HERE IT IS: the annual highly selective, totally subjective, goddammit-I-only-remembered-the-best/weirdest/awfullest-thing-after-it-was-published, New York fall performance preview. Trust me, this hurts me more than it hurts you.
I decided to take a different tack and focus as much as possible on smaller and out of the way things, because, you know, the city is going to be taken over by Performa 15, which is coming up November 1, and this year has the humble theme of the Renaissance. And yes, the Crossing the Line festival is great (Miguel Gutierrez’s complete trilogy at New York Live Arts, and Adrian Heathfield and André Lepecki convene “Afterlives: The Persistence of Performance” in collaboration with the Museum of Modern Art.) And yeah, Marina Abramović returns to the Park Avenue Armory to do something about some guy named Bach.
1. But have you heard about the choreographer Anneke Hansen, or the Irondale Center in Fort Greene? She’ll present her new work 2hymn vb December 2–5, and I think her delicately and carefully layered phrasework would be perfect for the elegantly aging theater. Hansen comes from a strong New York tradition of nuanced movement. She’s worth paying attention to.
2. Speaking of New York lineages: “Sundays on Broadway” is a treasure-trove series curated by Cathy Weis at WeisAcres, her loft in SoHo in one of those buildings still occupied by artists, like some sort of nature preserve. This season’s lineup is beyond, including showings by Juliette Mapp, Jodi Melnick, Jon Kinzel, Vicky Shick, and Weis. Dance royalty Carolyn Brown (once of Merce Cunningham) and Sara Rudner (once of Twyla Tharp) host an evening on October 18. And there will be screenings of films by Charles Atlas, Robert Whitman, Léonide Massine (!), and Yasuko Yokoshi.
3. Yokoshi’s film Hangman Takuzo plays a part in Zero One, which will be presented at Danspace Project September 24–26. Yokoshi is not to be missed (and tends to sell out, act fast), but the rest of Danspace’s fall is largely populated with less established figures (uh, ok, there is this collaboration December 17–19 between Meredith Monk and Anne Waldman, which, my god—yesss), such as Mina Nishimura and Jean Butler, both singular performers. Their works will be in conversation with intense histories: butoh in Nishimura’s case, and Irish dance for Butler.
4. Butler has been slowly easing her way into choreography, along the way collaborating with experienced makers like Tere O’Connor and Jon Kinzel. The woman has impeccable taste, and this fall you can accomplish a hat trick, seeing The Goodbye Studies by O’Connor at The Kitchen December 2–12, and COWHAND CON MAN by Kinzel October 21–24 and 28–31 at Gibney Dance. I hope you’ve heard of O’Connor; Kinzel’s public profile is lower, but his art is sublime. He’s one of many fine artists being supported by Gibney this year.
Anneke Hansen Dance, ˛hymn vb, 2015. Promotional image. Austin Selden and Sam Hanson. Photo: Matt Harvey.
5. I’m not always so up on The Joyce Theater’s programming, but October 13–25 will see the seventieth anniversary season of the Limón Dance Company, with performances by a range of guest artists. This is American modern-dance bedrock (hey museums, what gives, not sexy enough for you?), and while some of the work shows its years, it remains deeply powerful. The Joyce is also presenting Twyla Tharp’s fiftieth anniversary (performances will be at the David H. Koch Theater). Limón and Tharp changed the course of things. Respect must be paid.
6. Ok, here’s something at the other end of the spectrum from respectable modern dance: the performance art gallery Grace Exhibition Space. Curated by the artist Whitney V. Hunter and informed by ideas of the artist as mythmaker, “The Sphinx Returns” runs from September 19–December 19. I love the opening act, the Afro-Futurist duo The Illustrious Blacks, but many of the artists Hunter has chosen are unknown to me—and what’s not to love about that?
7. I didn’t know much about Joshua Lubin-Levy when I was invited to attend his Fred Herko symposium at New York University’s performance studies department, where he is a PhD student. What a hot mess that event was, and I am now a Lubin-Levy fan. Here are two things he’s up to this fall: Curating “Not Not,” a free back-to-school evening September 12 at the Center for Performance Research, featuring performances, readings, and refreshments with Women & Performance: a journal of feminist theory. And on September 26 and 27 at Lower Manhattan Cultural Council’s open studios on Governors Island, “Bilderatlas,” a dramaturgical platform in collaboration with a series of strong dance artists.
Yasuko Yokoshi, ZERO ONE, 2015. Photo: Kentaro Hisatomi.
8. Another worthy curatorial endeavor is Prelude, the annual smorgasbord of theater and performance at The Graduate Center, CUNY. This edition, organized by Antje Oegel and Tom Sellar, takes place October 7–9. Details are still in flux, but one track that looks especially intriguing involves architecture. Artists including Annie Dorsen, David Levine, and Ryan McNamara will exhibit and discuss various speculative architectures of their imaginations, and there will be a panel with builders of new performing-arts buildings: Performance Space 122, St. Ann’s Warehouse, and the now near-mythical (in a Sisyphus kinda way) Performing Arts Center at the World Trade Center.
9. Here’s an in-the-flesh architecture that’s one of the city’s performance epicenters: The Chocolate Factory Theater in Long Island City. The interdisciplinary space, in its tenth season, has a dance-heavy fall with works by the gorgeous movement investigators Jeanine Durning and Silas Riener, raunchy political comedy by Adrienne Truscott, and a dance installation by Michelle Ellsworth, who is doing some of the most engrossing explorations of how the body and technology coexist and collide. (Full disclosure: I have a commission there in December.)
10. The Chocolate Factory’s programming tends to involve a lot of women makers. Let’s swing to the opposite extreme. Ballet! I adore New York City Ballet, which has the most thrilling dancers and repertory, promotes homegrown talent (like the dancer-choreographers Justin Peck and Troy Schumacher) and commissions like mad—but how predictable yet disappointing that there’s nary a female choreographer to be seen in the premieres. In this, as in other diversity woes, City Ballet does not stand alone (nor ballet—hello exclusionary avant-garde legacies), but I guess I pick on the company because I hold it to a higher standard. But still, there are some exciting stirrings this fall: City Ballet alumni Wendy Whelan and Jock Soto are reunited in the noh drama Hagoromo at the Brooklyn Academy of Music November 6–8, and Schumacher continues his indie explorations with his BalletCollective November 4–5 at NYU’s Skirball Center. You can see teasers of both of these at the Guggenheim Museum’s Works & Process series, which also features City Ballet alumnae Emily Coates and physicist-collaborator Sarah Demers, on November 30.
11. Continuing in a scientific vein, how about an ecosexuality immersion course courtesy of Annie Sprinkle (sure, you’ve read about her vagina, but have you seen her in the flesh?) and Beth Stephens, who will be at Abrons Arts Center as part of the Queer New York International Arts Festival September 16–26. This event has sometimes felt a little behind the times for New York, but you should be in good hands, or something, with artists like Ivo Dimchev and Max Steele.
12. Or maybe you’d like a little more fourth-wall safety in your performance-going. Probably you’ll get this with poet-star (never thought I’d write that word combo) Anne Carson, who will be at BAM with her Antigone translation September 24–October 4. I adore Carson (duh), though I’m weary of another Juliette Binoche vehicle. If you have more appetite for insanely good ensemble work than celebrity, perhaps try Fondly, Collette Richland, a new production by the always worthwhile playwright Sibyl Kempson and company Elevator Repair Service, at New York Theatre Workshop September 11–October 18.
13. I’d like to see Okwui Okpokwasili play Antigone. In the meantime, we have her Bronx Gothic October 21–24 at New York Live Arts. This undersung New York powerhouse has been getting more of her due in recent years. She’s in residence at NYLA for the next two years, for example, but you can also see her at The Kitchen, along with the equally astounding April Matthis, in Ralph Lemon’s Scaffold Room (October 30–December 5); I saw this work last year at the Walker Art Center. It blew me away.
14. Avant-Garde music time: The Japanese-born pioneers Takehisa Kosugi (The Whitney Museum, September 12–13) and Yoshi Wada (Issue Project Room, November 5–6) are not to be missed. But nor is La Monte Young or the work of Pandit Pran Nath, both of which you can catch at Dia. Their names are all interwoven, with one another and music history. Take your pick.
15. Ok, ok, I’ve strayed from my lesser-known artists premise. Let’s end with composer Brendan Connelly and performance artist Scotty Heron, both based in New Orleans, collaborating for the first time, December 10–12 at JACK in Brooklyn, with Appalachian Spring Break. Just… trust me. Go.
AT SOME POINT in Mike Taylor’s mockumentary DANCENOISE: The Phenomenon (1992), Richard Foreman holds forth, pointing out that you never know whether people are “really picking up on the salient points” of DANCENOISE or simply having “their own fantasies.”
It’s a marvelously deft and deadpan note in the satirical hagiography, which celebrates as iconic and omnipresent a performance duo (Anne Iobst and Lucy Sexton) that was decidedly fringe. On Sunday afternoon at the Whitney Museum of American Art the film took on an added meta-dimension: The occasion for the Taylor screening was “Don’t Look Back,” a weeklong DANCENOISE survey that attempted to get at some of the energy and impact these performance-art club kids had in a 1980s and ’90s New York that has long-since vanished. There’s nothing left to look back at; so, naturally, we all become Orpheus.
Before this week, though I’d seen Iobst and Sexton perform on their own, I’d only seen one DANCENOISE routine live, in 2013 at a Danspace Project gala: the two of them naked as usual, studiously working their way through a rudimentary hula-hoop routine that ended in unison handstands, their legs well spread. I believe choreographer Ishmael Houston-Jones appeared to brandish (fake?) flowers in tactical locales. These all seemed like salient points.
They also felt familiar. The ribald dance-theater energy, the junky showbiz flair edged with subversive critiques, the politics of impotence and absurdity—all of these strategies and textures have long been absorbed into the city’s performance bloodstream. Not so in the ’80s, apparently: The great Cynthia Carr, in a 1989 Village Voice review, described them as “a bracing new transgression.” And the DANCENOISE specter kept rising for Jay Sanders, the Whitney’s curator of performance, as older artists brought up the duo while he was organizing the engrossing 2013 exhibition “Rituals of Rented Island: Object Theater, Loft Performance, and the New Psychodrama—Manhattan, 1970–1980.”
“Don’t Look Back” shares a curatorial lightness of touch with “Rituals,” and an insistence on letting the artists lead. My first encounter with the show came last Wednesday night, when Iobst and Sexton invited artists for a pop-up version of King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut, the now-shuttered East Village bar where they used to host a weekly series.
Tom Berry’s entrance installation for King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut at the Whitney Museum of American Art. Photo: Paula Court.
On the way up to the Whitney’s shiny new theater, crammed into a shiny new elevator, I overheard a gentleman sigh. “In the old days you used to climb a dirty staircase—this is a little like going to a job interview.” Granted, it was a job interview that served tequila and beer, but yes. The dislocation is unavoidable.
And as the skits zipped by that night, I kept thinking about how this sort of work lives or dies by its gut-level connection to its surrounding culture. Watching Julie Atlas Muz do a bad-cop strip routine, my mind turned uneasily to the trenchant social-media debates and activism swirling around racially loaded police brutality and feminism’s exclusionary history. The variety-show format feels of another time—and maybe that’s ok, but it raises the eternal questions over whether and how a museum can behave like a museum when it comes to live art.
And some cultural critiques remain evergreen. Most of the women I talked to after DANCENOISE: Show, the evening-length collage of old, new, and repurposed material that ran Thursday through Saturday, were most delighted by a section in which Iobst and Sexton, clad only in boots, bounced vigorously around the stage like rouge pistons. It’s exhilarating to see two disheveled and non-sexualized but sexy women in their fifties do this—it so totally disrupts the insidious codes of conduct by which we’re somehow still supposed to behave.
I wasn’t as drawn in by a lot of the other material, which I’m not sure, despite Iobst’s and Sexton’s enduring charisma, was well-served by being sliced and diced into a sort of greatest-hits reel for DANCENOISE fans. I found a lot more to sink into when I went back to the museum Sunday to spend a few hours with the installation, which was also in the theater, and consisted mainly of several monitors and screens looping vintage performances and excerpts of DANCENOISE shows, their soundtracks overlapping in ways both pleasurable and irritating. (Here one sees the politics of time and space: Why only five days for “Don’t Look Back,” Whitney, and why jam it all into the theater, so that the installation had to be dismantled to accommodate the live events?)
DANCENOISE, King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut, 2015. Performance view at the Whitney Museum of American Art, July 22, 2015. Julie Atlas Muz. Photo: Paula Court.
“Oh, this is just too weird,” one middle-aged tourist said to her friend, before walking out, as Iobst and Sexton, accompanied by pop songs, clad in outlandish prop-and-costume collages, and streaked by fake-blood like a pair of daffy psychopaths, wreaked inexplicable havoc across the screens, among themselves and their collaborators (Houston-Jones! Yvonne Meier! Mike Iveson! …the all-star list goes on). Messy stacks of paper were placed here and there, containing typo-laden reflections by Iobst on such riches as wheatpasting with Tom Murrin and makeup lessons from Ethyl Eichelberger. I hastily scooped the pages into my bag: black-market archival riches.
No matter the fuzzy recordings and bad sound—even mediated, seeing this work in its intended context was exhilarating. There was a freedom and promiscuity in their violent physicality that must have served as an incredibly powerful rejoinder in a time and place where so many people were dying of a disease that preys on bodily contact.
The intensity of that main room was offset by a tiny chamber in the back featuring a narrow bed with a worn Spider-Man blanket, stained costumes, prop lists, programs, and a television set playing Guiding Light. The fabled DANCENOISE studio! I wanted to lie down on the bed and simply stay, like the little android boy in A.I. who locks eyes with the Blue Fairy underwater and settles into an aspirational trance. Maybe you can go back in time, if it’s someone else’s time.
But anyway I had to clear out because the theater had to be converted for the film screening. Returning later that day for my third DANCENOISE event I felt somehow altered by the density of experience and information.
Still, I wasn’t prepared for the final screening of the exhibition, a full-length production of Hedda Gabler Hedda Gabler from 1992 at La MaMa, also featuring DANCENOISE collaborators Iveson, Hapi Phace, and Richard Move. It was documented by Charles Atlas (whose short film on Iobst and Sexton being installed at the Whitney is a gem), and you can hear his quiet giggles throughout the recording. The depth of sadness and strangeness conjured by a tightly wrought mashup of pathos, absurdity, and beauty was revelatory—my previous fantasies of DANCENOISE never included repertory theater. It was a different sort of blood and guts, and I don’t care if we shouldn’t look back: Somebody should reprise this sucker, and soon.
“DANCENOISE: Don’t Look Back” ran July 22–26, 2015, at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York.
FOR THREE DAYS IN LATE JUNE, Eiko Otake emerged on Fulton and Broadway. She looked wan and frail: Her face, arms, hands, and feet were painted chalk-white, a yellow kimono clung loosely to her thin frame. She seemed dressed up in disease, like a stain and a plague against the city’s latest picture of health, Fulton Center. The gleaming new subway complex is an efficient symbol of vigorous capital and regrowth after 9/11.
Carrying a bouquet of dried weeds, Eiko made eye contact with viewers gathered for A Body in a Station, 2014–, and then took in the rest of the midday scene as if she were looking at nothing at all. Summer clouds threatened their daily microburst as the crowd grew and followed her inside the Center. Gradually, the procession made their way to an overlook by the escalators. Over the hour, among the hustle and bustle of the living—while commuters rushed, babies cried, and sirens blared—Eiko allowed the work to quietly reveal itself. The malady spread. It took time to develop; nothing was fast.
It never was. For nearly forty years, Eiko and her collaborator Koma have advanced a Kazuo Ohno–inspired treatise on impotency. Recently, they’ve been recognized for a protracted, withering choreography; for their spare, silent actions; and for scenes that evoke pathos through shades of grief and anguish. These are precise, obsessional affairs. Eiko and Koma do not label any of it Butoh, though a slowness and darkness evoke it, and though their work and Butoh derive from similar sources—Hiroshima and Nagasaki. While imbued with a similar urgency and intent as before, A Body in a Station is Eiko’s solo debut sans Koma. Her collaborator becomes the station, the public (some 300,000 commuters pass through Fulton Center daily), and the vicissitudes of the hour.
Last October, she debuted the piece in an Amtrak station in Philadelphia for a “twelve hour movement installation,” a series of four three-hour performances. That iteration launched a two-year solo project, A Body in Places, which seeks to respond to a given site while Eiko performs at times as abject and in other moments as if a cipher, a nobody—poised between being no one and nothing. It’s not so far off from our common, everyday experience on subways—we disappear more and more. At its best, A Body in a Station trumps this. As we watch Eiko, she watches us. As we disappear, she looks back. If “resolution determines visibility,” as Hito Steyerl says, the ability to see and be seen is of great social and political consequence. Yet resolution must involve resolve as well, and this is what A Body in a Station excels at.
Employing only the required muscles, Eiko skillfully adjusted her weight to lean on a pole and to inch wormlike across the floor. She clutched a bright red textile, which she eventually waved and pitched, forcing viewers out of her way. She carried the weeds and the cloth, like a dead body, up and down the stairs and then abandoned both when she raised her hands up in surrender for several long minutes. Under the shadow of the Freedom Tower, this was almost too much. But Eiko’s non-normative subjectivity wasn’t something to easily turn away from. So many passersby stopped for a quick picture, and then stuck around, falling prey to curiosity and gawker’s delight. (“When the sick rule the world, mortality will be sexy,” Dodie Bellamy forecasts. Finitude is the new black.)
At street level, Eiko stood in front of a nearly thirty-two foot tall LED “wall” of fast-paced commercials for transnational corporations. Here the piece broke down a little, in a good way: What was the relationship between markets and this dance? Was her stillness a revolt? What did her gaze toward us mean then?
According to Michel de Certeau, the sick are “set aside in one of the technical and secret zones (hospitals, prisons, refuse dumps), which relieve the living of everything that might hinder the chain of production and consumption.” Eiko’s unstable existence here trumped that, too. Not only did it blur the distinction between production and consumption, the cultural and the economic: It showed how sickness confounds most everything.
Eiko eventually returned outside and bowed to conclude the piece. The illness as metaphor ended, for now.
“Expect a re-energized Lower Manhattan.” The slogan for Fulton Center never meant less.
A Body in a Station ran June 22–24 at Fulton Center as part of the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council’s River To River Festival.
MAKE WAY FOR AKI SASAMOTO. Like her monologues, the artist’s body ricochets through the three-story townhouse that is Luxembourg & Dayan. She squeezes through narrow spaces, hangs from sculptures, and gallops across the building’s length. Occasionally Sasamoto pauses to accommodate shuffling gallery patrons; in other moments, she barrels through them.
Narrative is here also a thing to be gnarled and made nimble: Are you following along? Perched on the stairs, she begins with a lively discussion about mosquitos. Her affable, self-deprecating charisma—the bedside manner of a stand-up comedian—turns sadistic as she dreams up better ways to kill the insects (put a container over one and watch it suffocate overnight).
The present work, she confesses, is about coincidence: the strange happenstance of bookstore shelving, or a bewildering letter from a long-lost brother. Out of the blue, he’d like her to attend his extravagant wedding and is offering to pay for her flight, dress, and hair. Now a judge in the Supreme Court of Japan, his letter admonishes her not to think about criminal activity, much less do it.
She dashes up the stairs where the audience finds her mostly in the dark, reading from Jean Genet’s The Thief’s Journal (the tome that’s been following her in bookshops), squatting and hunched over the only light. Next she crams herself into a contraption made from three plastic milk crates; the third comes over the top of her head like a hood, snapping shut with the artist inside. Immediately, I think about how easy it is for women to contort into small, uncomfortable spaces. Yet, in Sasamoto’s hands (or rather, around her body), containment becomes darkly funny, even freeing: Reading by tiny flashlight, she chugs the entire vessel forward with her own locomotion before haphazardly spilling out, limbs splayed.
We move toward a sculptural maze of lead pipes, desks—one dangling precariously upside-down—and other elements hung with string, such as several pairs of kitchen tongs. This section retains and elaborates elements from her 2010 performance in MoMA PS1’s boiler room, part of the third iteration of “Greater New York.” Still rambling, Sasamoto is by turns aerobic, manic, and incandescent.
Sasamoto tells us she decided to attend mosquito school (to learn the ways of her enemy, naturally). Admission was denied, but she was determined to study harder and try again. In her entomological research, it seems that the artist has learned a great deal about the blood-sucking parasites. Comparing mosquitos to comedians, she declares: “Mosquitos smile, but don’t know how to laugh,” and the thought hums again that mosquitos might be a cipher for certain—particularly annoying—modes of comportment that make up femininity (albeit a particularly classed one; they also get massages and eat granola in the morning, per the artist’s taxonomy). When she says, “mosquitos stroke egos, even of people they despise,” I am certain.
This reading is undoubtedly too reductive: Sasamoto’s weltanschauung is too zany, too fantastically reckless to cleave to any such gender binaries. All this is performed against the monstrous black light of several “bug zappers,” consumer goods designed for relatively antiseptic, controlled murder. (Technically they are “electrical discharge insect control systems”; search for them in your local home improvement store and read their disconcertingly-phrased boasts about “killing radius.”) Dexterously roosting atop one of the pipes, Sasamoto inserts a long straw into her mouth, connecting her to the killer light. I feel the audience cringe at the strength of its wicked hiss.
On the third and final floor we’re greeted by Sasamoto’s collaborators, musician Matt Bauder (on saxophone) and actress Jessica Weinstein. All three have donned astonishingly hideous auburn wigs. While Bauder plays, Weinstein and Sasamoto steal lemons and limes back and forth on the table, reading aloud passages from Genet. An autobiography chock full of lies, the book is also a lush paean to Genet’s virtues of homosexuality, theft, and betrayal. The fragmented, out of context quotations are here occasionally subject to artistic coincidence. Genet’s first line: “A convicts’ clothes are striped pink and white,” is nicely repeated in the plaid culottes framing the artist’s body.
Then, Bauder’s sax is without sound: all pursed lips and slapping fingers and impotent spit. Sasamoto recites, “the violence of his sex,” and impudently plucks a lime from within the brass phallus.
The work ends abruptly after a frenzied sprint, the artist and Weinstein draping red cords across the building’s length, creating channels to be zipped along. Skew lines, from which the work’s title (Skewed Lies / Parallel Stare) partially wrings its name, do not intersect and are emphatically not parallel. They can exist only in three or more dimensions and cannot share a plane. It’s an apt metaphor for the wild logic of Sasamoto’s cosmos. In it, she is the protagonist, the smiting deity, and the noble criminal all at once. See the movie in your head (Sasamoto has all the magnetism of a Hollywood star): She’s driving along the coast somewhere, staring down the barrel of some gun, living outside the law. It’s a seductive, deadly glow.
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.
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, Emmanučle 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.
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.