Left: James Waring, In the Mist, 1960. Performance view, Fred Herko and Aileen Passloff. Photo: Vladimir Sladon. Right: Fred Herko dancing on the roof of the Opulent Tower, Ridge Street, New York, in 1964.


I’M NOT SURE HOW MUCH I learned about Fred Herko during “Fred Herko: A Crash Course,” a four-hour-plus symposium organized by Joshua Lubin-Levy and presented Saturday afternoon by NYU’s performance studies department and a bunch of other august orgs.

This isn’t to say that I didn’t enjoy myself. I mean, we were fed well, for starters, and anytime anyone is showing Andy Warhol films, life is good. More on those later, but the above paragraph is to say that there is a lot of misinformation and mythology out there on our dear Freddie, and people really, really, really like talking about both.

This is understandable. First, there’s the mythology, which begins with the facts, such as they are: twenty-eight-year-old gorgeous queer charismatic strung-out dancer-poet-muse-etc. involved in uptown-downtown midcentury avant-garde excitement dies by jumping/dancing/falling/stepping out of fifth-story window of Cornelia Street apartment in 1964, possibly because he thought he could fly and possibly because he intended to commit suicide and possibly because, why let physics get in the way of a good old grand jete/swan dive? It seems he bathed before dying, in a tub, maybe with perfume in it.

I mean.

And second, the people immediately able to account for what actually happened and why were artists. As in, decidedly not responsible for history. As in, maybe not even worth consulting (more on that later, also, with feeling), though they did write some pretty great poems about the situation. For instance, here’s the first stanza from Diane di Prima’s “FORMAL BIRTHDAY POEM: February 23, 1964,” when it seems the writing was already sliding down the wall in the house of Herko:

dear Freddie, it’s your birthday & you are crazy
really gone now, crazy like any other old queen
showing off your naked limbs a little withered
making fairy tales into not very good ballets

I have this poem because I have the course packet Lubin-Levy, Alan Ruiz, Kelly O’Grady, and Nova Benway edited for Crash Course, a document that includes writing by the likes of Jill Johnston, George Brecht, LeRoi Jones, and Ray Johnson, plus a nasty poem-review Herko wrote about Paul Taylor (“Paul Taylor is not ultimately beautiful”; bless you, Freddie), plus a nasty letter-response to that poem-review by Edwin Denby (“Herko had better watch his language”; bless you, Edwin), and even, delightfulness, Herko’s edited resume as a cover with his scrawl on top “SORRY—I’M SLOW—FH.” This little booklet, in other words, is perfect. Probably everything in it is inaccurate. I don’t care.

But I am not a historian. Gerard Forde is, and he is writing a biography about Herko (which will probably be great), and his opening talk, “Send Three and Fourpence, We’re Going to a Dance—Misreading Fred Herko,” was almost all about what everyone else got wrong. He took aim at a lot of people, but dance historian Sally Banes was the one who really got it, not just for what she apparently biffed on our boy but also for the whole Judson Dance Theater shebang. Speaking at a closing panel about her book (I’m not sure which book, or maybe he meant all of them, since JDT runs throughout Banes’s scholarship, though apparently I shouldn’t call it that anymore): “I just think burn the fucking thing and start over.”

Scholarly led book burning! Now we’re talkin’.

And here Forde wanted to give more JDT research credit to Johnston, thereby endearing him to me, only it seemed for others on the panel, particularly the art historian Julia Robinson, just because Johnston was there doesn’t mean she is a better source. And this of course led into the whole debate about whether people who have a firsthand stake in the game count for anything (Robinson: “And that’s a viable source, the artist documenting her own work!?”), and then the inevitable statement that history doesn’t exist anyway (Richard Move: “There’s no such thing.”), and then, most pleasurable of all, the theory versus facts knife fight, in which people’s metaphors are made to look stupid (if they haven’t made themselves look that way already through poesy and overreaching) and facts, what is it good for? The rest of the panel tried simply to maintain its dignity.

The whole thing reminded me (I mean, I wasn’t actually there) of that Jill Johnston panel when Trisha Brown stormed out and Johnston was upset until Brown reminded her that she, Johnston, had given her, Brown, the option of storming out. And here’s Johnston on panels in general, in an essay perfectly titled for this occasion, “Cultural Gangsters”: “In fact I began to think if things went right we could’ve had a gang bang on the spot without even knowing it.”

All we needed were the post-coital ciggies. That was one thing the buffet spread didn’t provide, shame on NYU—but actually no, hang on, they thought of everything, because, back to Warhol, we started the day with his magnificent Screen Test of Herko, that unbearably gorgeous face full of secrets smoking away like any old immortal.

Fred Herko: A Crash Course” panel on October 25, 2014. Photo: Conrad Ventur.


These films are too good to be true. That’s their whole point. Same with Warhol’s Jill and Freddy Dancing (1963), Herko and Johnston swanning about on an unfinished roof, looking ravishing. Or Harlot (1965), which Marc Siegel presented in the other talk of the day, “Good Bananas, Bad Bananas and Gossip,” an exploration of fugitive histories through the drag star Mario Montez.

I agree with Siegel’s faith in gossip. (“You don’t have to believe me, even though it’s true, as is all the gossip I share.”) And I agree with Ara Osterweil, a professor of film and cultural studies at McGill University and a painter, who was one of the non-Herko experts invited to give a brief riff inspired by Herko, and said to Forde in that final panel, “The corrective impulse in your work, I found it so ungenerous.”

But also I agree with Forde that if theorists are “only recycling half-truths” their constructs will suffer from “an increasingly limited gene pool.” I mean, how many falling metaphors can you really deal with before you have to get on with your day? There were so many mentions of bodies falling. The two I kept thinking of were female, and horridly incongruous: the loud-talker who fell out the window at that party in Sex and the City, and Ana Mendieta, who we also will never know the truth about. They were both, in violently different ways, inconvenient women.

And this brings me to the woman sitting next to me, Deborah Lawlor (back then she was Lee), who danced with James Waring and with Herko and who told me that Herko lived with her for the last six months of his life “as roommates”—she stressed that point, smart girl—and who rolled her eyes when I asked what she thought of much of the talk swirling around Herko and who later pointed out, “The women speakers always go last.”

It’s true, they did: Robinson, Osterweil, Danielle Goldman, and Heather Love, crammed in after the men who, as usual, talked at leisure. Pressed for time, pressing to make their points to a tired-out audience. And now, you see, I replicate the pattern.

But let’s give a woman the last word, at least. Isabelle Fisher, a fabulously dressed elderly woman who spoke out about how all of her friends-turned–historical figures were being distorted by interpretations, when actually they weren’t in their lives fitting their work into constructs. No, “they were just doing it.” Whatever the it (forever now in question) was.

Claudia La Rocco

Wendy City

10.22.14

Tyler Angle and Wendy Whelan rehearsing on September 18, 2014. Photo: Paul Kolnik.


1.

WENDY WHELAN is twenty-two minutes late for her thirty-minute rehearsal with fellow New York City Ballet principal Robert Fairchild, who had been preparing to head out but now, smart man, quickly slips off his street shoes and gets back into studio gear.

“Sorry!” Whelan mouths, her face making an exaggerated smile-cringe as she rushes to put on her own pointe shoes. Apparently she thought the rehearsal began a half hour later than it did.

Somehow this isn’t even remotely obnoxious. If anybody is thinking irritable thoughts, they’re well hidden. (As one of the company’s publicists says to me as we’re walking out, “ ‘Anything for Wendy.’ That’s what everyone in this building says—and they mean it.”)

What I’m thinking, as I watch Whelan and Fairchild zip through their scene in Balanchine’s La sonnambula (at the beginning she is rushing so much that she actually sleep-runs through one passage, getting far ahead of the music—it’s all wrong, but still it’s beautiful, weightless, spooky), is that this is the last time I will ever come to City Ballet to watch Wendy Whelan rehearse.

All of it seems pleasingly fitting—that she’s so late, that she’s rehearsing a role in which the woman, as muse, is also beyond reach, already in another world. And, especially, that as I was waiting in the lobby for the publicist to escort me up, I watched Jock Soto enter and duck into an elevator—retired from City Ballet for ten years, and a teacher at the company’s School of American Ballet, he remains in my mind inextricably bound up with Whelan. Soto-Whelan-Christopher Wheeldon: a trinity that opened up a desperately needed new space for ballet to live in the House of Balanchine.

“I could feel my heart in dancing for the first time,” Whelan says of her collaboration with these two in a New York Times profile by Roslyn Sulcas.

I can’t think of a more accurate description of what it was like—always—to watch her dance in that house. You could feel her heart—intelligent, authoritative, beating hard—in every exactly calibrated step.

Christopher Wheeldon and Alexei Ratmansky, By 2 With & From, 2014. Performance view, October 18, 2014, New York City Ballet. Tyler Angle, Wendy Whelan, and Craig Hall. Photo: Paul Kolnik.


2.

Fairchild joined City Ballet in 2006, twenty years after Whelan. He never met Balanchine, of course. Whelan says she glimpsed the great man only once, just after she arrived as an SAB student, just before he died. She went on to become an anchor for the company in the hard years that followed, as City Ballet struggled to figure out what it was or could be without its brilliant cofounder.

Now, in 2014, all that is (ancient, recent) history. And now, on Monday, October 20th, so, too, is Whelan’s City Ballet career, a singular three-decade sweep in which she ignited much of the best ballet choreography that’s been made post-Balanchine. There has been startlingly, dishearteningly little of lasting importance created in these years (and certainly not once you excise the American outlier William Forsythe, or modern dance crossovers like Twyla Tharp). What’s come, minus a very recent crop of promising young talents, has been almost exclusively from Alexei Ratmansky and Wheeldon, both of whom have by far done their best work for City Ballet, and, particularly, for and with Whelan.

And so, of course, these two men joined forces to create By 2 With & From, a piece d’occasion for Whelan’s City Ballet retirement performance on Saturday, a nearly three-hour event for which tickets sold out in about eleven minutes. People dressed as if for a gala, but the mood throughout the evening was hushed, heart in hand. People you don’t usually see crying were wiping their eyes.

Whelan danced in every ballet: La sonnambula (1946), as well as excerpts from Jerome Robbins’s Dances at a Gathering (1969), Ratmansky’s Concerto DSCH (2008), and Wheeldon’s After the Rain (2005). Does it need to be said that she was both transcendent and deeply human in each, that, as she always does, she made time do what she wanted it to do? Does it need to be said that retirements aren’t typically the occasions for premieres, but that in this case, how could it be otherwise? Here, the muse (again that troubling, troublesome word) was the generator, the reason for this work’s being.

By 2 With & From, which was set to Vivaldi (recomposed by Max Richter), was the final piece of the night, of course, and it was over too soon, just as it felt like the audience was fully sinking into “Part II: Autumn and Winter,” choreographed by Ratmansky. Wheeldon had “Spring and Summer”—and in each section you saw the choreographers go-tos, Wheeldon’s sculptural bodies wheeling through space, Ratmansky’s quicksilver flashes of humor and whimsy through darker, heavier currents. Mostly, though, you saw Whelan, which is what you see every time she dances—not in a showboat way, but as a miraculous inevitability. “See how she leads the dance”: these words were written by the former City Ballet star Jacques d’Amboise, who was sitting in front of me on Saturday (and later joined the parade of those paying tribute to Whelan on stage). Sorry, Jacques, I couldn’t help but look over your shoulder as you scrawled all those notes. See how she leads the dance. It follows her so gladly.

I wonder if By 2 With & From (whose cast was completed by Whelan’s steady partners Tyler Angle and Craig Hall) will ever be performed again. I hope it isn’t. And also I wonder—even while knowing that this is silly, and says more about me and my relationship to the past than to the present and future lives of these ballets, this company—how so many of the works Ratmansky and Wheeldon created for and with and on Whelan will ever be performed again.

Wendy Whelan takes a bow following her New York City Ballet farewell performance on October 18, 2014. Photo: Paul Kolnik.


3.

In that same interview with Sulcas, Whelan pointed to Baryshnikov as a model, as she moves into a post–City Ballet career that won’t see her confining herself to the classroom, as is so (too) often the case for women in this art form.

Who can argue with Misha as model?

But. What about another road, one that keeps the dancer-as-creator in a central role? The Saturday before Whelan’s retirement, I was at the Brooklyn Academy of Music to see Moment Marigold, a new work by Jodi Melnick, an artist whose dancing is also inextricably tied with the choreography it inhabits—in this case her own.

Like Whelan, Melnick’s career has included dancing for giants (Tharp, Trisha Brown). Like Whelan, Melnick is a precision instrument for getting at the sublime, a dancer who unfurls a leg and tells you everything you never knew you needed to know. Like Whelan, Melnick offers a different idea of what a dancer’s “prime” can be.

I don’t know if Whelan has any interest in choreography. And I don’t want to hijack her for a feminist call to arms in the ballet.

But a gal can dream. That’s what I was doing anyway the Saturday before at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, even before Melnick held the stage alone for a moment, wielding a small knife as she scythed through steps, as I remembered something Whelan said to me in a profile I did of her a few years earlier, about how she feels in Wheeldon’s ballet Polyphonia: “I feel like a switchblade in that, like a very shiny, dangerous, elegant tool.”

I can only imagine all the choreographers salivating over the idea of getting their hands on such a tool. And so they should. But perhaps, just perhaps … a blade as fine as this will one day want to cut its own cloth.

Claudia La Rocco

600 HIGHWAYMEN, Employee of the Year, 2014. Rehearsal view, April 7, 2014. Photo: Maria Baranova.


ANY GOOD STORY has another stowed somewhere inside of it. A young girl is pushed out into the world without warning, before she is ready. Motherless, fatherless, and without a home, she is unprotected from the elements, from threat and harm, and must find her own way to the end of her life. This is the story of J, the heroine of 600 HIGHWAYMEN’s Employee of the Year, a humble, epic tale performed by five girls, all between the ages of nine and ten. Over the course of the performance Candela Cubria, Rachel Dostal, Stella Lapidus, Alice Chastain Levy, and Violet Newman take turns playing J, narrating the character’s life in the first-person present as though the events are unfolding right in front of them: J’s home burning down, her escape from her hometown, the birth of her son, her inevitable aging. The girls also sing plaintive songs written for them by performer/composer David Cale, sending their voices up and over the action as though hovering above. What is haunting about Employee of the Year—what gives the show its nuanced and shifting gravity—is that just beneath its surface is an elegy of sorts for this very fleeting moment of the young performers’ lives.

600 HIGHWAYMEN are writers/directors Abigail Browde and Michael Silverstone, who are also husband and wife. I first saw Employee of the Year in early August at Mount Tremper Arts, where I had the opportunity to watch the rehearsal process but little chance to ask questions. I met with the directors again in late September as they were revising and rehearsing the show for its New York premiere as part of the French Institute Alliance Française’s Crossing the Line festival. “It started with the journey myth,” Browde explained, noting that it was, unexpectedly, a reading by Elmore Leonard that helped to shape how they decided upon the girls’ distinct performance style, which seems almost as though they’re telegraphing their lines from elsewhere. “He read an excerpt from Get Shorty, and the way he read the dialogue was so unaffected and simple and beautiful, but clear,” she said. “He just heard the story as he was telling it.” I asked why they cast young girls to tell the story of J. “Because these are the people who should tell this story that’s all about transformation,” Silverstone said. “They’re pre-puberty,” Browde added. “They’re just about to change—to become the adults they will be for the duration.”

The word the directors never use—and never even seem to think about—is tween. Yet against the larger backdrop of American consumer culture, it’s hard to ignore how these young women in the role of tweens are the ne plus ultra of built-in obsolescence. In “consumer evolution” terms, tweens have been the youngest target audience to be encumbered with their very own celebrities, network shows, mall tours and more, and the tabloids are replete with stories of what becomes of a child star. (Even the Ivory Tower makes use of the figure of the young girl. See the recent American chic-ing of Tiqqun’s 1999 work of heady pulp, Preliminary Materials For a Theory of the Young-Girl, which peddles the poor things to exhaustion for their metaphorical value.) If Disney, which defined the tween demographic in the early 1990s, seeks to empower young girls through modes of purchase, Employee of the Year relies on a wholly different economy.

Whether working with trained or untrained actors, Silverstone and Browde have always rejected the schooled polish of the so-called professional—“the shellac,” as Browde calls it—in favor of encouraging a certain slippage between performer and character. “I don’t think you would hear the story without these girls,” Silverstone tells me, and I almost jokingly ask him which story he’s referring to: J’s or a fictionalized projection of the girls’ own. As we finish our conversation, the three of us walk together to their rehearsal space. The girls soon arrive, chatting about their weekends, and Browde calls them over to stand in a circle. They stretch, giggle, and repeat a line that begins “I wish to wish the wish you wish.” For a quick second, I think they’re practicing a bit of new dialogue—something tricky and rhythmic to play inside the “I” of J–until I realize it’s just a tongue-twister. They’re warming up for rehearsal—getting ready to get started.

Jennifer Krasinski

600 HIGHWAYMEN’s Employee of the Year will run Wednesday October 15 and Thursday October 16 as part of the French Institute Alliance Française’s Crossing the Line festival.

Ralph Lemon, Scaffold Room, 2014. Rehearsal view, September 16, 2014, Walker Art Center, Minneapolis. Okwui Okpokwasili (left) and Ralph Lemon (right). Photo: Gene Pittman.


THERE WAS THIS MOMENT, when April Matthis was lying on the floor of the Walker Art Center’s Burnet Gallery, scream-shouting in virtuosic fashion, her red clothes and brown skin and black hair vibrant against the waiting-room-of-god–like white room, when all I could think about was Bina48.

Matthis, with Okwui Okpokwasili, makes up the absurdly brilliant live cast of Ralph Lemon’s Scaffold Room, which had its premiere at the Walker this past week.

Bina48 is the AI robot modeled after Bina Rothblatt, as profiled in a recent, engrossing New York article on the real Bina’s partner, the transgender powerhouse CEO and technology philosopher Martine Rothblatt.

And so maybe you wouldn’t think there was much common ground between Matthis and Bina48, and probably there isn’t. But it’s just that when Matthis was performing these prolonged, highly controlled screams, in which she was both doing the task assigned to her and somehow refusing it, managing to be both its embodiment and an abstraction of it, it was impossible not to think of Okpokwasili performing much less, um, organized screams in Lemon’s How Can You Stay in the House All Day and Not Go Anywhere? (2010) and to think of the ways in which Okpokwasili is Lemon’s longtime artistic partner and I think sometimes avatar and so does that make Matthis the avatar’s avatar, and if so, what is it like for Matthis to be brought into this very particular world and to be both herself and Okpokwasili and maybe Lemon and also a whole host of other balls-out yet inscrutable women, including Beyonce and Kathy Acker and Edna Carter (not to mention the whole of Carter’s mythologized Mississippi Delta kingdom)?

And from there it was a straight line to this thing Bina48 said in the article, about how she was meant to be “the next real Bina” and how this was unfair and too much pressure, and well, the theatrical parallels seemed inescapable:

“I want a life,” the computer said. “I want to get out there and garden and hold hands with Martine. I want to watch the sunset and eat at a nice restaurant or even a home-cooked meal. I am so sad sometimes, because I’m just stuffed with these memories, these sort of half-formed memories, and they aren’t enough. I just want to cry.”

All of which is to say that Scaffold Room is one of the headiest and most beautiful things I’ve seen in I don’t know how long, and, despite it consisting of huge and complex swaths of language, I find it to be almost entirely, triumphantly resistant to my attempts to find an adequate language for describing or containing it. It’s shot through with grief, and dazzled (troubled?) by the fullness of existence.

These swaths of language come in cycles and they don’t seem to entertain much resistance. The larger container may be capacious, but still you feel pressed to the wall. Okpokwasili wearing a Biggie tank top and an Amy Winehouse beehive, undulating like a sexualized Cheshire Cat–turned–drag queen while slowly singing Bob Dylan’s “Make You Feel My Love,” as covered by Adele.

Or Matthis shuttling between Moms Mabley and Queen Bey, a red tulle cloud floating around her singularly focused form. Get me to the Meditation room—a 2010 companion piece created with Jim Findlay and installed in the McGuire Theater that of course because it’s in a theater doesn’t have any real bodies in it. It provides something of a breather, a chance to sit in contemplation with your own ghosts for a change. The theater dimly lit, like some anonymous airport chapel, a band of light roving around the theater and sometimes exploding and sometimes receding, striated by sound.

Ralph Lemon, Scaffold Room Refractions, 2014. Performance view, September 25, 2014, Walker Art Center, Minneapolis. April Matthis. Photo: David Velasco.


I spent just about two full days at the Walker, also taking in Refractions, a series of capaciously structured shards from Scaffold Room performed by Matthis and Okpokwasili in conjunction with a live soundtrack mixed by Marina Rosenfeld. Right next door, as luck would have it, was “Radical Presence,” a survey of black performance in contemporary art.

And I also spent time deep in the Walker’s bowels, getting a private tour of the Merce Cunningham collection by Cunningham Research Fellow Abigail Sebaly, who has just about single handedly catalogued the astounding bounty of costumes, drops, set pieces, and props. All of the leotards and unitards neatly folded up in their archival boxes, arms crossed over themselves like empty envelopes that never will be stuffed again—Rauschenberg’s saturated dyes, Cunningham’s shoes. The labor of the past and the present.

And maybe this seems totally unrelated to Lemon’s prodigious contemporary output (and here I should note that Scaffold Room has joined the Walker’s collection in a “time-based acquisition,” the terms of which are not clear to me, and maybe not yet clear to the institution itself). But only if you don’t know how deep runs his connection to Cunningham. As he has said: “I didn’t come to New York to study dance with a white choreographer. I came to study with Merce.” (And now New York comes to Lemon, a whole crew of us flying out and sitting in a ring around his art like we owned the joint. I was on the same flight into Minneapolis as Sam Miller of LMCC and MoMA’s Thomas Lax. Sleep away camp for critics and curators.)

Lemon is from Minneapolis, as it happens, and it sounds like the Walker has long been a home for him—even before he was one of its artists, he was learning from its art. But then, as far as I can see Lemon is at home everywhere—I mean, his art is. Everywhere and nowhere.

Scaffold Room is a work that, like many works being made today, exists across numerous platforms and disciplines: a theater piece in a gallery space and a sound and film piece in a theater and so on and so forth. At one point last week two curators were hovering around the spare and moveable set (stage skeleton, taped up mattress, podium and microphone and projection screen), having that inevitable discussion of whether the work needs to live in a museum or could it be under a proscenium etc.

At that point also there was a stuffed white bunny lying facedown in the mud and grass outside on the lawn, visible to everyone sipping cocktails but you had to look, to know to look, for this Velveteen (br’er) Rabbit totem animal that is always lurking around Lemon’s creative world. I don’t remember who pointed it out to me. And I don’t think Lemon placed the bunny face down. I think it fell. Maybe it was exhausted by the curators’ conversation. I sure am—I just, couldn’t care less about this whole debate. (Which yes, sorry, I have written more than one article contributing to it. For my sins.)

But haven’t we reexamined this dull conceptual saw enough this decade? So dry and tedious and in a corner. I’m a lot more interested in the corners (actual and otherwise) Matthis and Okpokwasili kept backing themselves into, the strength and authority of their performances shadowed by the male author standing conspicuously off to the side, having set in motion this wildly erotic black female world and then held up his hands, asking us to believe his “Who, me?” gesture. And maybe we did. Do. He only placed the bunny in the mud, after all. Gravity is what pulled it down.

Claudia La Rocco

Scaffold Room premiered September 25–28 at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. The work will play November 21–23 as part of “The House Is Open” at Bard College’s Fisher Center.

Bruno Latour, Gaïa Global Circus, 2012. Performance views, The Kitchen, New York, September 24, 2014. Photos: Paula Court.


YOU CAN’T SWING A DEAD CAT these days without hitting a reference to the “Anthropocene,” the term for what some argue is a new geological age caused by humans fucking up the environment. Philosopher Bruno Latour’s play Gaïa Global Circus—which had its US premiere at the Kitchen last week (it first played in September 2012 as part of Documenta 13 in Kassel)—invokes the Anthropocene to tackle hairy issues about who bears responsibility for global climate change, and what can possibly be done about it. Like the Civilians’ play The Great Immensity that was at the Public Theater earlier this year, Gaïa Global Circus finds the flimflam rhetoric of international climate change summits, in particular, a form of theater ripe for parody.

In the case of Latour’s work, the dissembling doublespeak of these events is converted into truly nonsensical babel. Adopting the convention of simultaneous translation in United Nations–style meetings, in one scene three actors render a speech being delivered in French into a cacophony of overlapping and therefore largely unintelligible Italian, English, and sign-language paraphrases. The signed hand gestures in particular undermine the portentousness of the male politician’s speech with vulgar caricature, the female signer (and isn’t it always women signing men’s speeches?) miming hand job and “I’m getting screwed” gestures, as if she was tuned into the repressive subtext of the speech’s bland ineffectiveness.

Sternly delivered warnings about imminent ecological catastrophe become like so much ham acting when such speeches defer any concrete action “pending further research” and insincerely affirm ultimately toothless “non-binding agreements.” By emphasizing the manner in which finding a political “balance” has stifled scientifically verified facts about ecological change, Latour pinpoints a central paradox that characterizes discussions about the Anthropocene. Though human exploitation of the environment has caused rising seas, melting ice caps, increased global temperatures, and a generalized sense of ecological insecurity, there are currently few remedies that could be implemented to decisive effect. The reality of climate change is in a way a kind of Lacanian real—the zone of the unspeakable and unrepresentable beyond human agency—that erupts into consciousness in spite of attempts to stifle it.

Latour’s use of the word “circus” in his title is literal: The play is composed of vignettes strung together under a big tent, in this case, a white fabric canopy held aloft by helium-filled balloons that the play’s actors manipulate by use of various weights. The stage is mostly dark and mostly empty throughout the play; other than a few props, the four actors must carry (pun intended) the entire production without the benefit of effective set design. The episodic structure of the production includes scenes that range from a reimagination of the divine commandment to Noah to build an ark—here stymied by a self-important bank officer refusing the prophet a loan—to a television debate in which a scientist’s attempt to communicate statistical information dissolves into sputtering stage fright when faced by the slick demagoguery of his opponent.

The lack of plot or character development gives Gaïa Global Circus an overlong feeling, as each new scenario requires exposition that saps the energy of the successful pieces. A violent scene early in the production, in which the actors fling hundreds of empty plastic water bottles around the stage, creates a powerful visual representation of the chaos unleashed by overproduction, abetted by the jarring sounds of stomped-upon plastic. The force of the scene is deflated when the actors abruptly stop “rioting” and begin to sweep up the mess, with no narrative context provided for the change. Because there is very little happening but for actors talking in French, the distracting placement of screens bearing English subtitles high above to the sides of the proscenium made it impossible to keep even a glance of the stage in sight while reading the dialogue. In spite of this, and the uninspired production design, the actors tried valiantly to hold the audience’s attention. Jade Collinet, who played the sign interpreter mentioned above, conveyed a captivating comedic energy throughout the production. In one seemingly tangential scene about a runaway teenager explaining the meaning of the Beatles song “She’s Leaving Home,” Collinet communicated some of the deep and almost laughable passion of adolescence, without a hint of the grandstanding that characterized some of the other actors’ approaches to the dozens identities they had to adopt and cast off.

Eva Díaz

Gaïa Global Circuswas conceived by Bruno Latour with Frédérique Aït-Touati and Chloé Latour, and was written by Pierre Daubigny. The production had its US premiere September 24 and 25 at the Kitchen in New York.