“WHO DIED?” the kid stood on the sidewalk on Metropolitan Avenue, just off Berry Street in Williamsburg, staring in through the raised garage door.
Outside was a funeral announcement. Inside were such things as: a table of booze; a mound of dirt sunk into a coffin-shaped cutout in the floor; and a man in a smart black hat, veil, and plunge-neck, slit-to-the-thigh dress that showed off an awful lot of body hair.
“The real estate,” replied the man, one Eric Dyer.
The kid, maybe in his mid-20s, nodded and craned his neck a little further. “Looks like it was pretty nice.”
Dyer nodded, too, his eyes hidden behind dark sunglasses. “Yeah, it was. Don’t worry, pretty soon it’ll be something cool, like a bar.”
This rather spectacularly New Yorkian exchange happened a little before 8 PM, on a recent Saturday, when the world—well, one very particular world—paid its final respects to the Collapsable Hole (December 1, 2000–September 14, 2013), a rehearsal and performance space that incubated a dazzling who’s who of progressive theater and performance folks during its lifespan. Elevator Repair Service, Banana Bag and Bodice, Sibyl Kempson, Big Dance Theater, Young Jean Lee, Cynthia Hopkins—the list goes on and on.
But the central names are Erin Douglass, Eric Dyer, Scott Gillette, and Maggie Hoffman of Radiohole and Iver Findlay, Jim Findlay, and Amy Huggans of Collapsable Giraffe. These two companies started renting the space for $1000—at first for one month, simply to make one show. Then, over a series of drunken bar meetings, they decided to stay, renovating it, making most of their work there, performing in it, and loaning it out to fellow artists in need of a place in which anything goes—or, I guess, went. The Hole has now truly collapsed, after the landlord at first sought a significant rent hike and then simply said they had to go, to make way for something else.
Unlike the trajectory of a lot of artist-founded spaces in this city, the seven of them made a decision not to institutionalize. There were no staff members or expansion plans. There wasn’t even a sign on the door.
“It was great for us to run that way, and to be able to pass over the keys to so many people,” Douglass said. “They could bring in their own shit, they had twenty-four-hour access. That was how we worked; we had a loose calendar”—she laughed—“that was all we had.”
When I arrived a little early Saturday night—just in time for the “who died” exchange—the Findlay brothers were stationed at the raised gate as if sitting shiva or standing guard, sipping alcoholic beverages and painting their nails black. But soon enough the room was full of New York performance luminaries, the adults gravitating to the alcohol and the kids to the coffin, repurposing the potting soil into a sandbox.
At a space like the Hole, a pile of dirt has the import of a gun in a Chekhov play. Inevitably, the adults finished what the kids started, the founders dog-piling onto the fresh grave. Ululations were made, clothes shed, alcohol sprayed; I might have predicted I’d go home with dirt in my cleavage.
I got off easy; several days after the party, Douglass reported that she was still cleaning grime off her feet, a result of having walked barefoot through the streets of Williamsburg during a band-led parade that even included “When the Saints Go Marching In.” A loose mass of people strolled around the block, disrupting traffic and attracting a gaggle of cell-phone wielding documenters.
My indelible memory from the night is of dozens of people (including the barefoot Douglass) dancing in the middle of the Berry and Metropolitan intersection, while irate cabbies laid on their horns and the sign on a nearby food truck advertised an “Endless Summer.” Actually, it was one of the first cold nights of the season, and as the Hole denizens chanted “Who died? Williamsburg died!” and a stick-thin blonde passed by in a white mini-dress and cooed “So cuuute,” it sure felt like something was ending.
It’s not so much that Williamsburg died as that it became horrifically douchey. And that’s been coming on for awhile. I found this article published in 2005 (ancient history) in the New York Times, describing the neighborhood as a theater district of sorts, and it ends like so: “Ms. Huggans of Collapsable Giraffe is philosophical about her group's near-inevitable exile: ‘We love our space in Williamsburg,’ she says, ‘but the second we can no longer find a good dive bar to drink at after rehearsal, we’re out of here.’ ”
The Collapsable Funeral. (Photo: Young Jean Lee)
Indeed. And yet the Collapsable Hole folks are profoundly disinterested in the “woe is us” real-estate narrative. Their landlord is a good guy, not, as Iver Findlay put it, a “scumbag asshole.” And, as Jim Findlay pointed out, artists themselves are implicated in the gentrification process.
“Thirteen years is a damn good run,” he said. “People saw things here that changed what they thought was possible. Thirteen years in New York and we never spent a dime on admin. Blow that out your hat, New York Theater Workshop.”
I agree with them that the “another theater succumbs to rent hike” story isn’t worth telling again. The thing I’ve been thinking about a lot instead is why institutional spaces have to be so far removed from artist-run models, and why, as Temporary Distortion’s artistic director Kenneth Collins said, the field is pushing him and his colleagues toward “elevator-pitch art.” I mean, it’s not like “the professionals” are necessarily running tighter ships; just look at bankrupt Dance New Amsterdam and its criminal plea for $50,000 from the community, so it could keep its doors open for a little while longer and strategize with its lawyers. Imagine what the Hole could have done with $50,000—even if it all went to beer and potting soil it would have been a more productive expenditure of resources.
Too late for that now. But as folks were saying Saturday night, the Hole is less about architecture and more about a state of mind. (Look, it’s a funeral, people are allowed to wax expansive).
“It’s about not having to be beholden to anyone about what I want to do,” Iver Findlay said. “We all owe a tremendous amount to this space. It’s good to give it a good send off.”
He took a philosophical sip of beer. Yet another person ambled over, wrapped him in a bear hug, said “sorry for your loss.” Meanwhile, behind them, someone’s toddler pulled the fake roses off the Jesus hologram at the head of the grave.
Sylvia Palacios Whitman, Passing Through, 1977. Performance view, Sonnabend Gallery, New York, May 20, 1977. Photo: Babette Mangolte.
LET’S START WITH THE DISCLAIMER: This isn’t an exhaustive or even an exhaustively researched fall performance rundown. It is, rather, a somewhat random cross-selection of artists, events, and theaters that, whether for excitement, track record, or sheer train-wreck potential, will get me out of the house in the coming months, even after the inevitable New York fall arts stampede has made roadkill of us all.
“Rituals of Rented Island: Object Theater, Loft Performance, and the New Psychodrama—Manhattan, 1970–1980,” opening October 31 at the Whitney Museum of American Art.
Historical performance surveys are almost impossible to get right. And still (or because of that?), this is the fall show I’m most intrigued about. Squat Theatre! Richard Foreman! Babette Mangolte! Stuart Sherman! The list of storied and fugitive names and histories goes on and on in this ambitious exhibition curated by Jay Sanders, one of the most thoughtful forces for good in the current visual art-performance universe. Museums have been slower to embrace (or co-opt, for the cynics among us) theater than dance; here’s hoping this show begins to change that, for the better.
The sheer volume of rumors flying around this organization is something of a spectacle in its own right: What does the future hold? Who’s going to be out of there next? What’s the balance of power between artistic director Carla Peterson and executive artistic director Bill T. Jones? Hardly anyone’s willing to speak on the record. But I can say that I would see anything Peterson told me to see, and that the 2013–14 lineup speaks for itself. Here are three: an evening of dances by the marvelously severe Molissa Fenley (including a solo for guest artist Holley Farmer); the reprisal of Ich, Kürbisgeist, the dizzying Big Dance Theater and Sibyl Kempson mashup; and, co-presented by Performa, the possibly disastrous Documenta 13 sensation Disabled Theater, a collaboration between Jérôme Bel and Theater Hora, a Swiss troupe of disabled actors.
It’s possible not even the Armory’s drill hall is large enough to hold the combined artistic egos of Robert Wilson and Marina Abramović. They’ll both be playing themselves, he as performance art auteur, she as the performance art celebrity to end all performance art celebrities. Cause for hope: Willem Dafoe and Antony will also be about.
Left: Elevator Repair Service, Arguendo, 2013. Photo: Rob Strong. Right: Jérôme Bel and Theater Hora, Disabled Theater, 2012. Photo: Michael Bause.
Arguendo, September 10–October 6, the Public Theater
Even in a city that often mistakes punishment for rigor I don’t quite understand the craze for marathon productions. But Elevator Repair Service’s last Public show, Gatz, ended up being eight of the best consecutive art-imbibing hours of my life. Now ERS is adding to its repertoire of canonical source material with Arguendo, staging the 1991 US Supreme Court case Barnes v. Glen Theatre—in its entirety, natch.
This interdisciplinary space has some of the consistently best programming in the city—better yet, the founding artistic director Brian Rogers doesn’t subscribe to that “more is better” nonsense. His fall lineup is luxuriously slim—just five presentations—you know, as if they were all actually selected or something. Megan V. Sprenger, Karinne Keithley Syers, Tatyana Tenenbaum, Will Rawls, Jon Kinzel: As Lucy likes to say on The Peanuts, that’s five good reasons to go.
Musée de la danse: Three Collective Gestures, October 18–November 3, the Museum of Modern Art
MoMA’s white-box theater, otherwise known as the atrium, will be the site for another blockbuster dance series organized by a big name choreographer: This time it’s France’s Boris Charmatz, working with the associate curator Ana Janevski to present 20 Dancers for the XX Century, a living archive of key solo works from the twentieth century; Levée des conflits extended/Suspension of Conflicts Extended, a choreographic installation comprising twenty-five gestures performed continuously by twenty-four individuals; and Flip Book, which uses David Vaughan’s Merce Cunningham book Fifty Years (1997) as its departure point. It’s great to see dance front and center at the museum; but will some sweet day finally come when it’s more fully integrated into the institution’s curatorial vision?
Crossing the Line 2013, September 19–October 13
I’m still not convinced that a city so overstuffed with arts offerings benefits from festivals. But. FIAF’s stringently non-genre-denominational Crossing the Line is the best of the lot, boasting smart curators, consistently strong offerings from New York and abroad, and, by most accounts, a solid track record of partnering with local institutions in more than just name. This year’s lineup includes the ongoing, and now interdisciplinary, epic Life and Times from Nature Theater of Oklahoma; the US premiere, co-presented with NYLA, of “The Inkomati (dis)cord” by the choreographers Boyzie Cekwana (South Africa) and Panaibra Canda (Mozambique); and a Tim Etchells monologue performed by Jim Fletcher, who really can do no wrong. You can also catch Fletcher, and the fine Jess Barbagallo, at Abrons Arts Center in New York City Players’ production of Tina Satter’s House of Dance, from October 23–November 9.
And on the other end of the festival spectrum is the biennial everyone loves to grumble about. The criticisms around celebrity culture, overkill (more than one hundred events at over forty venues), and colonizing curatorial hubris are still there to be made. But there will no doubt be good stuff; with any luck it will be really good, and I’ll feel like an ass for having thought otherwise. Meanwhile, a humble suggestion at the other end of the festival spectrum: PreludeNYC, an exciting (if similarly hit-and-miss) smorgasbord of contemporary New York performance which is just three days long, entirely free, and happens mostly at CUNY’s Graduate Center.
Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker & Björn Schmelzer, Cesena, 2011. Photo: Herman Sorgeloos.
2013 Next Wave Festival, September 17–December 22, Brooklyn Academy of Music
And one more festival that, really, is just fall programming. Next Wave is going strong and steady, with lots of same olds—but, well, William Forsythe and Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker as same olds, one could do worse, and it’s nice to see choreographers like Reggie Wilson finding a high-profile New York home here. BAM’s new Fishman Space had a rather dismal first year (even the good artists seemed to make bad works—theater karma?), but at least three pieces this fall threaten to be standouts: Bodycast: An Artist Lecture by Suzanne Bocanegra starring Frances McDormand, directed by Paul Lazar, who was Bocanegra in her previous lecture; Tere O’Connor’s Bleed, a continuation of a two-year process involving three dances; and A Piece of Work, Annie Dorsen’s machine-mediated take on Hamlet. (Dorsen will also be whipping up some karaoke for Crossing the Line.)
New York City Ballet, September 17–October 13, the David H. Koch Theater
It isn’t easy for ballet companies to stay vibrant as museums. It sure as hell isn’t easy for them to generate vibrant new work. City Ballet, somehow, astoundingly, is managing to do both. This fall you can catch sublime classics like George Balanchine’s Symphony in Three Movements; Alexei Ratmansky’s thrilling hit from 2010, Namouna, A Grand Divertissement; and premieres by Angelin Preljocaj and wunderkind Justin Peck.
I’m not sure what else there is to say here. Mandy Patinkin and Taylor Mac! The show is The Last Two People on Earth, it’s directed by Susan Stroman, and really I’d like to just quote from the press release, and call it a day: “It’s the end of the world as we know it. A flood of biblical proportions leaves us with only two people on Earth, who discover their common language is song and dance. Together they chronicle the rise and fall, and hopeful rise again of humankind, through music that runs the gamut from Rodgers & Hammerstein and Stephen Sondheim all the way to R.E.M. and Queen.”