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, 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Yuri Possokhov, Swimmer, 2015. Performance view, April 10, 2015, San Francisco Ballet. Photo: Erik Tomasson.
“I’M AGAINST STYLE. I don’t know what it means, style. I’m trying to find the language of each ballet … It’s whatever came out of my soul.”
These are the sorts of statements one can somewhat get away with if possessed of a marvelously lugubrious, thick Russian accent. Such an accent has Yuri Possokhov, who I recently encountered during an audience fluffer for the premiere of his newest work, Swimmer, at San Francisco Ballet, where he is choreographer in residence.
Swimmer’s imagistic narrative takes its point of departure and its title from the 1964 John Cheever story; Possokhov, himself a child of the 1960s, was introduced to this cutting commentary on American culture while a young man in Russia. But there was no talk of the Cold War, nothing on whether ballet might have something to say about resurfacings of those tensions. Sentences like this were left to float unexamined: “I thought, all my life, even in the Soviet Union, the ’60s was the happiest time of the twentieth century. I think the whole world was flying.”
Ballet as closed loop. It’s so easy to feel that, especially compared to combustible eras and figures of yore (hello, nostalgia). Swimmer shared a bill at the War Memorial Opera House with George Balanchine’s 1946 leviathan The Four Temperaments, and a season with Alexei Ratmansky’s Shostakovich Trilogy, 2013, an homage to the embattled composer who has long been a source of inspiration for Ratmansky.
Ghosting my viewing of all of these made-by-Russian-American ballets was Leonid Yakobson, the Soviet-era contemporary of Shostakovich—both men died in 1975—and the ballet contemporary of Balanchine, who, like him, was born in January of 1904. Twenty years later the future founder of New York City Ballet defected from the Soviet Union, something Yakobson apparently never sought to do, despite being given repeated cause.
Yakobson is the subject of Janice Ross’s new book Like a Bomb Going Off: Leonid Yakobson and Ballet as Resistance in Soviet Russia (Yale University Press). Ross, a prominent dance history scholar, has just given a series of talks in San Francisco on Yakobson, including one at the ballet tracing connections between him and Ratmansky and another at the Contemporary Jewish Museum called “Disobedient Dances: A Jewish Choreographer in Soviet Russia” that featured live snippets of his work performed by two San Francisco Ballet students.
Severe, stylized, and danced barefoot, these briefest of moments from Rodin Sculptures, 1971, performed so carefully by these gleaming youngsters, were terrifically intriguing. Also tantalizing is Ross’s portrait, twenty-five-years-in-the-making, of Yakobson as a ceaseless experimenter who saw it as his life’s work to protect and encourage modernist impulses in ballet, despite facing systematic intimidation and erasure. “I believe he carried it to safety,” Ross said in closing her museum talk. “He was the through-line to innovation.”
I wonder what Yakobson would make of Swimmer, a multimedia-infused collage of decades-past Americana possessed of a surging, undulating physicality now prevalent in contemporary ballet. It’s a pretty concoction; does it have an ambition beyond pleasing the eye? Cheever, at one point dubbed the Chekhov of the Suburbs, offers a starkly empty portrait of the suburban American male, and beyond the ballet’s ridiculously nostalgia-drenched imagery (hello, Mad Men), Possokhov’s hero grows similarly lost and isolated. Is he so different from any storybook ballet prince, desperately seeking someone or thing?
I had this same question when revisiting Ratmansky’s Shostakovich Trilogy: Here the prince thrown hither and thither in an evil empire is the composer in Soviet times. And there is, for all the aesthetic differences to Possokhov, a similarly ambivalent message of pathos. Ross ended her talk on Yakobson and Ratmansky with a Putin quote: “ ‘Whoever wants the Soviet Union back has no brain, but whoever doesn’t miss it has no heart.’ ” She added: “[Ratmansky] I think has both a brain and a heart.”
One of the things that makes Ross’s portrayal of Yakobson so compelling is the larger connections she draws between ballet and political resistance, juxtaposing the overt against the coded. So we see present-day Ukrainian ballerinas performing the iconic dance of the cygnets in front of tanks in protest of the Russian invasion, as Ross reminds that Swan Lake—a ballet that is, above all, about freedom—has long been a tool for both dissidents and the state (which in times of unrest has broadcast loops of the ballet on television).
Are there remnants of this resistance in the work of Ratmansky or Possokhov? One could argue yes—the former takes aim at a repressive regime, the latter a permissive narcissism. Are these critiques, or merely depictions? It’s striking to consider these men next to Balanchine, whose strongest works are inarguably of their time. Balanchine spoke ardently against plot, against politics—and yet in a ballet like The Four Temperaments, can one not see laid out all the peril and promise of a century predicated on an idea of progress? Yakobson, too, drew from the world around him, only at great risk, embedding within his ballets forbidden material, such as Jewish cultural motifs, and insisting on the portrayal of men who did not fit the approved Soviet mold.
These portrayals ripple through the solo Vestris, a work whose broad theatricality housed layered critiques of ballet history, official Soviet values, and the toll of forever policing one’s behavior. Here we have the anguished male protagonist as both historical figure and allegory. In her lectures, Ross also included grainy black-and-white footage from 1969 of Yakobson coaching a young Mikhail Baryshnikov in Vestris. The emphasis, Ross argues, is entirely in the putting on of the mask—something these two artists would have understood all too well.
Watching this, I was reminded of something Ratmansky said to me in an interview about Baryshnikov in 2009. Ratmansky came up in the Bolshoi; after Baryshnikov’s defection in 1974, his name was verboten in school. Ratmansky and his peers settled for bootleg tapes of the great dancer: “That was quite a shock to see the level of dancing and the artistry, and of course he became the idol of not only me but many around.”
Ratmansky’s ballets are full of bravura men; their tricks are showstoppers that somehow don’t stop the show, but feel necessary to it. Another form of code? The prince as Soviet gymnast, with no way to fly except on stage.
At a recent panel at Danspace Project (full disclosure, it came at the end of the Platform I had curated), David Hallberg spoke eloquently about certain deficiencies he sees in the ballet world. An American Ballet Theatre star and the first American to join the Bolshoi Ballet as a principal dancer, Hallberg, like the restrictive circle of storybook heroes he cycles through on stage, is a restless and buoyant force. The task Hallberg faces is much trickier—what slumbers isn’t the princess, but the populace, and happily so.
“How much am I a creator as the prince in Swan Lake?” he said, lamenting that dancers aren’t asked to develop their voices. “It’s almost like we stay in high school. I would like to say, boldly, that’s not our fault—it’s what we’re given. The responsibility is to question it, and we don’t do that enough.”
He ended by asking, “What is this moment? What is now?” Good words to keep in mind as ballet choreographers, even the more progressive ones like Ratmansky and Christopher Wheeldon (currently wowing the crowds with An American in Paris—talk about nostalgia), look endlessly to the past.