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.
I’VE SEEN (or rather, tried to see) performances by Yve Laris Cohen at The Kitchen three times now. The first time, I didn’t see anything at all. Unaware that viewers of Seth, 2013, had already been chosen, I was turned away at the door. For Thomas, 2013, four of us restlessly shifted on the floor of a disheveled third-story administrative office. In the dark, we listened to the even tick of a metronome and the rain hitting something metallic on the roof, illuminated only by an orange bulb flickering in the artist’s lap. That time, the audience was self-selected; volunteering meant missing all the other pieces billed in the evening’s “Dance and Process” program.
It would be wrong to call the third time a charm—Laris Cohen’s work is compelling, frustrating, urgent, yes, but hardly charming. To watch Fine, the audience shuffled into a compressed sliver of the black-box theater space, darkened and demarcated by a lowered curtain. The artist soon appeared in a stagehand’s pragmatic uniform: black jeans and T-shirt, mic pack in pocket, headset in ear, clipboard in hand. He shut the door behind us, ready to work.
He began to speak, his cues becoming instructions, such as “state your name and profession.” Voices answered Laris Cohen from over the loudspeakers, emanating from bodies obscured from view. The first respondent was Ed, an engineer. Laris Cohen implored: “Describe, in as much detail as you can, the original piece.”
In some ways Fine is composed through its failures. The first is that of the unrealized project. Slowly rising, the first curtain reveals only another exactly like it. Ed tells us the plans for a massive, movable wall, unsuccessful for all the usual, boring reasons that dictate most of our personal abandonments (not practical, not enough time, not enough money). Of course, the wall was also to be distinctly unordinary: to be built like a dancer’s sprung floor, to be raked at the incline of a ballet stage, to be floated on casters. The idea was to slowly push the leaning surface toward the audience, herding them out of the theater.
Fine also intervenes in debates about performance’s most oft-beaten horse, its refusal to adhere neatly to the archive. Contra the staying power of documentation, Laris Cohen presents oral histories, with their glitches of memory and the incommensurability of each account. We listen closely for error: Was the wall supposed to be twenty by forty feet? Sixteen by forty-four? Why, exactly, didn’t it work out?
It’s a type of repetition compulsion, that rehashing in the subjunctive tense, the endless recycling of what could have been. The second curtain is raised to reveal another like the first. In Fine, the same series of questions are asked to a production manager, an architect, another engineer. At an estimated twelve thousand pounds, the project was also, unsurprisingly, deemed unsafe, though by who and at what point in its evolution remains an ongoing point of contention. How to ballast, to keep the whole thing from tipping over? How to keep it from crashing through The Kitchen’s acoustically isolated—and therefore structurally precarious—floor?
Each dialogue is punctuated only by production cues and the names of all involved: Tom, Ed, Brittany, Jeremy, Naomi, Karen, Zach. Some of these names remain unseen and unheard by the audience, ghosts in the theater’s machine. The familiarity of first-name basis is belied by one of Laris Cohen’s other questions: “Describe the nature of our relationship.” (Zach answers most succinctly: “professional.”)
Laris Cohen also asks, “What was the title of the original piece?” Most don’t remember, until someone does. It was to be called Al Fine, a term borrowed from directions that, in sheet music, indicate performers are to repeat a section of the composition until its end (marked fine). Thus the title describes the performance’s operations, as well as connects it to other of the artist’s works, such as Coda, 2012, at the Sculpture Center and D.S. (an abbreviation of dal segno), his contribution to the 2014 Whitney Biennial.
In Fine’s most theatrical reveal, the third and final curtain, far upstage, is raised swiftly to rest just above a seated man in shorts, cane in hand, perceptible by spotlight. To Scott, a retired aerospace engineer, Laris Cohen addresses some additional directives, such as, “talk about the postcards you sent me when I was in college.” The nature of this relationship is by turns tender and strained. Scott’s daughter was friends with the artist when they were kids, when Laris Cohen was an aspiring ballerina in San Diego; there is a collective wince as he stumbles over the correct pronouns.
In the stage left wings, had there been any, is Tom, a performer in other of Laris Cohen’s pieces, including D.S. and Patron, 2015, at Danspace Project, for which he read a staggeringly long list of all the New York City Ballet performances he attended since the mid-1980s (and the location of dinner afterward). The metronome-like click of a slowly turned winch—which has accompanied most of the performance—has actually been Tom all along, incrementally raising that frontmost curtain. Laris Cohen approaches Tom for a final pas de deux. Tom hoists Laris Cohen up, the artist’s body crumpling over his shoulder: first the left side, then the right, then the left, and so on.
Sprung floors are designed to absorb shock. They are literally easier on your body, especially on bodies condemned or enjoined to repeat certain actions. Imagine all your weight landing on a single supporting leg, on the fragile joints of your knee and ankle. Now imagine a floor that acquiesces, that physically gives to accommodate your every move.
As the front curtain makes its way back down at an excruciatingly crawling pace, I think of Andrea Fraser (“We carry, each of us, our institutions inside ourselves… I can rip at the walls of my institutional body. But…”), and then of the work’s title, which has mutated from the intellectual glamour of European pronunciation to our favorite American shorthand for both gritted resignation and the daily evasion of not telling someone how you’re really doing.
I used to be a dancer (knees still shot from time on a distinctly unsprung floor). Like the artist, the nature of this relationship has changed. In his work I am always reminded of my own now critical distance toward the discipline, but also its residual spell. It didn’t work out. It’s fine. I’m fine.
Fine ran May 14–16 at The Kitchen in New York.
THE SUNLIGHT from the circular window high in the wall marks time in a shifting stretching oval on the floor. I am not quite sure what I am looking at, the various piles of construction and design-related materials, also maybe marking time on this long floor. I haven’t yet made the decision to look closely enough, always that decision when you walk into a gallery, like any conversation, whether or not to commit. I’m still getting my bearings at the echt Brooklyn arts-and-science compound that is Pioneer Works on a Sunday afternoon.
Lauren Bakst and Yuri Masnyj’s Living Room Index and Pool is installed in an open-air gallery that runs almost the length of the Red Hook center’s ground level—her video and performance, his sculptural objects and arrangements, their installation.
I guess I’m on a compare-and-contrast jag. Last month it was plays. This month it’s gallery shows—specifically collaborations between sculptors and choreographers, and specifically specifically between the sculptor Janine Antoni and the choreographer Stephen Petronio at Luhring Augustine and Bakst and Masnyj at Pioneer Works. Manhattan/Brooklyn, established/emerging, blue-chip/nonprofit… one could go to town on outmoded, accurate-ish binaries.
The unfinished finish of Pioneer Works is a (too?) fitting container for Masnyj’s tidily untidy construction stuffs, stacks and piles and arrangements of wood and tubing and freestanding walls, which are themselves a deconstructed container for a series of duets by Bakst and Emma Geisdorf. On paper I don’t love this setup, which smacks of performance “activating” the white cube, that entrenched art-world trend that lacks faith in both the live and static arts as standalone ventures. But I think that rant-encapsulation says more about my tired eyes than it does about Living Room Index and Pool, which feels quite happily old-fashioned as a conversation between two people in search of a third possibility. Another way to say that is that the question “Would I be interested in these two things in isolation?” ceases to seem like a reasonable thing to ask shortly after Bakst’s performance begins, and the disparate parts snap into an elusive whole.
Bakst and Geisdorf manipulate Masnyj’s quiet objects, moving things around to no discernible purpose like obdurate glitches in the system. They count. They make eye contact. They come just close enough before turning away and I notice that the moments of silence give me relief. There’s something compellingly unavailable about Bakst, as if she’s paying intense attention to something that isn’t in the room.
Bakst has inserted two messy videos of water, one tropical and one arctic, on Masnyj’s clean white walls, and she and Geisdorf record themselves moving and posing in front of these fuzzy backdrops, inscrutable and awkward and strangely intimate. At some point they read from Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s novel Dictée. “Her portrait is seen though her things, that are hers.” Of course these aren’t their things, are they? So many people who have come to watch are taking pictures, this is how they know to watch. When Bakst and Geisdorf exit their captured performances silently ghost the space. Those who come after us won’t notice any disturbances.
It is raining and horrible when I visit Luhring Augustine. One thing Chelsea and Red Hook share: You have to mean it to trek over to them.
Antoni’s show is called “From the Vow Made,” and there is no confusion about authorship. There is no real confusion about anything. The front gallery is taken up by a spare assembly of her milagros, resin cast joinings of domestic objects and body parts that are at once fantastical and didactic; basket weavings interlock with bones, body parts that only metaphors typically join are physically molded together: a head positioned on a rib cage as if listening for what isn’t there, in to long, 2014, or a hand cupping a section of spine in to return, 2014. Her collaboration with Petronio takes the form of Honey Baby, 2013, a video in the back room featuring the dancer Nick Sciscione turning and turning in artistic utero. I keep thinking of it as a prequel to Noémie Lafrance’s Melt, 2010.
And also those lines from Dictée: “It is you who are entering to see her.”
Why don’t I want to stay in this room? It all feels so head on. (But why does it feel this way? Is it enough to say I like that show, and not this one?) The idealized male body. The heartbeat. The dry bones leading to the womb. Antoni’s oft-stated turn to somatic practices as a way to cultivate embodiment feels like a naïve appropriation, no matter how deep her investment. The thing she is showing us corresponds exactly to the thing she wants us to see, and the titles are there in case we still don’t see. Only embodiment isn’t about seeing.
THERE MAY BE no experience more excruciating, or more essentially human, than that of rising to the occasion of a loved one’s death. What to do when there is nothing to do? How to tell a story as form is falling away?
Playwright/director Richard Maxwell wrote his most recent play, The Evening, as his father was dying. It is his first work in a forthcoming trilogy inspired by Dante’s Divine Comedy. Rather than adapt or remake, Maxwell has so far loosed threads from the classic, weaving them through a story set not in hell, purgatory, or heaven precisely, but in an unremarkable bar in an unnamed American town. From Dante, Maxwell takes a hallowed name: Beatrice. Here she isn’t a muse from on high, but a self-described “prostitute slash bartender in one lonely corner of the universe” (played by sculptor/composer Cammisa Buerhaus). Drawing her into a love triangle that includes a Mixed Martial Arts Fighter named Asi (Brian Mendes) and his manager Cosmo (Jim Fletcher), Maxwell, a theater artist of staggering achievement, has produced a tender and arresting story of love and leaving.
The Evening is a performance in three movements: a prologue, a play, and its dissolve. At the top of the show, with the lights at half, Buerhaus sits at a table, looks out into the audience, and reads lines from Maxwell’s journal of his father’s last days. She, as Maxwell’s stand-in, recounts sleepless nights, an ill-fitting bed, water drunk from a sippy cup, and the aching poignancy of their final exchanges. She speaks Maxwell’s memory of a Native American man who once entered the family house uninvited, and how his father helped sober him up and drove him home. It was a kindness, of course, as well as a moment of confusion that his father calmly made sense of. The crossing from life into death, even at this late stage of his father’s illness, is unfathomable to Maxwell. “I won’t let him go,” he writes, “I can’t.” But he must, and he does, at which point his elegy ends. Buerhaus stands, takes her place behind the bar as Beatrice, and the play begins.
The subsequent plot is straightforward enough, slip-sliding along the lines of cliché. Asi and Cosmo care for Beatrice, but she seems not to care for either of them, or at least not more for one than the other. She wants to go to Istanbul and needs money to do so. Grief is, in part, her propeller. “Look,” she explains, “a lot of people have died on me, lately, and. Yeah. I mean fuck. What are you supposed to do when you miss people?” Asi, her ex, wants her to stay, demands that she stay, tells her he loves her and then, finally, asks to go with her: “I can’t let you go. You’re in everything. You’re in the walls. You’re everywhere. I really need you. You know that, right?” Cosmo encourages Beatrice to go, but believes she should return: “I want you to be… alone… not for me… I want. Love but. I want love, but…” Each in their own way, Beatrice, Asi, and Cosmo articulate a particular response to the world such as it is: seek, fight, surrender. Over the course of The Evening, the knots that bind them tighten. They drink, dance, and fight. Blood is spilled. A band plays. A fog rolls in.
In Maxwell’s work, character is always a complex concoction. In both the writing and the direction, he allows the seams to peek out between the performers and the fictions moving through them. His actors deliver their lines from point-blank range; they’re straight shooters, with little-to-no theatrical flourish. Maxwell has long been a master of halting speech, marking the spaces between thought and word, and around the entwined conditions of love and grief, he has written dialogue that is by turns declarative and faltering. Out of the mouths of Asi and Cosmo, the word “love” can sound as raw-hearted as it does trite, in no small part due to the deft achievements of both Mendes and Fletcher, two of his long-time collaborators who, while on constant boil, still hit the play’s many registers with precision. Both Mendes and Fletcher find a singular note that sounds like macho bluster and romantic overture all at once. “In my life. If I see something I like, I grab it,” Asi calls out to Beatrice in a deadpan staccato, “That’s just how it is. Do you see that?” He continues through her silence to deliver some of most simultaneously absurd and heartbreaking lines of the play: “And. If I say I love you, it means I love you. [pause] I’m not saying I love you. But if I did. [pause] But I think I do love you. [pause] I really do think that sometimes.”
Buerhouse’s Beatrice by contrast speaks and moves as though she’s always looking for herself, a disoriented quicksilver counterpoint to the men’s more forceful gravities. Maxwell has long counted on the virtues of the untrained actor, a certain affectless presence, to give his theater nuanced, contradictory textures. Flatness has great surface value in his work, creating tension around what’s traditionally perceived in the theater as depth. In The Evening’s “girl with a gun” sequence, Beatrice shoots both men and then rips open one of their shirts to uncover the special effects contraption oozing fake blood beneath. Why? Why not? Real death happens as part of life offstage; here, the actors remain standing. The fact of the fake gunshots, loud and clear, tells a far more revealing and resonant story here.
In A Very Easy Death, Simone de Beauvoir’s elegant, clear-eyed memoir of her mother’s dying, the writer/philosopher recalls her mother saying, “Death itself does not frighten me; it is the jump I am afraid of.” The jump, the leap into the unknown: This is the action in question that hovers over both those who will stay with those who will go. The day Maxwell’s father was able to stand on his own was his last day alive: “He took off, like out of sprinter blocks.” As Beatrice explains to Asi and Cosmo: “I walk up to the lines that have been drawn and I shy away every time. Every time… It’s like, I am caught between two worlds and the dreams keep me from getting out and into either one.” Maxwell’s set is shallow and claustrophobic, pushing the actors and the three band members to the front of the stage, limiting their movements to such a degree that one wishes them some kind of release or liberation almost from the start. At one point in the action, Beatrice tries to get away from the men, running to a patch of carpet two-shoes wide between the band’s mic stand and the edge of the playing space. It’s then we recognize she has nowhere to go.
Maxwell has written before of people who find themselves in a kind of limbo, who for whatever reason are neither fully here nor there. In Isolde (2014), his last, an actress begins to lose her memory, finding herself untethering from herself, her life, her husband. The binding force, the connective tissue, for the condition in which they are living, is love.
Like Dante’s epic, The Evening is also fueled by love. Though not a quixotic pursuit, it is of course an ill-fated one. All of us leave or are left, someday, one way or another. Grief is what we feel in their absence, the agonizing proof of having loved as best we could. Jump is what we might do when the world we know breaks apart, is taken away, and we’re left staring into the haze. As Maxwell writes near to his father’s death, “amazing how much beginning there is in the end.” Near to the end of The Evening, we watch Beatrice cross a foggy new space a few deliberate steps at a time, dissolving into the light. Where she finds herself next is anybody’s guess.
Silly Writer Construct:
See two plays, one written by a woman and directed by a man, the other vice versa. Discuss within larger context of progressive New York performance.
Shows in Question:
Post-Performance Reality (aka Mostly Non-Construct Observations):
There is the almost-identical table in both shows. I notice this Friday night on my way out of the Chocolate Factory, with a happy little shock of recognition. I like this table detail a lot. Rusted legs, curving rectangular top. Slight variations on a theme. Thinking about the ways in which artists send messages to each other, embed secrets, within their work. Sara C. Walsh designed the Social Security set, and Running Away was created by Jim Findlay, who also did sound design.
Both worlds are beautiful, unexpectedly, and hard. Walsh makes the stage into a triptych, beige layer cake of faux-everything: wall-to-wall carpeting, linoleum, floorboard laminate. Canned food. Findlay gives us the illusion of movement within stasis, freestanding, semitransparent walls that open and enfold, disgorging from various compartments cheap coffee and chemical cleaners. Perfection (fetishization?) of a sort of barren junkiness—post avant-garde NYC aesthetic?
Or maybe post-comfort. There’s nothing to hint at the possibility of change for the better in these productions, both of which (spoiler alert) zoom toward the death of a central character, each possessing a certain empty charisma.
Compare and contrast: In Landsman’s play, Christina (Benson) is the one with the knife, and she will eventually find a way to use it (or the next best tool) on herself. Masciotti’s victim is June (DeMent), and she’s also a talker—unlike Christina she doesn’t spin hypothetical death futures, but run-together memories of the past.
They both have manipulative relationships with handymen who aren’t quite handymen. In Masciotti’s script (gender-schema alert), the man does the manipulating; in Landsman’s, the woman.
(In Catlett’s production, my sympathies flew toward Himmelsbach, a man; in Lazar’s, toward Hopkins, a woman. Audience gender schema? Anyway, the acting is grand.)
They both talk too much. They talk more than they have things to say. Dry rub of habit. Ways to inflict pain, maybe, or to keep it at bay.
Language & Narrative P.S.:
Structure is a messy business. “The murkiness and ambiguities of a life take on weight and authority by virtue of the published document,” Moyra Davey writes in the opening of Burn the Diaries (2014). I think I think that this is the same whether the life is imagined or actual (which anyway isn’t a black-and-white distinction, as we all know all-too-well by now—is that especially true in the theater?).
Both Social Security and Running Away From the One With the Knife resist, or seem to resist, conventional expectations up until the final stretches, at which point they lurch into, as my guest at one of the shows put it, the territory of a Meryl Streep drama.
Is this a strategy, a failure of nerve, both? Or does it rather say something about the ways in which artists are now relating and/or responding to something in the water?
Are these useful questions? It’s very easy (see “Silly Writer Construct”) to have an idea about how to proceed when you’re following in someone else’s footsteps. It’s very easy to make up your mind, so much so that when time-based art foils this interior audience process it can take a moment to realize you should be grateful.
But also, of course, at what point do the ways in which we resist conventional expectations become the new conventions, and why do we remain stubbornly programmed to see this as a bad thing? Or do we?
Running Away uses a live pop performance (music by Christian Gibbs, performed with Anton Sword) to tie up some of its loose emotional ends, and Social Security employs a sound score (by Ben Williams) for plot shorthand. The music is a trope, one that somehow manages to keep satisfying, despite (here I suspect individual audience-member weakness). The Social Security shorthand felt less adequate. Both, of course, are overt turns away from the self-sufficiency of language, that good old illusion which is never, ever, gone for good.
“MY GENDER IS PERFORMER,” a bedazzling Taylor Mac announced to a sold-out audience at New York Live Arts. “My pronoun,” he twinkled, “is judy.” Looking like the love-child of Rosalind Russell and a leopard-print-obsessed Lubavitcher, with eyes lashed like Venus flytraps, Mac launched into a six-hour marathon performance of songs and stories of the 1900s to the 1950s—a preview of sorts of his forthcoming opus, A 24-Decade History of Popular Music. Written by Mac, the show reads music history to double as a chronicle of sex, repression, expression, and community, and “to remind people what they’ve dismissed, forgotten, or buried.” In the case of pop music, Mac reveals that what has been dismissed, forgotten, or buried are the traumas—both personal and political—from which some of the world’s best-loved songs have emerged. In 2016, he is slated to perform over a century’s worth of them in a twenty-four-hour event.
Taylor Mac is a master performer, riveting storyteller, and charismatic, otherworldly creature, dressed to the tens in artist/designer Machine Dazzle’s magnificent metamorphic glitz. From New York’s Jewish Tenements at the turn-of-the-century through the World Wars and up through the 1950s, Mac moved through history one decade an hour, schooling us in the knife twists at the heart of his songbook. He tells us that Teddy Roosevelt had the dissenting hit “I Didn’t Raise My Boy to Be A Soldier” rewritten to “It’s Time for Every Boy To Be A Soldier,” which helped sell Americans on World War I. Years later the man who purportedly wrote “You Are My Sunshine,” Paul Rice, sold the rights for thirty five dollars to pay for his dying wife’s medical expenses, and Jimmie Davis, who bought them, used his millions in royalties to underwrite his campaign for Governorship of Louisiana on a platform to preserve segregation in schools.
Not every lesson was a heavy one, and for all of the dark undertones, the show was face-wrenchingly funny. Mac jauntily deconstructed “Keep the Home Fires Burning” to re-canonize it as an early lesbian feminist anthem. (Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say that he gave the plaintive ditty a good literary fisting.) Over the course of the afternoon and into the evening, Mac’s audience sang, danced, and performed alongside him as more wars erupted, and millions of people continued to be killed or marginalized in the name of rancid ideologies. Though this segment of A 24-Decade History took us just up to the dawning of the Age of Aquarius, it was no mystery to anyone what the future would hold. The pink triangles of the prison camps will surely reappear in three acts or so, and the band will play on.
Performance legend Ethyl Eichelberger once joked that under the Reagan administration, he only received NEA funding because he studied hairdressing at the beauty parlor Nancy Reagan had installed—“at your expense”—in The White House. In Obama’s America, the models for aggravated artistic survival have mellowed, even here in New York, though we live more and more in the withering shadows of empty glass high-rises. “I’m not trying to bite the hand that feeds me, NYLA,” Mac purred after criticizing the theater’s corporate-bunker-moderne aesthetic, “I’m just trying to get a little lipstick on it.” Throughout, he extols the virtues of audience discomfort, upending the safety of the fourth wall to include us all—sometimes willingly, other times awkwardly—in the act. Once upon a time, Hibiscus dropped acid, Divine ate dog shit, and Leigh Bowery spouted douche water from his ass onto his audience. Though nodding to such predecessors in style, judy’s drag is not anarchic; it’s diplomatic. Mac doesn’t terrorize. He reaches across the aisle, at times towing an unexpectedly therapeutic line for the crowd. “This is a performance-art concert,” he assured us more than once, “which means that everything you’re feeling is appropriate.”
Toward the end of the show, Mac sat center stage and talked about the origins of his ambitious project. Growing up gay in Stockton, California, he explained, “I knew there was a Queer history, I just had no proof of it.” As a teenager, he heard about the AIDS Walk in San Francisco, but rather than seek sponsorship from family, friends, and neighbors, he used his paper-route money to sign up. He’d never met an out gay man in his life until the day he arrived in the city and saw thousands of them walking together. Some were visibly sick, others pushed their dying lovers in wheelchairs, but their rage, Mac remembered, remained powerful. Mac’s inevitable exhaustion and deterioration when he performs the full production of 24-Decade History is intended honor the exhaustion and deterioration of the gay community at the moment when the virus was ravaging so many of their lives.
The sharpest undercurrents of Mac’s 24-Decade History uncover “the popular” as a cultural force that cuts both ways. The center is a place of power, of presence. It is also, when unchallenged and unchecked, a site of surrender. Heteronormalizing, as Mac reminded his audience again and again, is not the same as equality; the most radical act is that of uncompromised being. “There’s something to me cowardly about taking Truvada instead of using a condom,” activist/playwright Larry Kramer said in an interview last year. “You’re taking a drug that is poison to you, and it has lessened your energy to fight, to get involved, to do anything.” To which writer Bran Addison replied: “Cheers, Mr. Kramer: I can’t wait to show my cowardice when, should it ever happen, the man I am dating discloses that he is positive and I have the pleasure of saying, ‘So what?’ ” Over time, generation gaps inevitably open and may never be filled. Mac’s enterprise—the re-injection of memory into the mainstream—inoculates against ignoring or forgetting what has been lost as well as what has been gained.
At one point, Mac asked everyone over fifty to stand up and dance; everyone younger was asked to choose one of those standing, look at them, and copy their moves. “Apparently in America,” he explained, “we don’t see people over fifty.” As the music played, the audience danced together, some shyly and others with abandon, until the song came to an end. After all, the show had to go on.