Zé Celso, Walmor y Cacilda 64–2014: O ROBOGÓLPE, 2014. Performance views, Teatro Oficina, São Paulo. Left: Zé Celso.

SINCE ITS FOUNDING IN 1958, Teatro Oficina has been the touchstone for avant-garde theater in Brazil. Originally conceived and still led by legendary actor-director José Celso Martinez Corrêa—aka Zé Celso—Teatro Oficina is housed in downtown São Paulo in a heritage-listed building designed by architects Lina Bo Bardi and Edson Elito. Directly engaging the ideology and rhetoric of the military dictatorship during its reign while exemplifying the “anthropophagic” strategies propagated by the Brazilian artistic movement known as Tropicália, the group continues to be one of the stalwart critical voices in Brazil’s cultural production.

The theater’s architecture is striking. One wall is consumed by a monumental window that faces a vast, empty lot—valuable real estate sought after for the kinds of high-rise constructions emblematic of São Paulo’s contemporary topography. Audiences are seated on scaffolding on either side of an elongated performance area, a slightly inclined corridor that features a boardwalk and a small stage for live musical accompaniment. The inclusive design—there are minimal architectonic barriers dividing audience and performers—is complemented by a dramaturgical disposition toward participation, with actors often inviting audience members to interact during the play.

Many of the works conceived by Zé Celso in recent years have been dedicated to and inspired by the well-known Brazilian actor Cacilda Becker (1921–1969), who died after a stroke suffered onstage performing in a production of Waiting for Godot. Since Zé Celso’s Cacilda! (1998), there has been the Brazylian Wandering Star – Cacilda!! (2009), Cacilda!!! Glory in the TBC and 68 Here Now!!! (2013), and Cacilda!!!! The Film & Theatre Factory Film (2013). After all this, Cacilda!!!!! is scheduled to open in July of 2014.

Walmor y Cacilda 64–2014: O ROBOGÓLPE, Zé Celso’s current play, opened on April 25th, the fortieth anniversary of Portugal’s Carnation Revolution. It follows in the tradition of the prior “Cacilda” works, with the eponymous “Walmor” referring to Cacilda’s last husband, Walmor Chagas, who died last year of a suspected suicide. Walmor y Cacilda… is layered with references to the era of the military dictatorship and the history of theater, with analogies created to events in our recent past. As we close in on the World Cup (here simply called Copa) and the upcoming elections, Brazil has seen numerous protests against government spending on sports events, while essential public health services have been neglected. As a symbol of repression, the state recently presented the new armor for military police, a full-body costume redolent of Robocop, to be used in the so-called “safety procedures” of the soccer tournament.

“The Military police dressed as ROBOCOP!!” writes Zé Celso on his blog. “The Power of the State intending to ban the use of masks in demonstrations, while presenting the ROBOCOPA to us, unmasked, unarmed? Is it a declaration of war?”

And his ensemble, Uzyna Uzona, appeals: “How do we, bodies subjected to life and history, live as free beings, how do we deal with this strange entity of people that resemble tanks in a science fiction war?”

Such is the point of departure for Walmor y Cacilda 64–2014. On entering the theater, we’re greeted by a sacral chorus and the smell of incense. On the upper level of the scaffolding sits former Brazilian president Getulio Vargas (played by Marcelo Drummond), wearing a red gown as he reads his suicide letter from 1954. “I leave life,” he concludes, “to enter history.” A chorus calling for a counterrevolution by the armed forces follows his disappearance. What arrives instead is the Robocop costume, accompanied by a soundtrack evocative of a bombastic Hollywood movie. The Robocop is met with endorsement by a slimy figure representing the CIA’s involvement with the 1964 military coup, carrying a bag of US dollars; from the opposite end, a group of nuns enters holding rosaries—they personify the Marcha da Família com Deus pela Liberdade, a group that demonstrated, together with landowners and the São Paulo bourgeoisie, against left-wing reforms planned by the pre-coup government (1961–1964) of João Goulart.

The actors who have amassed on stage remove the red elements of their costumes to expose the blue, green, and yellow of the Brazilian flag. Under the new circumstances of the military government, conditions for free artistic expression are tightened. In a meeting with an official from the DOPS (Department for Political and Social Order, 1924–1983), Cacilda and actress Maria Della Costa seduce their interrogators and liberate Cacilda’s sister Cleyde. In the same go they achieve the opening of all closed-down theaters. As the play reaches its denouement, Zé Celso is brought onto the stage in a wheelchair, carrying a red carnation (in homage to the Portuguese revolution from 1974); he stands and begins a poetic rant on politics, cultural funding, real-estate speculation, and the Copa. Robocop uniforms are buried in the boardwalk and the audience, together with the actors, finish with a song of protest: “Robogolpe, Robocopa,” we go, as we leave the theater.

Tobi Maier is a writer and curator based in São Paulo.

Walmor y Cacilda 64–2014 runs through Sunday, June 29, 2014 at Teatro Oficina in São Paulo.

Alain Buffard, Baron Samedi, 2012. Performance view, New York Live Arts, New York, May, 2014. Dorothée Munyaneza, Nadia Beugré, Will Rawls. Photo: Ian Douglas.

YOU SAY “DANSE,” and I say “dance.”

Let’s call the whole thing off.

Or, no, wait, let’s throw a big old festival, eighteen days of French performance, so that we can socialize and skirmish and generally make merry at arts institutions big and small across the great metropolis of New York. Vive la schmoozing! Vive la la!

I logged three shows and one panel extravaganza during the first four days of “Danse: A French-American Festival of Performance & Ideas,” organized by the Cultural Services of the French Embassy. I wanted to see a fourth show, but I never was able to figure out (dumb American) the color-coded map for les gens d’Uterpan’s Topologie, which sends five dancers on daily gestural walking tours of Long Island City.

Though, in a way, I feel like not seeing the work might have been as good as seeing it. As Brian Rogers, the artistic director of the Chocolate Factory, which is presenting Topologie, wrote in an email:

“this piece has been hilarious to coordinate
it might be a huge conceptual bullshit joke
or it might be brilliant, I can’t tell”

Indeed. Just the idea of it out there, lurking and skittering all around MoMA PS1’s weirdo performance dome on Sunday afternoon while the usual suspects sat for almost four hours of “Dancing is Talking/Talking is Dancing: Conversations in Contemporary Choreography”—well, it felt like a necessary existential corrective to the not-very-much-at-all dancing happening dome-side. (More on that later, maaaaybe, but for now I’d just like to say that the juxtaposition between the 1960s, when choreographers decided to change the terms of what could be considered dance, and more recent decades, when choreographers have found it more expedient to disavow dance as a thing that relates to them at all, even while milking their status as performers to gain access to museums, pretty much says it all about what has changed in the intervening years in Western society along the lines of optimism over the possibility of progress in the world.)

And, you know, dear reader, if you don’t go to things you are able to experience them with a certain purity—through the eyes of others. For example, as another colleague texted about another Danse I missed:

“omgeezus. white french choreographer, black dancers voguing, finale was to ‘Strange Fruit.’ I need a Xanax so I dont slap someone into oblivion.”

That was in reference to Frédéric Nauczyciel and House of HMU’s The Fire Flies [Solos/Portraits] at Julie Meneret Contemporary Art. It gets pretty directly to a certain American, shall we say, squeamishness with regard to the handling of race in European works.

Christian Rizzo, sakınan göze çöp batar, 2012. Performance view, FIAF, New York, May 2014. Kerem Gelebek. Photo: Marc Domage.

Ok ok, that’s a giant and vague generalization. So maybe we can talk about the three works I did see last week: Alain Buffard’s final dance, Baron Samedi, 2012, at New York Live Arts; Christian Rizzo’s sakinan göze çöp batar (an overprotected eye always gets sand in it), at the French Institute Alliance Française’s Florence Gould Hall; and altered natives’ Say Yes to Another Excess—TWERK by Cecilia Bengolea and François Chaignaud at the Kitchen. Very different pieces, but they do all share a common setup: French choreographers (Bengolea is from Buenos Ares but has lived and worked in Paris for almost fifteen years) working with non-white and often non-French dancers to explore territory both didactic (immigration) and sensual (club dancing), and all of it territory fraught and political.

“Was that racist?” an audience member puzzled after Buffard’s piece Thursday night. Though it felt unfinished to me, Baron Samedi I think is playing with tricky questions about power and place and what does and doesn’t translate across geographic and racial lines in a pretty knowing manner. I miss Buffard, who died of cancer late last year—he was a smart and poetic artist. Still, there are questions of ethnic voyeurism that unsettle. Who’s allowed to talk about this stuff, and how? And by stuff I mean a set of loose post-colonial targets, acted out in and through jostling fragments of dance and Kurt Weil songs and often brutal mimed action, mostly black bodies on a curving white stage (I think it might have appealed to Buffard’s dark sense of humor that the fine performers in this piece are now left to fend for themselves in a world organized by their now-departed choreographer.) On this side of the Atlantic we tend to err in the other direction, seeing race as the purview of non-white artists—you know, the better to pigeonhole them while the majority goes about peddling its “universal” aesthetic.

So, ok, that has obvious problems. But somehow Rizzo making a solo about alienation for Kerem Gelebek, a dancer who is described in the program as a “Turkish immigrant,” seems like it might do with a bit more examining. And just disruption in general—sakinan göze çöp batar, which features the super-precise manipulation of objects and fluidly calibrated movements that often seem to carry the slow-motion ghosts of forms like breaking and capoeira, is violently antiseptic, controlled and polished within an inch of its life.

Such is not the case with altered natives’ Say Yes to Another Excess—TWERK. Performed by Bengolea, Chaignaud, Alex Mugler, Ana Pi, and Élisa Yvelin, the fifty-minute romp through dances that run the gamut from Nijinsky-inflected ballet to MTV jiggling is something of a hot mess, mostly not in a good way. (The taut, gorgeously structured musical contribution of DJ Elijah and DJ Skilliam stood in sharp contrast.) During the mystifying standing ovation that followed, and as an excited older gentleman in the front row happily commented to his companion, “I got a little confused there for a moment about boys and girls,” I thought dismally of those crossover ballet projects, in which some big company inevitably embarrasses itself in an effort to get street cred through the use of pop culture. (I haven’t yet seen New York City Ballet’s JR effort, and so maybe I’m being horribly unfair, but…) Altered natives felt similarly naïve and superficial in its adoption of queer club posturing—especially as it read in New York, where this stuff is hardly an exotic other.

Cecilia Bengolea and François Chaignaud, altered natives’ Say Yes to Another Excess – Twerk, 2012. Performance view, The Kitchen, New York, May 2014. Elisa Yvelin, Alex Mugler, Cecilia Bengolea, François Chaignaud, and Ana Pi. Photo: Paula Court.

I’ve never quite understood all the fuss around Bengolea and Chaignaud—it’s totally great if you want to dance around naked with shiny dildos stuffed up your assholes, as they did in Pâquerette. It just isn’t all that interesting.

But as I watched them often awkwardly vamp it up at the Kitchen on Sunday, I thought of what a young French dancer had said to me earlier at the MoMA PS1 event, which was in large part dedicated to Xavier Le Roy, who has long since represented The Academy in France, along of course with Jérôme Bel. This dancer was saying that the relief and liberation offered by charismatic performers like Bengolea and Chaignaud, who believe in dance’s strength to go in other directions than the typically cerebral and hyper-reflexive creations of Le Roy and Bel’s followers, should not be discounted in France. (I’m not sure I like any of these words to describe what Le Roy et al have wrought in France and beyond—is “overdetermined” better? Certainly “conceptual” and “non-dance” are awful and limiting, and these guys are nothing if not theatrically minded. Ugh. Why are adjectives so difficult?)

I still didn’t like the dance any. But I liked what they wrote in the program, that they “have set themselves the challenge to trust dance, its expressive, brotherly, poetic, preconscious and discursive powers.” I like that it suggests there needn’t be an either/or between smart and sexy.

Oh you guys. This is already too long, and I haven’t gotten anywhere. I haven’t talked about how Claire Bishop whipped out her predictable brand of art-panel thuggery at MoMA PS1 and essentially said that the choreographers Trajal Harrell, Miguel Gutierrez, and Sarah Michelson should be seen and not heard. I haven’t talked about how Le Roy’s Untitled lecture was sweetly funny and proves again what a ham he is (is that despite or because he started out as a molecular biologist?). Nor how gorgeously subversive and winning Will Rawls was in Baron Samedi. I haven’t even said that some of my best friends are French choreographers, and it even might be true.

Claudia La Rocco

Richard Maxwell, Isolde, 2014. Performance view, Abrons Arts Center, New York, NY, April 2014. Patrick and Massimo (Jim Fletcher and Gary Wilmes). Photo: David Pym.

“THE DIFFERENCE between theater and performance is that she would have actually penetrated Tony.”

Such was artist Kenneth Collins’s observation to me while we were watching Ubu Sings Ubu at Abrons Arts Center last week—specifically, while we were watching Julie Atlas Muz fake ass fuck Tony Torn with, if memory serves, a sausage dildo, as they portrayed Ma and Pa Ubu in Torn’s musical adaptation of Alfred Jarry’s fin de siècle rampage of a play Ubu Roi.

On the one hand, Collins was rolling his eyes at the tediously erroneous visual art tenet that, you know, theater is theatrical and performance art is real. But on the other hand—if you’re going to go through all the trouble to whip out your lengthy, somewhat limp sausage dildo…

But I digress. Because what I really want to talk about are the other two plays I saw last week: New York City Players’ Isolde, written by Richard Maxwell, and Radiohole’s adaptation of Myth (or Maybe Meth), written by Tom Murrin. And maybe more so I want to discuss going to a certain kind of show in this city, and questions of realness and authenticity and codes of behavior and just who are these shows for, anyway? In other words: I feel reasonably confident that simulated sex will come up again. And again.

To see Radiohole and New York City Players in the span of twenty-four hours, as I did, is to feel oneself shuttling between two distinct poles of contemporary New York theater. Maxwell crafts and directs tightly controlled worlds out of meticulous language and blocking, while Radiohole’s brand of subversive complexity tends to be lewd and explosive and beer-sodden. At only one of these shows were people (wisely) nervous to sit in the front row.

But in another sense these two groups are occupying the exact same territory, one that maintains (and is held to) a self-conscious separation from the conventions and expectations of commercial and mainstream theater, in search of something that, I think, is hoping to get a little bit closer to what it is maybe actually like to be a human being. The odious term off-Broadway still implies that the Great White Way is the center of the universe, and that ain’t where these guys live.

Which isn’t to say they don’t have their own conventions and expectations, and that they don’t fall prey to them all the time. “This didn’t feel like a Radiohole show,” another friend said to me about Myth (or Maybe Meth), which was part of a larger Murrin celebration at La MaMa. Nope. I agree. It felt more like a period piece, but a surreal one—a bunch of straight male performers in the twenty-first century maneuvering beneath a queer camp misogynist overlay.

Radiohole, Myth (or Maybe Meth), 2014. Performance view, La MaMa, New York, NY, April 2014. Eric Dyer. Photo: Scott R. Adkins.

“You don’t have to prove shit to anyone when you’re bare-ass naked,” one of the performers, I think it was Scott Halvorsen Gillette said, and if it was Scott he was masquerading as a woman, sort of, or maybe masquerading as a drag queen, and his genitals were duct-taped beneath a saran wrap skirt and in general looked abused. I guess I agree with him: Either you don’t have to prove anything, or you can’t—whoever’s witnessing has already come to some unavoidable conclusions of their own.

Isolde was another kind of straight—a tightly wound drama that used an upper-crust love triangle between a couple and a star architect to mess around with issues of class and gender. But definitely from the thoughtful-man-in-a-position-of-power point of view. I kept thinking of Jonathan Franzen. No one was naked, though you did get to see one skinny-man behind, and as it happened this belonged to the star architect, who might have been communing with Radiohole when he declared, while fully clothed, “I don’t have to justify myself. I’m impossible.”

So it was well-behaved, only you could see all the seams—like Maxwell was rolling around a Rubik’s Cube, undecided whether to line up the colors or scramble them. It was beautiful, and never once menacing, and the only time when there was a sense that the fourth wall might be broken was when, surveying the imaginary dream house they were going to build, the intensely fine actors were actually surveying the audience, and sitting in the darkness staring back at them you felt that you had the choice to embody the impossible dream house.

And yes (yes!) there was simulated sex of all kinds in both productions. I mean, all of the kinds but one were in Myth (or maybe Meth) and that kind (furtive and hetero) was in Isolde. Just for the record.

The crowd at La MaMa was as raucous as the larger Isolde audience at Abrons was rapt. But at each one you could see the layers of sediment—the theater-making colleagues, the family and friends, the longtime fans and the gradations of newer followers. You could place yourself on the spectrum, and feel smug, or bereft, or maybe like you were in the wrong theater.

And you know probably this is the same in Broadway houses. Ok, so maybe the infant child of one of the performers isn’t there, as he was at La MaMa, getting pretty vocally consternated at the sight of his daddy doing all sorts of things. But the gradations are always there, if you know how to look.

You can see why I was digressing earlier, maybe. I’m not sure I really know how to talk about this stuff. What exactly I want to say. I can tell you how bad it smelled in the theater toward the end of Myth (or maybe Meth) from all the food and fluids they’d been exchanging. At the end of the show, Jim Findlay sang-growled-yelled “Love is shit all night long” while some audience members cheered and others booed and still others blew on the little cock-and-ball whistles that had been provided for just such a purpose. And that was beautiful, but in a different way than when someone said in Isolde, flatly, just the way the New York City Players do, “I don’t see anything I can make sense of.”

Claudia La Rocco

New York City Players’ Isolde ran April 10–26 at Abrons Arts Center in New York; Radiohole’s Myth (or Maybe Meth) ran April 24–27 at La Mama.