What follows is the second of two articles covering the January performing arts festivals in New York. For the first dispatch from these winter festivals, see here.
I’m back at Abrons Arts Center and the American Realness festival, where admittedly my viewing is most concentrated. I’m excited to view two new pieces on which Keith Hennessy collaborated, because I saw his work in Minneapolis in 2010 and have only been able to read about it since. Both of Hennessy’s works at American Realness weighted process over product, showing the choices and methods, the literal and figurative scotch tape at the seams of the work. Hennessy and Jassem Hindi created future friend/ships, which—intentionally, I believe—felt like a work in progress. In between the more structured moments of the piece, both artists spoke casually and directly to the audience, describing their friendship, their artistic process, and generally how the elements of the show came to be. On the night I viewed the work, there were several moments of—unintentional, I believe, but quite apropos—failure: the small drone would not lift off; the wi-fi cut out, and the performance ground to a halt while we all waited until Hindi regained access to the sound. Perhaps 15 minutes into the show, Hennessy announced that they were going to start the piece over with a different aesthetic. The value system of this piece drove its structure, demonstrating that identities and narratives are always already in process. Here, precarity is an imposed condition, but it is also enables problem-solving and interpersonal authenticity, as the performers contend with less than ideal conditions. With respect to content, Hennessy and Hindi dig into the topic of Arab futurism, an interest that arose because they are “two friends who read the news,” using it as a tool for their own alienation. To that end, they have aggregated a lineage of Arab futurist figures and thinkers in the form of a cardboard-backed, color-printed, homemade tarot deck—including astronauts, literary figures, journalists, nuclear scientists, singers, mathematicians, and poets. (I regret I did not write down the names of these individuals, particularly because the point was to make their contributions known.) This material was also extrapolated into images including multiple masks (the head of a bird, a cardboard box with eye holes) and fabric drops (a pink flowered sheet, a painting labeled “the war in Syria as a back tattoo”). Hennessy and Hindi speak of building a society based on hospitality and generosity, and engage in movement improvisations that are precarious and volatile with respect to gravity. The tone is almost pedagogical, but without being imposing—like an informal sharing of research, or a demonstration of a creative process made manifest, in which a concept branches off into another idea before it can ossify.
Hennessy also collaborated on Sara (the smuggler), an autobiographical piece performed by Bay Area dance trailblazer Sara Shelton Mann. It begins with Shelton Mann approaching a wooden table and nonchalantly splitting it in two with an axe—an action that makes my jaw drop. She regales the audience with a series of snapshots from her life, laid out more or less chronologically, including important moments in her personal formation or artistic development. Spoken exposition is interspersed with movement reflections: a somatic remembering of what it was like to perform on this very stage at Abrons Playhouse in 1963, work with a dowsing rod, a healing session for an audience member (“a surrogate for the collective”), an exercise to stimulate the chi in which we are all invited to participate. I observe that many in the audience seem deeply moved by the arc of Shelton Mann’s life. This history is crucial, and this telling of it is poignant, personal, and deeply embodied, but I also felt disappointed that the work was structured, more or less, as conventional storytelling. I struggled with my evaluation of this piece, even as I was touched by it: if Jerome Bel can create autobiographical, lec/dem-style works on other dancers and have it read as a conceptual gesture, why can’t this accomplished, rigorous, constantly exploring woman create a work out of her own life? I caught myself in this judgment. Certainly, if anyone has earned the right to lec-dem their own life, Shelton Mann has. I wonder if this work could be considered peripheral to her body of work—or whether it could be considered as equal to the creative and healing practices accumulated throughout her life. Is it an expository, summative, or (again) pedagogical vehicle, or is it a true artistic exploration? Can recognizable formats such as these be deployed effectively within experimental performance?
Larissa Velez-Jackson’s Star Crap Method also leaned heavily towards the process camp, though with a stricter approach to how choices are made. This work is exceedingly clear as to what is left open to improvisation and why, while the framing elements and aesthetic of the work are specifically crafted. Star Crap Method takes improvisation as a mode of feminist ethics and a horizontal process, valuing self-determination in identity and production. The performers (Velez-Jackson, Tyler Ashley, and Talya Epstein) are introduced with their own descriptors of identity, which include a “secular person,” a “working class artist,” and a performer who “does not identify with a gender.” Star Crap Method encapsulates (as Velez-Jackson explains near the beginning of the piece) humanism and narcissism, climax and anti-climax. As expressed in those oppositions, the content of their improvisation straddles a line between the conscious practice of egalitarian politics, on the one hand, and the unapologetic pleasure of pop culture spectacle, on the other. With respect to a postmodern dance lineage, their improvisation techniques are rooted in anti-spectacle, yet at the same time they relish in high kicks and other identifiable dance “moves”. The genius of the work is that it expresses no apparent contradiction between the two. The performers revel in pop culture quotations and grandiose gestures: wearing an American flag unitard, Ashley brandishes a pillow in the shape of a poop emoji and declares, “This is my solo.” Throughout, they voice offhand comments on the process: “Oh, why haven’t I done this before?” And yet deep significance can be found in these comments, too: “As I say to the tech crew, we’re self-sufficient,” or a rhythmic repetition of, “Dancers are smart, we can count.” They’re performing for themselves, and yet highly aware of the audience. Near the end of the piece, the artists bring out mirrors and, after some trial and error, angle them so that audience members can see their own reflections. The performers get new outfits to go with stilettos, and we get this clear statement: we can see ourselves as the performers see us. To the end, Star Crap Method thoroughly embodies its own values: autonomy, decision-making, gratification, and dance itself.
Another work with unapologetic pleasure in dancing was Antonio Ramos and the Gang Bangers’ Mira El! Clad in garter belts, bits of tights, translucent rain coats, and sunglasses, the dancers found satisfaction in exertion, the heat of their bodies fogging up the plastic coats. The tone is slick, powered by constant movement and aiming at an edgy virtuosity. For me, the greater pleasure was in seeing these recognizable dance moves devolve into humping, panting, and rough vocalization. As the choreography turns more animalistic, performers reappear with more costumes and props—notably a pair of glittery stilettos and a humongous pair of pink plastic prosthetic lips. The performer introduced the lips in a high-pitched, breathy voice: “I got them in Thailand.” This develops into a full-on picnic in the upstage left corner, in which the performers messily attempt to eat fried chicken through the plastic lips. Perhaps to Ramos’s detriment, I had a seed planted in my mind by a piece I’d seen the previous evening, making me question the aesthetic of Mira El! In their solo work it’s not a thing (which I will discuss in more depth in an upcoming piece), keyon gaskin notes contentious issues with the use of drag in contemporary performance, in that it often rests on an unspoken misogyny. I don’t know much about Ramos’s personal relationship to femininity, but I can say that the femininity expressed in Mira El! was overwhelmingly of the bimbo variety. The conventional trappings of femininity were all there, and although these signifiers were allowed to float between a variety of bodies and gender expressions, their cues were always deployed in a stereotypical and superficial manner. The title (“Look at him!” in English) belies a more complicated and gendered relationship between the subject and object of the viewing experience. But instead of explicitly shifting the power dynamics inherent in that viewing experience, all the performers in this work assume a conventional femininity, as well as its attendant degradation and close relationship to consumption. I could certainly be on board with an exploration of the slick and the cheap, but this work felt like it was merely rehearsing shallow aspects of our culture, rather than providing another, more critical angle on them. I’ve seen enough contemporary performance pieces with glitter and heels that the mere presence of such trappings is not enough to count as a critique.
Next up, Yvonne Meier provided a wholly different angle on femininity. Durch Nacht und Nebel comprised a series of strong-willed gestures and surprising, layered images. I wish it weren’t so remarkable to present a dancing body that is not young or thin. However, the materiality and presence of Meier’s body is integral to this work. She first presents herself in a long, brown fur coat that makes her seem imperious, regal, and wild. She uses a wheelbarrow to carry in several large bags of gravel to form a pile downstage left. A large fan placed upstage begins to blow. Meier goes to it, takes an electric razor, and begins to shave the arms and chest of her fur coat, leaving bits of fur to blow out across the stage. The gesture is iconoclastic, deliberate, and funny. Then Meier removes the coat to reveal her body covered with pink band-aids. With utter seriousness, she raises her hands and performs a wriggling, rhythmic dance that shakes her flesh. The band-aids are weird prosthetics, simultaneously covering and exposing, creating extra wrinkles in Meier’s skin. She dives belly first into a pile of gravel that’s been prepared onstage, and we hear the gritty, chalky sound of the small rocks colliding. She repeats the gesture from a few more angles, anticlimactically flattening the conical top of the pile. Comedically, she pulls three boxes from the gravel, opens them to reveal three eggs—small, medium, and large—and proceeds to smash each of the raw eggs into her mouth. She then dons a hairy wolf suit, continuing the fur theme with a black bodysuit and complete wolf head, whose beady yellow eyes light up in the dark. Meier leaves the space, and we cut to a different medium and mood, a stop-motion film of pink plastic baby figurines. The group of babies is caught in a series of sexual positions, chain-linking mouths to crotches and asses, before diving excessively into a mound of “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter”. Meier reappears in another bodysuit, this time covered with the baby figurines, and she repeats her wriggling dance, making the plastic chatter. After removing the body suit and some of the band-aids, Meier moves toward the final image, sweeping a large, black-coated paintbrush against the backdrop. The drop falls to the floor, and Meier completes the action painting with her own body, dropping and rolling across the canvas. It’s the same method as Yves Klein’s Anthropometries, but Meier herself is the author here, exerting both the messiness and the intentionality of her body on the space. I appreciate many things about this work: its fresh reworking of feminist body art, its textural variety, its willingness to be brief, its clever sense of humor, and, not least, Meier’s powerful, nonconformist presentation of herself.
Later, as I enter the Abrons Underground Theater for Jaamil Olawale Kosoko’s #negrophobia, my eyes fall on an Uncle Sam doll tied by its neck to the doorknob with a piece of rope. I take this as an immediate signal to confront politics and confront violence, a sign that, in this work, ignoring the materiality of both would not be an option. As I make my way into the performance space, I find a monitor playing footage of police, sitting on a box draped in an American flag. There are photos spread across the floor, a basketball in a closed net attached to a metal chain, the red light from the top of a cop car, a bottle of bleach. Kosoko enters in gold leggings and gold goggles, and unfolds a set of ideas around the black male body through text, movement, and images. His subject is the combination of eroticism and fear, hatred and longing, that surrounds the black male body in our culture, involving both exaggerated, racist archetypes and their effects on real, live bodies, including his own. He historicizes and personalizes his subject matter—“I come from a long line of disappeared black men and mentally sick black women”—and describes how this has affected him, saying he was “never given the tools to dream.” He dons a sweatsuit dotted with bleeding bullet holes and a pair of blue sneakers, repeating a horrifying fact: “These are my dead brother’s shoes”. This work is dense with intertextual references: there is audio of Ta-Nehisi Coates and Jon Stewart talking about fear, and a section where Kosoko goes through stacks of books by a pantheon of black theorists and thinkers: hooks, Sapphire, Baldwin, Dixon-Gottschild, Lorde, as well Kosoko’s own writing. (I strongly relate to this section—how many times have I wanted just to give the audience a syllabus?) The movement deals with quotation, too: he performs a salute, places his hands behind his back as if in handcuffs, raises them in the unmistakeable “hands up, don’t shoot,” then closes them in prayer. Throughout the piece, model, artist, and nightlife personality IMMA/MESS haunts Kosoko’s actions in stilettos and little else, their head covered with panty hose smeared with makeup. IMMA participates in the action, gyrating over the books or brandishing a riding crop like a cock, but mostly this figure films the action on their phone, providing different angles on Kosoko or audience members that are then projected on the cement block wall. We’re made to regard our own participation in this spectacle. We are implicated further by the end of the piece: Kosoko leads an audience member to read aloud a passage by James Baldwin on the construction of whiteness in America, and I feel a torch, an onus, being passed into my hands. In this work, I see the pain, the wanting to be visible, the desire for understanding, the desire to stop the violence. I felt it pulsating, and through its own refusal of denial, asking me to step up and meet its truth.
As a surveyor of the field and tracker of curatorial trends, I see that the taste-making of these festivals remains largely in the hands of white men, though giving platforms to marginalized voices seems to be increasingly a priority. In particular, this year’s festivals attempt to respond to the conversations about racial inequality that have gained traction nationally in the past year. For me, personally, this trip has been a sharp reminder that Minneapolis is a relatively segregated city, and we see the effects of those divisions throughout our arts community. As a maker, I find that the volume and density of artistic production of these festivals is deceptive: seeing these works assemble all at once, and splitting one’s attention between so many, almost obscures the labor and consideration that has gone into making each of the works on offer. Both this year and last, I have come away with a strange feeling that I could just go into the studio for a few hours and come out with a solo when, in reality, I know that each choice in these works is much more hard-won than it may appear to the outside eye.
Especially because these works are situated within a performing arts marketplace, it becomes easier to identify the tropes and conventions of of contemporary performance. The markers of experimental (and often queer) performance are familiar to us by now: the lipstick, the unitard, the stilettos, the piss. There is a danger for these elements to become tokenized as edgy, fresh, new work, branded and commodified, or taken out of the contexts in which artists used them to forge new meaning. These conventions can either fall flat without sufficient investigation, or take on a new life when they are worked into an overarching formal investigation. Similarly, the value of process over product is standard for contemporary performance makers and viewers (though to be fair, it has not taken hold in the culture at large). I find I appreciate more intentionality in process-based work, with Star Crap Method as a prime example. I also note that, in 2016, audience participation and experiential immersion are clearly major elements of the contemporary performance toolbox. I used to hear more artists disavow these techniques a few years ago than I do now. Although many artists retain skepticism around audience participation, it feels like something that can’t be ignored—artists have developed more subtle and purposeful techniques, and audiences are more accustomed to participation. To return to the question of experimentation that I carried with me throughout my viewing: I am reminded that experimentation is not a style or a flavor, but a method. It’s not the signifiers and referents, it’s how they’re deployed—and that’s the work of endless awareness, questioning, and revision.
Emily Gastineau is an independent artist working in and beyond the fields of dance, performance, and criticism. She collaborates with Billy Mullaney under the name Fire Drill. They work along the disciplinary boundaries of dance, theater, and performance art, conducting experiments around the notion of contemporary and how performance art is meant to be watched. She is the co-founder of Criticism Exchange and Program Coordinator for Mn Artists.