LANCE GRIES, Diane Madden, Juliette Mapp, Jimena Paz; Wally Cardona, Jennifer Lacey, Silas Riener; Christiana Axelsen, Jennifer Lafferty, Heather Lang, Marilyn Maywald, Kayvon Pourazar, Stuart Singer:
Let us now praise New York dancers.
It’s astonishing to think that one could see all of these artists in the span of a mere weekend, and just three shows: IF Immanent Field by Gries at Danspace Project, The Set Up by Cardona and Lacey at the Park Avenue Armory, and Beth Gill’s New Work for the Desert at New York Live Arts. The sheer amount of performance talent in this city—well, it’s ridiculous. And getting such a concentrated dose of it is a reminder that, for all the arguments against living here (the real estate! the weather!), there is something fiercely particular about New Yorkers, and something particularly sublime about New York dance artists.
I don’t know if Cardona and Lacey, Gill, and Gries are in conversation with one another, but their work certainly is. It’s a decidedly downtown conversation—I know, I know, that word doesn’t mean anything anymore, the bohemian diaspora has long since spread around the globe … but still, and yet, there is something to it as a (however fractiously) shared set of values and considerations and aesthetics. And, really, one had only to see how marvelously outraged several Armory audience members were during The Set Up by the confrontation with something indeterminate to feel the uptown-downtown split to be very much alive.
And but so, this conversation is all wrapped up in issues of loss and legacy and what it is to push forward, into one’s own unknown, while having a very particular tradition or series of traditions fanning out behind you like contrails: The past exists, only it is forever losing itself.
And this brings us, as many things do these days, to Trisha Brown: Gries danced in Brown’s company from 1985 to 1991, and he has put at the literal center of IF Immanent Field Diane Madden, who has spent most of her career within Brown’s company, currently as associate artistic director. She turns slowly, her body sheathed in shimmery silver, arms rising and falling as if in communication with the satellites. Gries, Mapp, and Paz (my god, Jimena Paz, is there anything I wouldn’t watch her do?), dressed in black, rotate darkly around her, a different sort of satellite constellation.
Thursday night’s audience at Danspace was filled with New York luminaries: Jodi Melnick, Sarah Michelson, Douglas Crimp. And among them the visual artist Burt Barr, Brown’s husband. It was hard, during this ritualistic, energy-infused dance, not to be swamped by a sense of loss over Brown, who is in failing health. She will make no new dances. (Several reconstructions of earlier works, including Son of Gone Fishin’, 1981, a collaboration with Robert Ashley and Donald Judd, will show at New York Live Arts April 8–13.)
I remember someone telling me that Brown now spends much of her time in the desert. I may be misremembering, but I hope not. To quote from the William Carlos Williams poem “The Desert Music,” which Aaron Mattocks cites in his fine program notes for Gill, “The desert beckons / as the ascent beckoned.”
New Work for the Desert is in explicit conversation with the Brown tour de force Newark (Niweweorce), 1987. And after watching it Saturday night, the Williams lines that seemed most beautiful and painful were “Memory is a kind / of accomplishment, / a sort of renewal…”
I have heard mutterings that there was (is?) some upset and or apprehension over Gill’s interaction with Newark, and of course the inevitable discussions around rights and appropriation and all that. I won’t say that these debates aren’t important (of course they are), only that in this particular case I have zero interest in them: What feels urgent and necessary is Gill’s extension of this shared history through the creation of new, decidedly non-derivative work.
Trisha Brown, Newark (Niweweorce), 1987. (Excerpt)
Here’s another quote, from Ama Ata Aidoo’s gorgeous prose poem Our Sister Killjoy: “Hei, don’t freeze time. Don’t lock it up in a capsule of tragic visions. Let it be, so that it can move. Let time move.”
What else was dance made for, if not this? And still: New Work for the Desert is nonetheless something of a capsule, in that it feels perfectly contained within itself, a hushed, color-saturated world of precise and deliberate body architecture. Jon Moniaci’s spare piano and electronic music, Thomas Dunn’s white-draped set and lush washes of lighting, Terese Wadden’s simple and subtly nuanced costumes: All of the choices here feel right, and most particularly Gill’s clarity of vision, brought to dazzling life by her dancers. The moment-by-moment pleasures of movement invention (and reinvention) delight.
So, too, in The Set Up, performed by a trio of New York dance royalty; to watch Cardona, Lacey, and Riener navigate space, to see the intelligence and inevitability of their unanticipated choices, is to feast with mind and eye.
Yet The Set Up is both New York and other. This eight-part series began in 2012 at the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council’s River to River Festival; a period of study with an international artist considered a master in his or her discipline initiates each chapter, and this third iteration launched with the classical Javanese dancer and scholar Heni Winahyuningsih. She was not present Saturday afternoon, in the dark red, wood-paneled room at the Armory, full of gorgeous spiky chandeliers and imposing portraitures that proclaim Western power. But her tradition everywhere ghosted the dance, most clearly in the curving blades of Cardona’s open palms, and then again in Riener’s ambiguously echoing limbs.
“After awhile the two princesses decide to fight,” a vocalist intoned, and Cardona and Riener had at it, in decidedly stylized fashion. Lacey whipped in and out, or sometimes sauntered, troubling their world, poking at it with her own spikey phrases.
Who owns a tradition, a technique? How can you translate it? Must you be on your knees to pay homage?
This is the generation (or is it the second generation) we are told, that doesn’t believe in masters, has done away with that idea. Hmmm. Nice try. Thankfully, and as usual, the facts on the ground tell a different story.
Eric Baudelaire, The Abkhazian Anembassy, 2014. Performance view, Bergen Kunsthall, Bergen, Norway, 2014. Photo: Thor Brødreskift.
I’M RUNNING LATE for my appointment with the Anembassador of Abkhazia. The fact that it’s only a mock-embassy hosted by an art institution and that I’m meeting the anembassador of a country that does not even figure on some maps is no excuse. Maxim Gvinjia, Abkhazia’s former Minister of Foreign Affairs, doesn’t seem to mind. I thank him for granting me an audience. The rules of the game have not been spelled out at any point yet I find myself playing along, unable to decide whether to take this exercise seriously or in jest.
While he goes out to fetch some milk for my coffee (the anembassy appears woefully understaffed), I inspect some of the “props” laid out on the plywood desk: the Abkhazian flag, featuring a hand surrounded by seven stars (as I soon find out, this stands for hospitality); a laminated map of the world showing in green the smattering of countries that officially recognize the Republic of Abkhazia (Russia, Nicaragua, and Venezuela among them); a set of postcards written and illustrated by Norwegian schoolchildren, aged eleven to thirteen, who came to visit the anembassy that very morning.
Letters to Abkhazia are what got us here in the first place. Back in June 2012, when artist and filmmaker Eric Baudelaire dispatched a letter to his friend Max (whom he met long before the latter rose in the ranks at the Ministry), he fully expected it to be returned to him marked “address unknown.” (France does not recognize Abkhazia’s existence, after all, and neither does the French postal system.) But a reply from Max did eventually arrive, in the form of an email, since the post office in Abkhazia cannot handle international mail.
The one-side correspondence that ensued, over the course of three months, forms the basis of Baudelaire’s new feature-length film Lost Letters to Max, which I watch in the anembassy room, doubling as a projection space, later that day. A sample typed letter with some typically cryptic/philosophical questions for Max to mull over is displayed in a vitrine by the entrance along with the envelope it came in. The collected Letters to Max, complete with Xeroxed copies of envelopes that bear witness to the logistic challenges the project posed for post-office staff, were published as part of Baudelaire’s exhibition “The Secession Sessions” at Bergen Kunsthall.
Baudelaire felt that no single medium could convey the complexity of the Abkhazian question, to which he has returned again and again, since he visited the country for the first time in 2000. His return visits to the region over the course of a decade have shaped his move from photography to film. Built around a film that is itself densely layered, the exhibition— with its live art component, in the shape of a conversation with Gvinjia—was followed by a seminar, timed to coincide with the end of the exhibition, exploring the issues raised by Abkhazia’s paradoxical and tentative existence from a variety of disciplinary perspectives.
As the weekend slipped by, nothing came quite close to my initial, unpremeditated exchange with Gvinjia. Baudelaire wanted to offer visitors the same possibility of an encounter that he experienced in the course of his travels to Abkhazia. When I walked into the anembassy I knew next to nothing about the place, despite a visit to Georgia in 1997, which made me aware of this ghost state within a state. In the span of an hour-long conversation, meandering its way from topic to topic, we covered a lot of ground. More importantly, Max, who struck me as a cross between the noble savage and the Christian fool, gently impressed upon me his philosophical outlook on things, borne out of living in a permanent state of uncertainty.
Eric Baudelaire’s “The Secession Sessions” ran January 17–February 16, 2014 at the Bergen Kunsthalle.
PERFORMANCE IS A CRAFT and not a right, as some artists and related others would have audiences think. Artist/performer Aki Sasamoto, however, is a rare example of someone for whom performance is both craft and right, and her latest show, Sunny in the Furnace, is yet more proof of her uncommon expertise over this slippery medium. Together with her equally accomplished collaborators—composer/musician John Bollinger, performer Jessica Weinstein, sculptor Sam Ekwurtzel, and mathematics professor, Pau Atela—Sasamoto fuses theater, sculpture, storytelling, moving image, mark-making, and music into a mournful meditation of sorts on life and how to endure it. For all of the sorrow at its center, the show is full of humor and delight. Though not flawless, it’s as impressive for its quiet achievements as it is for the possibilities it proposes as to what and how a performance can be.
It opens with a brief lecture by Atela, who uses a hypothetical hijacking to graph the point during a crisis when negotiations can be successfully accomplished. Sasamoto then takes the stage. “Sunny was my favorite song last year,” she tells us, and describes the time she spent listening to Bobby Hebb’s plaintive popular hit over and over and over again. Written after his older brother Harold was stabbed to death on November 23, 1963, the day after President Kennedy was assassinated, Hebb’s song expresses love and gratitude in the wake of tragedy:
Sunny/yesterday my life was filled with rain/Sunny/you smiled at me and really eased the pain/now the dark days are gone/the bright days are here/my Sunny one shines so sincere and/Sunny one so true/I love you.
How, Sasamoto wonders, after such terrible loss could Hebb think up Sunny? She explains that she Google-searched for the answer, and paraphrases the songwriter’s explanation for us: “All of my intentions were to look for happier times.” Sasamoto thereafter informs us that her friend Tsuyoshi committed suicide years ago while she was studying abroad. (“Aki betrayed us,” were reportedly some of his last thoughts of her.) Whether or not the story is true, the why of this death launches Sasamoto into a pseudo-scientific lecture of her own on “the elasticity of people,” on lightness and darkness, intelligence and dumbness, and how to strike a balance between these states in order to stay alive. “Work on your idiocy,” she concludes. That is, if you care to survive.
Part anecdote, part parable, stories such as this anchor and propel Sasamoto’s show. In a voice that hits a buzzing frequency somewhere between a honeybee and a fury, she speaks of her admiration for Mike Tyson’s “amazing dumbness,” and for Arnold Schwarzenegger’s belief that pumping iron saved his life. She recalls a scientific study involving monkeys that tested perceptions of what is fixed and what is transient, what is believed to be possible and/or impossible. She diagnoses and diagrams two diseases that are known to create art: “charismatic syndrome” and “strategy.” (She also offers up the possible cures). Forces and their counterforces—actions and their equal but opposite reactions—provide the underlying physics of Sunny in the Furnace, which never settles into a dull equilibrium.
Like theater artist Richard Foreman before her, Sasamoto’s stage in many ways places the space of the mind on view. Full of contraptions and distractions and Sisyphean labors, her titular “furnace” forges the thoughts and feelings that give meaning to the same actions and objects that fuel it. (Quite simply, stuff is as stuff does). Like Foreman as well as sculptor Fred Sandback, she also conducts space and lines in string. Red bungee cords swing in from the sides and are secured to footprints cast in cement; they’re later plucked like harp strings to punctuate Bollinger’s music and rhythms. Screens descend from the ceiling; clip lights are rolled along the floor; words are mopped in water on the back wall and the floor only to evaporate under the heat of the lights. A stilt walker (Weinstein) brings in set pieces; oversized wood sculptures by Ekwurtzel double as props; a writing desk becomes an obstacle to movement as it provides a surface on which to write. The flurry of seemingly senseless activity—Sasamoto violently flipping and writhing on the floor like a fish out of water, or skating awkwardly in cement boots on wheels—is at once hilarious and harrowing.
All the various parts that make up Sunny in the Furnace cohere, but never coalesce. The whole stays piecey. Questions, pointedly rhetorical, hover unresolved. The work ends, but feels unfinished—and that is how it should be. Tragedies—suicide, hijacking, catastrophe—are events that by their nature suspend narrative structure. Grief too, by its nature, evacuates the gravities of beginnings, middles, and ends. Untethered in the wake of these experiences, we reassert ourselves in time, into time, to repurpose the shards. In Sasamoto’s beautiful, tangled world, sense is what we’re left to make of it all.
Jennifer Krasinski is a writer based in New York.
Aki Sasamoto’s Sunny in the Furnace ran from March 6th to the 8th at The Kitchen in New York.