Mortal COIL


Tina Satter, Ancient Lives, 2015. Performance view, The Kitchen, New York, January 7, 2015. Jess Barbagallo and Eliza Bent. Photo: Paula Court.

AH, TECHNOLOGY! The bogeyman that threatens to fetter our bodies to gadgets, entangle our synapses in wires, thieve our memories, erode our free will, etc. Popular stories remain riddled with the plagues and punishments that befall humanity when it believes it possesses the power to create the new, to exceed the limits of the body, to trump mortality. And in the end we always save ourselves somehow, don’t we? (Spoiler alert: There are no spoilers anymore.) How dispiriting to realize that our devices might be updated with greater frequency than the narratives we spin around them.

However, there is a bracing irony when the live arts take on this subject. As I sat through performances over the past few weeks—some part of P.S. 122’s COIL Festival and some not—I watched as the space of theater contained bodies IRL while negotiating narratives woven around technologies. This is nothing new to American experimental theater. So many of its tropes are the products of this intersection: performers captured and transmitted from the stage via live video feed to the audience sitting before them; an actor’s body convulsing due to a fictional glitch. (A question for a future essay: What distinguishes a tradition from a trope with regard to the avant-garde?) That said, there was plenty to see regarding the current state of the art.

The TEAM’s solid RoosevElvis addressed the split personalities that can result from loneliness, a lack of self-worth, and maybe—just maybe—a history that doesn’t quite realize it’s time has passed. Ann is a solitary meatpacking plant worker and closeted lesbian whose humdrum life is punctured by a failed affair with Brenda, who she met online. Because the mind, like nature, abhors a vacuum, Ann’s inability to live as her real self places her at the mercy of dueling alter egos: President Theodore Roosevelt and Elvis Presley, archetypes of long-ago masculinities. A makeshift “video village” on stage throughout the show was a nod to cinema and television production. Video screens served as fifth walls, playing off-stage story moments: Ann working at the plant; footage of American highways. At other times, these also played clips from Thelma and Louise. Like Ann, however, the soul of this production was wrestled over by two forces—theater and video—each promising a certain virtue while inadvertently quashing the play’s potential to fully self-realize. The resulting schizophrenia was engaging, though could have used some much needed focus to put a finer point on it all.

Mike Iveson, Sorry Robot, 2015. Performance view, New Ohio Theatre, New York, January 6, 2015. Tanya Selvaratnam and Anthony R. Brown. Photo: Paula Court.

Andrew Schneider’s YOUARENOWHERE wrestles a different kind of fractured self, one that’s jacked into invisible networks over which Schneider seamlessly presides as master and puppet at the same time. For the first part of the performance, he monologues as though on fast-forward. Part confessional, part tutorial, his spastic text snaps between subjects ranging from AA recovery steps to quantum mechanics to love connections. To describe what unfolds from there would give far too much away, for Schneider and his crack team of creative collaborators have near-perfected their own brand of intelligent spectacle. Using only lights, sound, sensors, mics and a single curtain, they wholly transform the performance space into an unsettling, unidentifiable elsewhere. Not since Richard Foreman’s productions have I seen interiority and exteriority collapsed so compellingly, carving out a singular space in which both actors and audience perform. Even the glitch, my least favorite of all the tech tropes in contemporary culture, serves real purpose here: as mere interruption, not obstacle, to an inevitable forward momentum.

Far smarter and more astute than it may initially appear, composer/performer Mike Iveson’s lo-fi Sci-Fi musical Sorry Robot refuses a cold mastery of form in favor of producing a goofball satire that undermines the usual dictations. Set in a creepy Florida hotel-cum–software R&D lab, the story riffs on a genre standard: What happens if one day, robots are given feelings? One answer: a more empathic workforce with a penchant for bad wigs and colorful shorts! Another answer: extreme absurdity at the cusp of transcendent delight. Iveson shines most brightly in his songwriting—singularly weirdo and so very wonderful—which features choruses like “I’ve got feelings / emotional feelings” and “This one goes out to the children of my creditors / The boys who buy beers for my obituary editors.” The play is his first as a writer, and any unevenness or lack of refinement is that of an artist exploring new territory—altogether human.

There is a strikingly synthetic quality to Tina Satter’s seductive and mesmerizing Ancient Lives, a play that entwines adolescence and obsolescence in order to un-tell a familiar story. Satter’s script blends words both borrowed (The Crucible, Romeo and Juliet) and her own to write the fates of three teenaged girls who leave their families to follow a beloved teacher into the woods. If the Internet has glamoured innumerable artists into confusing pastiche with proudly new productions, Satter seems to have devoured and digested her chosen references to create her very own uncanny valley, one that echoes with fairy tales, Mario Bava films, American teen flicks, and more without falling to imitation. What the hell is water? a young goldfish asks in a joke that David Foster Wallace made famous. Which is all to say that ubiquity begets invisibility sooner or later. Ancient Lives is ironically about This Very Moment (the Digital Age, call it what you prefer), but rather than retreat into critique—pointing to the condition in which we live in order to point to the condition in which we live—Satter finds a fresh way to see.

Jennifer Krasinski

Miguel Gutierrez, Age & Beauty Part 2, 2015. Performance view, January 14, 2015, Abrons Arts Center, New York. Photo: Ian Douglas.

I’VE JUST DELETED the three hundred words I’d written to start this month’s column, which covers a fraction of the myriad festivals, showings, showcases, etc. mushrooming up around the annual Association of Performing Arts Presenters conference in New York.

There wasn’t anything particularly wrong with these words, which talked about the “show-must-go-on New York performance crisis” and how exhausted and overwhelmed everyone is by the whole magnificently underfunded circus. The system is distressingly fucked, has been for years.

It’s just that, well, I wrote about these same exact things in 2012, and then again last year. And while the “system” in which individual artists and tiny, overburdened arts organizations subsidize much of the glittery, crummy situation remains just as gross (indeed, artist fatigue/budget malaise was a theme this year, courtesy of artists like Cynthia Hopkins, Miguel Gutierrez, and Jack Ferver), for 2015 I want to talk about something else.

I want to talk about how generally lucky I felt—despite suffering through a few outright stinkers and while disagreeing with some of the politics on display—to be able to take all of this in during my personal audience odyssey. Twenty-two shows in twelve days, and almost all of them strong in parts or whole: Against all odds, or maybe in some unsavory yet exciting ways related to those odds, there is a wealth of vital, progressive, deeply valuable performance being made in America.

I spent the bulk of this year’s APAP at American Realness, a ten-day sampler of largely preexisting shows curated by founder and producer Thomas Benjamin Snapp Pryor and housed almost entirely in Abrons Arts Center. This is a particular slice of American performance, skewing toward New York and undergirded by a queer male sensibility. It’s a small, interconnected world (fractious, and with factions), in which everyone seems to have worked for and with everyone else at one time or another, and the distinction between artists and audiences is a blurry one—and this isn’t even taking into account works like luciana achugar’s OTRO TEATRO: The Pleasure Project, in which the audience is full of writhing, chanting artist plants.

Jack Ferver, Night Light Bright Light, 2015. Performance view, January 15, 2015, Abrons Arts Center, New York. Jack Ferver. Photo: Ian Douglas.

I was embedded this year, too, teaching a Movement Research criticism workshop at Abrons, full of students (yes, many of them also choreographers and performers) writing about Realness shows. And yet the accusation that Realness is an insider affair, which gets tossed around a lot by the festival’s critics (and some of its fans), strikes me as a tedious canard, another way in which a conservative aesthetic rear guard attempts to dismiss work it deems other while celebrating this behavior in what it finds familiar. The codes of ballet can seem just as impenetrable as the codes of performance art on first encounter, but this shouldn’t count as an argument against either.

And who are we kidding? A handful of individuals runs every world within the larger art universe—they’re all inequitable in that regard. Could you make the argument that Pryor is practicing nepotism when he consistently curates Gutierrez, his main client, into Realness? Yes, absolutely, and Gutierrez made that argument, not to mention repaying the favor, by casting Pryor in Age & Beauty Part 2, a meditation on the inexorable wildness of the creative urge (as embodied by Michelle Boule) smashed up against the exhaustion of the successful midcareer artist, which had its premiere at Realness.

The better question seems to be: Is Gutierrez a strong artist, and does he exemplify the sort of work Pryor is attempting to promote? There are clear and vibrant links between these works: Gutierrez, for example, owes a clear and happy debt to Keith Hennessy, whose ritualistic Bear/Skin solo shares with Michelle Ellsworth’s grief-stricken comedic solo Preparation for the Obsolescence of the Y Chromosome a simultaneous belief in and skepticism toward the power of performance as cathartic social encounter. And then there is the Bulgarian choreographer Ivo Dimchev—one of the few non-Americans presented at Realness, and yet not an outlier in the sense that the piece he presented, Fest, delves with intense formal beauty and humor into the ugly currencies of the international performance circuit where many of the Realness artists make or hope to make their actual money.

I can’t see why Pryor shouldn’t remain committed to these artists. And yet this doesn’t mean that certain imbalances within the festival, such as the persistent tilt toward male artists (again, noted by Gutierrez on stage), aren’t an issue.

Though certainly Realness—which had a more robust lineup of women this year—isn’t alone on this shortcoming. After The Bitch Tracks, Darrell Jones’s APAP weekend salon at Danspace Project, I talked with several women artists about how much mileage male (often queer) artists get, and how much slack given, over the appropriation of female stereotypes. Jones is using a deft, gorgeously nuanced deconstruction of the voguing idiom to explore issues of race, class, and sexuality—it’s heady and beautifully physical work, and yet it’s hard not to purse one’s lips when male dancers are involved in a slow-motion entanglement entitled Lesbo Porno.

The questions of who’s allowed to lay claim to this stuff on stage, and who to question those claims in the audience (a white, straight, cisgender woman?), stack up. I find them bracing, and delicious. I thought of them again when watching the rude boy lesbian chic of Simone Aughterlony and Antonija Livingstone in Supernatural, a trio with instrumentalist and composer Hahn Rowe, as they stripped and strutted and generally aped the dick-swinging entitlement of jocks, wielding axes and ejaculating ropes. Such a slick seduction; whose gaze is being courted here?

Michelle Ellsworth, Preparation for the Obsolescence of the Y Chromosome, 2015. Performance view, January 17, 2015, Abrons Arts Center, New York. Michelle Ellsworth. Photo: Ian Douglas.

And what about the decidedly un-chic declaration in Variations on Virtuosity by The Ballez? Contemporary performance doesn’t always do right by people who fall outside of traditional gender conventions, and so Katy Pyle’s creation of a company that questions tired norms and narratives is a welcome corrective. And yet I must admit to being flummoxed by the show I saw, in which the performers who presented as the most typically feminine and steeped in ballet technique held the central ballerina roles—is this ballez, or ballet?

Perhaps the subversion was too subtle for me. Or perhaps what you see is what you get—there is a certain clumsy-sly earnestness to American discourse that Realness artists traffic in to skillful effect. Hennessy and Ellsworth ride that high line beautifully, and you see it also in Karen Sherman’s One with Others, Ferver’s Night Light Bright Light, and Neal Medlyn’s Pop Star Series. Moderating Darrell Jones’s salon, the artist and scholar Onye Ozuzu made reference to the strategy of “being deliberately ineffectual”—it seems fitting that artists from a country effectually throwing its weight around would hurtle in the opposite direction.

Even when it doesn’t work for me, I prefer it infinitely to the world-weary pose of a show such as Kein Applaus für Scheisse (No Applause for Shit), by Florentina Holzinger, from Austria, and Vincent Riebeek, from the Netherlands, which ran through a host of lazy performance art tropes involving the usual suspects of urination, vomiting, et al. The gross-out antics merely bore—what upsets is the gross display of entitlement it takes to trade in offensive displays of pop cultural minstrelsy and sexism. Playing to the intelligentsia for cheap laughs while the world burns: Does anybody still need to own this in 2015?

Claudia La Rocco

The American Realness Festival ran Thursday, January 8 – Sunday, January 18, 2015.