Robert Wilson, The Life and Death of Marina Abramović, 2011. Performance view, Park Avenue Armory, New York, December 2013. Willem Dafoe. Photo: Joan Marcus.

AS THE STORY GOES, performance artist Marina Abramović asked director Robert Wilson if he would stage her funeral as a theatrical event that would double as “a celebration of life and death combined.” Wilson agreed, with the proviso that she grant him permission to stage her life as well. The artist consented and supplied Wilson with personal anecdotes and biographical details; she also promised to participate as a performer. Wilson enlisted actor Willem Dafoe, composer/lyricist/performer Antony, singer Svetlana Spajić, composer William Basinski, as well as an impressive group of other musicians and artists to create The Life and Death of Marina Abramović, a glowing machine of many moving parts, manufactured to convey the artist’s life story first as tragedy, then as art.

The production opens with Abramović’s funeral, set as a kind of moving still life on stage as the audience files into the theater. Three Marinas—masks allow for multiples throughout the play—all dressed in black, lie on casket-shaped pedestals while two Dobermans pace the floor, which is littered with bones. The play begins with the appearance of Dafoe, the magnetic narrator/ringleader of the show, dressed in a military uniform, standing downstage in a bunker riddled with boxes and stacks of paper. Red hair whipped atop his head, kabuki-cum-Cabaret makeup on his face, he looks equal parts emcee and The Joker. Dafoe, in a wild and electric performance, is the jittering live wire that transmits most of Abramović’s story in snippets fired off, machine gun–like. Behind him, Wilson’s stunning stagescapes take shape around the story—in moments, to illustrate, at other times, to elegize.

The plot points, though not presented in chronological order, will be familiar to those already acquainted with Abramović. Wilson’s production pays little attention to her work; it is lightly referenced throughout. Instead, the director paints an unconvincing portrait of the artist as martyr, one who has lived a life in which love and pain are twisted together so tightly that her path seemed predestined. Dafoe rattles off her numerous traumas. Some are of the innocuous, adolescent variety: She hated her nose; her mother dressed her in ugly clothes; she had flat feet. Other events are far more terrible: Her mother threw a heavy ashtray at her head when she heard that Abramović had performed naked (the artist ducked out of the way, but not before considering that her death might avenge the cruelty her mother doled out to her in life). Her mother also repeatedly warned her that sex was dirty, told her to only have it once to have a baby and then “never do it again.” We learn that Abramović’s happiest childhood memory is a yearlong hospital stay, during which people brought her presents and nobody punished her. Later in life, of course, Marina continued to suffer—at the hands of lovers, for her art, and one day, mortality.

Throughout the play, Abramović is not an actor so much as she is a stand in, at first for her abusive mother, and later for herself. She poses more than she performs, filling the spaces in which she would act. “I’m material, nothing more,” the artist clarified in the production notes, claiming that this theatrical vision, though in possession of her body, belongs wholly to Wilson. As The Life and Death of Marina Abramović unfolds, however, odd angles on its subject are revealed. The portrait warps to appear strangely arch; its edges at times bleed perilously close to farce. Wilson’s tone seems unusually off-balance, unable to rectify the emotional extremes of Abramović’s life story with his meticulous craft and dazzle. Perhaps meaning to puncture the unrelenting gravitas (the artist’s traumas never seem to end), Wilson injects comedic touches that often fall flat. His expressionistic performance style, in which the actors exaggerate gestures and emotions, appears in moments to mock the artist’s story, at other times to enact it as melodrama. Though one would never expect nuance from either the play’s subject or its director, its absence is regretted throughout.

Robert Wilson, The Life and Death of Marina Abramović, 2011. Performance view, Park Avenue Armory, New York, December 2013. Willem Dafoe. Photo: Joan Marcus.

At one point, Abramović faces the audience and sing/speaks in a Dietrich/Nico basso, “Salt, salt in my wounds / To dull more pedestrian pain […] Pain hangs onto me / As if in a dream / As if I had a choice.” Later, Dafoe crawls across the stage on all fours, rasping “Why must you cut yourself? […] Why must you suffer / Like Christ for his father?” In another context, it might be easier to appreciate the delicate beauty of certain other lyrics, which pit the lightness of language against feral emotional swells. Pinned to this production, however, gossamer lines like “When will I turn and cut the world?” turn to sap. It must be said that two of the show’s great triumphs are singers Antony and Svetlana Spajić, whose voices are powerful forces of polar opposite frequencies. Antony’s is otherworldly; both muscular and downy, it soars inside the space, while Spajić seems to channel and release singular sounds and spirits from the ground beneath her. From them and through them, as well as through the other members of Spajić’s group, we experience something that most closely parallels Abramović’s aesthetic: the body as medium and instrument.

The show ends as it begins, with three Marinas on stage. Now, however, they are all dressed in white, hovering above the others in angelic ascent. For the artist, death—of her mother, her father, of her previous days and pains—begets an afterlife, though exactly what that is isn’t specified. If Wilson here wishes to depict the artist as Christ figure, paying for the sins of others, hanging center stage for all to see and judge, it is a desperately unsuccessful analogy. Whatever one thinks about Abramović—a complicated, polarizing character in the art world—her artistic ambitions and will to survive have propelled an ascent of another kind: that of the art star. If that story is to be told someday, its production will certainly require a very different sense of gravity.

Jennifer Krasinski is a writer based in New York.

The Life and Death of Marina Abramović runs through Saturday December 21 at the Park Avenue Armory in New York.

Rashaun Mitchell & Silas Riener, Way In, 2013. Performance view, Danspace Project, New York, November 2013. Davison Scandrett, Rashaun Mitchell, Silas Riener, and Claudia La Rocco. Photo: Ian Douglas.

IN A FOUR-WAY “conversation” with his collaborator Silas Riener, dance critic Claudia La Rocco, and lighting designer Davison Scandrett, posted on Bomblog on the eve of Way In’s premiere, choreographer and dancer Rashaun Mitchell said: “I’m always thinking about what’s the way into this and out of this.” What follows are four ways into the piece I went to see at Danspace Project during its brief run, offered up as my way of making sense of it (with a little help from my friends).

The Way of Taste

In a prior incarnation, a site-specific performance and installation at the BFI Gallery in Miami, Way In was titled Taste. La Rocco, writing for the Miami Rail, described that work as a conversation about taste, good and bad. The questions of what’s tasteful and what’s not, and who is the ultimate arbiter of taste remain live in Way In, though the newer work bears little outward resemblance to the previous piece. Way In takes place inside Saint Mark’s Church, its nave enfolded for the occasion within wide bolts of garish pink-laced nylon. The pink lace that bespeaks a camp aesthetic is of a piece with the fluorescent pink envelope containing the press notes, and the highbrow baroque music, from Lully to Rameau, alternating with cheesy Franz Waxman movie scores and Frank Ocean’s “Versace Gold.” The same fabric appears in costumes—including a ski mask worn by Scandrett—designed by Mitchell and Riener, who shun the neutral unitards prescribed by Cunningham, for whom they both danced, for practice clothes or less seemly items. (Eventually, booty shorts decorated with dollar signs.)

The Way of Conversation

Way In is framed as a conversation among “two trained dancers and two untrained ones”—to invoke the first recorded text, conceived as a sort of critical companion to the show, written and read aloud by La Rocco. Would it be more illuminating to view her and Scandrett as “performers” rather than “dancers”? Or is there something in the register of “dancer” that allows us to view their movements with a different vitality? The opening act, which features La Rocco holding up signs of diminishing sizes to the audience (the largest announced the show’s duration, the smallest was a fortune-cookie message) and Scandrett wheeling himself around on a dolly, felt more like a species of “performance art” than anything else in the show. Such comic/absurd interludes—heirs to Cunningham’s Antic Meet (1958) or the vaudevillian juxtapositions of Yvonne Rainer’s The Mind Is a Muscle (1966–68)?—were a counterpoint to the dancing, as well as a palate cleanser. Cast in the awkward/poignant role of participant-observers, La Rocco and Scandrett were also called on to assess and give cues to the dancers (“Cut,” “Stop,” and the like).

The Way of Intimacy

A second recording captures an argument between Mitchell and Riener. Their proxies here are La Rocco and Scandrett, who have known Mitchell and Riener for years, both professionally and personally. The tiff lays bare the ongoing process of negotiation, of give-and-take, involved in their collaborative work and personal life together, presumably. We’re allowed, briefly, a window into their shared intimacy, as collaborators but also partners in life. (One way of reading the title.) At its “core”—that is, in the duets that Mitchell and Riener dance together—Way In is a deeply personal portrait of a relationship, one long past courtship but not beyond yearning. What is held up to the spectator is love at its neediest, most pressing, at once sensuous and tender.

The Way of Quotation, or Inside Jokes

One of the more memorable moments in the duets, when the two dancers remain locked in a carefully composed embrace, may in fact allude to a piece by Sarah Michelson. Whereas the embrace between two men (in that case, Greg Zuccolo and Mike Iveson) who are friends, not lovers, is but a fleeting moment in Daylight, 2005, Mitchell and Riener hold each other for what, on stage, feels like an eternity. That work is also playfully invoked by way of a chorus of lights set up in the church’s chancel, reminiscent of a row of lights, designed by Joe Levasseur, placed in front of the audience in Daylight. Scandrett, who did the lighting for Way In, and whose collaboration with Michelson and Parker Lutz on the visual design for DOGS at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 2006 won him a Bessie award, is simply described as “Joe Levasseur’s roommate,” reflecting Michelson’s own purported fondness for inside jokes. “In order to get at something you go in through the side door,” La Rocco writes in a rehearsal diary included in the press notes. Side doors and inside jokes can be a way in or a way out, depending on your vantage, on your taste.

Agnieszka Gratza

Way In ran November 14–16 at Danspace Project at Saint Mark’s Church in New York.