projected large and in close-up as though looked at through a microscope. She showed me a cutout image of a Girl Scout doll. “I was a girl scout for too long,” she sighed, and tried to remember where she’d found it. Then came a scrap from an old quilt made by her former mother-in-law; a glass vial filled with what looked to be salt used in an old performance; a piece of paper with notes taken from a journal she’d found at a flea-market overseas; a tiny doll-sized mattress rescued from the collected materials of an artist who’d died. “But that’s not usually how I find my stuff,” she clarified. Just as each story got going, the minute would be up, and Bocanegra would move on. It may be a funny thing to listen to half-finished stories about the bits and scraps an artist saves, but what Bocanegra’s Studio Visit foregrounds is something audiences don’t often get to experience—that moment in the studio when all still hovers in the dazzling realm of possibility.
Jennifer Krasinski is a writer based in New York.
Edgar Arceneaux’s Until Until Until… was presented as part of Performa 15 at Three-Legged Dog from November 20th to 22nd; Wunderbaum’s Looking for Paul was performed at New York Live Arts from November 11th to 14th; Walid Raad’s Walkthrough is performed multiple times a week at the Museum of Modern Art through January 31st; Suzanne Bocanegra’s Studio Visit will be performed until January 31st in her studio at The Old American Can Factory in Brooklyn.
Jérôme Bel, Ballet (New York), 2015. Rehearsal view, Marian Goodman Gallery, New York, November 1, 2015. From left to right: Madison Ferris, Etienne Servaes, Shelton Lindsay aka Professor Cupcake, Megan LeCrone, Hector Castro, Alex Clayton, Moriah Evans, Anne Gridley, Casey Furry, Frog, Hashiel Castro, Charles Krezell, and Chai Smith. Photo: Paula Court.
FOR HIS PERFORMA 15 COMMISSION, Jérôme Bel has created a compact work in an unwieldy delivery system: The thirty-five-minute Ballet (New York) is being presented in three spaces around Manhattan this month—Marian Goodman Gallery, the Martha Graham Studio, and the theater at El Museo del Barrio—so that, per the program, it “plays with how these environments each frame and shape the ways we see and ‘feel’ dance.” (Amusingly, the Graham Center, a modern-dance shrine that now occupies Merce Cunningham’s fabled digs on Bethune Street, gets labeled “a downtown dance studio.”)
Alas, for this contextual experiment, Marian Goodman is the only container in which I got to experience Bel. But as it turns out, the gallery was my third frame for ballet in the first week of November, following Francesco Vezzoli and David Hallberg’s collaboration at Performa’s opening in Saint Bartholomew’s Church and Troy Schumacher’s BalletCollective at NYU’s Skirball Center. The treatment of dancers and audience members, and their spatial (political) relationships to each other, was, if not always radically different, trenchantly revealing.
Another Performa commission, Hallberg and Vezzoli’s Fortuna Desperata is a proto-ballet confection in keeping with the biennial’s Renaissance theme, featuring Deda Cristina Colonna’s reconstructions of fifteenth-century Italian social dances (she was, tellingly, listed as a “Choreographer,” while Hallberg and Vezzoli were billed as “Artists.” Unclear to me, still, is what exactly Vezzoli did…). Tickets could be had for $250 or, if you wanted in to the reception after, $500. And just in case, after being crammed into the holding pen of a lobby, you were beginning to doubt your monetary outlay (or if, like me, you were comped but still depressed to be on Park Avenue, on a Sunday night no less), as you filed into the darkened church there, spotlit in all his glory, was a body-painted, near-naked Hallberg. Vitruvian Man in a dancebelt (by Fabio Zambernardi for Prada, thank you very much).
BalletCollective, Invisible Divide, 2015. Performance view, New York University Skirball Center, New York, November 4, 2015. Ashley Laracey, Meagan Mann, Lauren King, and Claire Kretzschmar. Photo: Matthew Murphy.
As the audience scurried to grab the unreserved seating on risers ringing the square stage, Hallberg rotated to give all a view: Here was dancer as spectacle and specimen, both exalted and abject, his ass quite literally on display for all to snap and send to their social-media stream of choice. Compare this opening view to BalletCollective’s Invisible Divide, in which the dancers chatted and warmed up on a stripped stage while their public trickled in to assigned seats ($25–$75). In this program of new and recent works, Schumacher played with ideas around partnering, virtuosity, and nonhierarchical communities, occupying a terrain of innocence and questioning that, within ballet’s buttoned up halls, felt radical at times. Here, as in other efforts by Schumacher, a New York City Ballet dancer and rising choreographic talent, the point was demystification: Ballet is extraordinarily hard work done by ordinary individuals, who onstage edge ballet toward explorations of sexual equality and non-heteronormative defaults, and in the program notes offer sweetly earnest answers to questions about their dreams and regrets.
And compare this again to Ballet (New York), with its makeshift, uncomfortable seating ($25 a pop, unless you qualify for a $15 student or “visionary” ticket), no bodies to look at save our own and those in Jeff Wall’s photographs, which trade in many of the same theatrical/anti-theatrical, larger-than-life/human-scale, accessible/critical modes as Bel’s performances. The point here is Art, and The Author: his gaze, his values, his agenda (his his his, inevitably). When the performers come out, one by one, they execute Bel’s assignments with a minimum of staged fanfare and a maximum of personal flourish—pirouettes, waltzing, improvisation, the moonwalk, bows—as best they can with their varied training and abilities. Shits and giggles on the surface camouflage Bel’s continued interest in pinning butterflies to velvet, here playing up the fraught freak show concept of collecting and juxtaposing intensely different body types—a City Ballet soloist, a woman in a wheelchair, a hirsute man listed as “Shelton Lindsay aka Professor Cupcake.” (It’s telling that Bel eventually pulled the plug on a biographical collaboration Hallberg sought with him in 2007 because, in Hallberg’s words, “there wasn’t enough conflict in the work” for Bel’s liking.)
As with Fortuna Desperata, those who are “only” dancing don’t merit program bios, and have committed to a minimum of rehearsals—the tradition of a maker-doer bond that a choreographer like Schumacher is steeped in is not, here, the point, so that it is the individual who lets you see the step and its conventions as much, if not more so, than the step revealing the individual. What are the essential elements of a pirouette? Schumacher and his dancers, all City Ballet colleagues, have a definitive answer to which they apply variations, seeking present-day wiggle room within history; Bel, I think, starts with the wiggle room so as to home in on the aspects of history, and its present-day ramifications, he wants most to dissect.
And what does Fortuna Desperata seek? Oh, reader. Hallberg is a force for great, great good in the ballet world, and I want to declare him on the side of the angels. But this frothy and coy concoction is an inadequate vehicle for his dance intelligence (and a cruelty to the ill-prepared performers, especially the men, placed alongside him). If he’s going to save ballet from itself, he’ll have to do it without the likes of Vezzoli at his side.
Francesco Vezzoli and David Hallberg’s Fortuna Desperata ran Sunday, November 1 at Saint Bartholomew’s Church in New York. BalletCollective’s Invisible Divide ran November 4 and 5 at New York University’s Skirball Center. Jérôme Bel’s Ballet (New York) ran November 6 and 7 at Marian Goodman Gallery; it continues November 14 and 15 at Martha Graham Studio Theater and November 19 at El Museo del Barrio.
THE PSYCHOSIS OF SISTERHOOD never goes out of style, I suppose. Two recent performances feature characters who are sisters—each other’s closest and most cherished rivals—and yet strangely at the heart of each of these productions is a kind mourning or meditation on theatrical space. Why?
Basil Twist’s latest production, Sisters’ Follies: Between Two Worlds, was commissioned for the one hundredth anniversary of Abrons Playhouse, founded in 1915 by sisters Alice and Irene Lewisohn to give a home and audience to avant-garde theater. Part of the absolute delight of the show is its celebration-cum–send up of a certain history of New York’s avant-garde—a cheeky tribute to the oddball and kinky nature of thespian visions of yore, apparently no less absurd or luminous than those of today.
Propelled by the magnetic forces of Joey Arias and Julie Atlas Muz, Sisters’ Follies is—at face value—a ghost story. Abrons’s founding sisters Alice and Irene (Arias and Muz, respectively) appear before us as spirits floating above the stage to tell us their story and reenact their proudest moments at the Playhouse. Raven haired and kohl-eyed, Arias is the vain actress Alice, a lighter, more loving version of Baby Jane. With a halo of blond curls and a cherubic smile, Muz plays the sweet, enthusiastic Irene, a dancing minx in angel’s clothing (or lack thereof). Between numbers, the two appear to narrate the story of the theater, bicker over the spotlight, later making up in the name of art—while time and time again bringing the house down with a few choice pieces from their repertoire.
In “Jepthah’s Daughter,” we see Arias-as-Alice playing the young girl who sacrificed herself so that her father would be successful in battle. (Warning: Audiences who giggle at mentions of the girl’s youth will get the stink eye from Arias.) Wearing a sparkling headdress and gown and standing on a pyre while silk flames wave all around, Arias sings a song of love and fate that dissolves into a frenzied performance of “Fire” by The Crazy World of Arthur Brown. Muz-as-Irene shines as Carmelis in “The Kairn of Kordiwen,” her expressionistic, interpretive dance of a young woman who must choose between her love of the warrior Mordred and her belief in the Druid goddesses. (Roll over Mary Wigman, if only to make room in your grave.) Dressed in Machine Dazzle’s mesmerizing creations, Alice and Irene present us with other gems too, including “The Queen’s Enemies,” in which we watch Cleopatra drown a stage full of Egyptians, and “Salut au Monde,” a tribute to Walt Whitman, which was apparently misunderstood by audiences at the time. (I’m not sure we understood it better now, although we undoubtedly laughed harder.)
At first, it may seem merely incidental or sweet that Sisters’ Follies was commissioned to honor the Abrons’s centenary. It isn’t only that—at least, not at this moment. With the ribbon freshly cut on the new St Ann’s Warehouse, and P.S.122 reopening its renovated space next summer, there is growing concern that these and other shifts in scale will affect the work born in this city. Opportunities for incubation and development seem to be slipping away; so does a certain ground-level support of New York’s performance community. While every New Yorker gets caught in real-estate talk, the conversation is especially tender for performance spaces. It’s also always ongoing.
In mid-July at the Kitchen, the sublime and gutting reproduction of Jeff Weiss and Richard C. Martinez’s And That’s How the Rent Gets Paid reminded audiences that once upon a time, plays could be presented in storefront theaters that doubled as the artists’ home. DANCENOISE’s presentation at the Whitney later that same month devoted quite a bit of installation space in homage to the place that launched their work: King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut, which once stood on the corner of Avenue A and Seventh Street. In July 2014, The Incubator Arts Project closed its doors at Saint Mark’s Church, previously the home of Richard Foreman’s essential Ontological-Hysteric Theater. Calculating these and other losses against the gains of grander, bigger theaters is not a bid for nostalgia. It is a reminder that performance has been heartiest and most potent when given the proper space to grow.
This is a roundabout way of saying that Basil Twist’s genius—his uncanny eye for the life forces hidden inside the material world—felt even more essential the night I saw the play. He breathed life not only onto the stage but also into the house of the Abrons, transforming the theater into the third star of the show. If these walls could talk, Twist seemed to wink. Thanks to his crack team of creative collaborators—Poe Saegusa (lighting), A-Key (sound), and Daniel Brodie (video)—they did exactly that. We were surrounded by spirits, delighted and giddy. Best of all, the stagecraft was flawless not because of Broadway-sized budgets, but because of the ingenuity of all involved. In other words, it was a show that only could have happened Downtown.
Slightly more uptown, at the New Museum, writer/director/choreographer Jack Ferver and artist Marc Swanson presented the installation/performance Chambre as part of this year’s Crossing The Line Festival. According to Ferver, the piece “examines the themes of greed, celebrity, class disparity, capital “O” otherness, and the violence that comes from these issues internally and externally.” (Phew!) To achieve all of this, Ferver whips Jean Genet’s The Maids together with excerpts from Lady Gaga’s 2013 deposition from a lawsuit brought against her by a former personal assistant alleging unpaid overtime. Also woven into Chambre are Ferver’s own texts as well as select lines from the trial testimony of Christine Lapin, one of the two sisters who brutally murdered their employer and her daughter in 1933, the event that inspired Genet’s play. Unfortunately, with arrows aimed in so many directions, it’s not a surprise this piece misses the bulls-eye.
Ferver, alongside Jacob Slominski, perform as Christine and Léa, the sisters who escape their work as maids by playing at a fantasy in which they become their mistress, go to Paris, and live a life of luxury. Theirs is a folie à deux fueled by the combustible forces of oppression, desire, and shaming. Yet when their mistress arrives (Michelle Mola), lip syncing her lines in a sing-song style and flitting about like an ADD trust-fund Tinkerbell, we understand that her delusions of grandeur are no less toxic and absurd than those of the sisters’. It’s that wealth gives her the power to materialize them.
Ferver rounds out Genet’s story by performing as Lady Gaga accusing her former assistant of entitlement and ingratitude. As one might hope, the diva bequeathed us a superior record of her nastiness. “[She] got to take private planes, eat caviar, party with Terry Richardson all night, wear my clothes, ask YSL to send her free shoes without my permission, using my YSL discount without my permission.” Although Ferver’s delivery possesses just the right touch of acid, one’s fangs don’t have to be especially sharp to chew through pulp this juicy. “She thinks she’s just like the queen of the universe,” Ferver-as-Gaga hisses, “But in my work and what I do, I’m the queen of the universe every day.” Such is the pseudo-tragedy of the star: to be misunderstood by all of her subjects in a cosmos of one. A sign of our times: Gaga’s assistant never stabbed her or gouged her eyes out; she settled out of court. She also reportedly received a million dollar book deal to dish about her former boss, a brutal blow to a celebrity—a body that largely subsists on the largesse of its own fictions.
With so much possible flesh to flay, it’s disappointing Chambre only stabs at the surface. When a performer for whatever reason doesn’t feel the necessity or urgency to produce a text all his or her own, what sometimes happens is a grazing of source materials. Here Genet’s play hangs as outline and reference, carving what we might call (with a healthy dose of venom) “the safe space of literature.” The man who moved Jean-Paul Sartre to pen Saint Genet, a kind of treatise on the origins of genius, is used to lend gravity to the piece; Genet’s presence and labor are not repaid in kind. If Ferver, a truly charismatic performer with razor sharp comedic sensibilities, isn’t interested in diving more deeply into the texts of others, he should (and could) push his own ideas to the fore—and use the full force and focus of his talons without this dubious kind of permission.
He seems to know this too. At the end of the show, Ferver takes a moment to nibble the hands that feed him. “The monetization of performance is so scary,” he tells the New Museum audience, his voice remaining in the diva register. “It’s so ridiculous that I make what I make. My friends are worried about me because I can barely afford my health insurance and they are like, Why don’t you write a movie, you are so funny, and comedy really sells.” Projecting himself into a future LA lifestyle—“New York is so gross and totally inhospitable to artists now”—Ferver riffs on the benefits of creating confections from a city that has “so much space.” If this is how a performer is to survive—more space, less art?—ah me. As another deluded diva once said, Let them eat cake.
Basil Twist’s Sisters’ Follies: Between Two Worlds runs through November 7th at Abrons Arts Center; Jack Ferver and Marc Swanson’s Chambre was installed and performed at the New Museum from September 23rd–October 4th.