Maria Hassabi, PLASTIC, 2015. Rehearsal view, Museum of Modern Art, New York, October 30, 2015. Photo: Julieta Cervantes.

THE WOMAN IS sitting on a couch in the museum. She is only sitting. She isn’t looking distractedly at a brochure, or taking a picture of art, or herself, or herself and art. She isn’t doing anything with her phone, even just holding it like a talisman, and in fact it appears that she doesn’t even have a phone. In a room full of chaotic, barely-there bodies, she simply and powerfully is.

Soon enough she will not be sitting. She will, slowly and with a coiled, liquid purpose that seems to originate at a cellular level, flow into less conventional poses, coming up for air periodically to level her makeup-smudged gaze at people who, inevitably, will return that gaze through electronic mediation.

The woman is the singular, gorgeously intelligent American dancer Kennis Hawkins, who is these days based in Brussels and seen all too rarely in New York. Hawkins is part of a continual rotation of dancers: Each performs a two-hour solo on and near a sofa, one of several pieces of sleek furniture placed in the atrium. And the solo is part of Maria Hassabi’s PLASTIC, installed through March 20th in the Museum of Modern Art’s atrium and the lobby and fourth-floor staircases. Accompanied by Morten Norbye Halvorsen’s atmospheric sound design, studded with Marina Rosenfeld’s lushly romantic song fragments, it features some of the most compelling dancers currently working today.

In other sections of PLASTIC, these dancers are more obtrusive than the sofa solo, their focused movements forming slowly migrating islands within heavily trafficked pedestrian passageways. They wear uniforms (by threeASFOUR): pristine sneakers, and shirts tucked into tight jeans bedecked with jewels. And they are watched over by another uniformed ensemble: the museum guards, who attempt to balance traffic flow with access to and protection of the artists. I’ve never been told I couldn’t do so many seemingly innocuous things: No sitting on the floor near a sitting dancer, no leaning against a wall bare of any art save a leaning dancer, and, most absurdly, no pausing on the stairs unless I was doing it to take a picture. Museum guards, for me, are always on the side of the angels; but it’s feeling increasingly urgent that museums figure out what kind of public spaces they want to be beyond staging sites for Instagram.

A finely honed work like PLASTIC, the latest iteration of Hassabi’s sustained investigation of presence, brings such twenty-first century dilemmas to the fore. I don’t think of Hassabi as a political artist, but the steady insistence of this piece feels like a political gesture in a way that, say, Marina Abramović’s The Artist Is Present never did.

Maria Hassabi talks about PLASTIC.

PLASTIC endlessly rewards attention, creating a sort of spectacle of intimacy both generous and radical. Yet it also allows for a porousness of viewer focus, creating a continuum in itself, and with past Hassabi creations. Spending time with it in its opening week, I thought of something the choreographer Rashaun Mitchell said to me days earlier when we were at the Joyce Theater to see Pam Tanowitz, and the lights went down before we could see what the first work on the program was: “It doesn’t matter. It’s all one dance.”

Mitchell, who has performed with Tanowitz, meant it as a compliment, and he’s right, I think: Tanowitz and Hassabi, like many mature artists, have found freedom in working and reworking the same plot of land. True to its title, the story progresses as if in a dream of glittering surfaces, Tanowitz’s latest premiere, is an unknown but familiar world, one that, in ways not so dissimilar from PLASTIC, delights in its attention to detail while permitting—perhaps even asking—its public to move in and out of its formal parries and thrusts.

The performers are, as usual, studded with alumni from the Merce Cunningham Dance Company—no surprise, given the exactitude and speed of Tanowitz’s phrasework. There is in every moment (and echoed by Reid Bartelme and Harriet Jung’s jauntily understated costumes) a juxtaposition or witticism to delight the eye. But it’s saved from being clever eye-candy by its fierce, singular concentration; there is something worked out here in the doing, as the dancers attack along and within Davison Scandrett’s subtly shifting planes of light, and terrifically spiny music that moves from Julia Wolfe’s “Four Marys,” performed live by the FLUX Quartet, to Dan Siegler’s luxuriously mercurial score.

Justin Peck, The Most Incredible Thing, 2016. Performance view, New York City Ballet, January 29, 2016. Photo: Paul Kolnik.

Watching Tanowitz’s concert, I had, as I invariably do when watching her work, an insistent question in my head: Why on earth isn’t this woman choreographing for New York City Ballet? I’ve asked this before in print, I’m pretty sure in this column. Tedious repetition! Sorry. But it’s tedious to keep seeing the utter lack of gender (and etc.) diversity on ballet stages. The night before Tanowitz, I caught a City Ballet bill featuring the founder George Balanchine, and present-day makers Peter Martins, Justin Peck, and Christopher Wheeldon, and the only thing that stood out as remarkable difference is that Peck is the sole American—which, yes, when we’re talking talented ballet choreographers these days, counts as a serious minority in an already tiny group.

Peck is abundantly talented. He is also very young, just twenty-eight, and still making more than one dance. His contribution to the bill I caught is The Most Incredible Thing, a splashy premiere with involved décor by Marcel Dzama. It’s a big departure for Peck, and what doesn’t work about this ballet, namely its muddled but thin telling of an actual story (by Hans Christian Andersen), underscores his proclivities. Like Tanowitz, Peck communicates through structure, working within and around, and sometimes momentarily resisting or reorienting, a highly codified movement language.

He pulls drama from friction of textures and from buoyant flows of material; and it’s clear that he’s still studying, digesting the steps he continues to dance as a City Ballet soloist, and appropriating them for his own purposes, within ridiculous fishbowl conditions. That’s not derivative, it’s apprenticeship—something that’s important to keep in mind as the ballet industry pushes to make him its next great heir apparent. He’s twenty-eight. He has time. How good that we get to watch him figure out how to spend it.

Claudia La Rocco

Maria Hassabi’s PLASTIC runs through March 20 at the Museum of Modern Art; Pam Tanowitz’s the story progresses as if in a dream of glittering surfaces premiered February 18–21 at the Joyce Theater; Justin Peck’s The Most Incredible Thing premiered February 2 at New York City Ballet.

Martine Syms, Misdirected Kiss, 2016. Performance view, The Broad, Los Angeles, January 21, 2016. Photo: Dori Scherer.

QUEEN LATIFAH looks at the camera, smiling with lips lined, hair pressed, blazer on. A headshot from her days starring as Khadijah James in the 1990s FOX sitcom Living Single, the image’s caption betrays an earlier, discarded title for the show: “My Girls.”

To whom, in fact, do these girls belong? The artist Martine Syms calls photos like this—purchased on eBay and at flea markets—a type of “prosthetic memory,” a means of claiming a past that is not, conventionally speaking, your own. Speaking to an audience at The Broad in Los Angeles, Syms tells us that the term (from cultural historian Alison Landsberg) has been rechristened by her friend, artist Steffani Jemison, as “weave memory.”

From a virtual backstage, Syms drags the source, a video clip, into the fore of a collage she’s arranging on the projected screen. Vine user DisforDivinee—like Queen Latifah before her—looks directly at the camera, at us. Hands running through her twists, she says, “I go to work and all the white ladies say ‘I love your hair, it’s so long,’ ” brows furrowing as she stretches the vowels in “love” and “so” into a mock-beatific drawl. Cut to: “It’s mine, I bought it!” a declaration tinted with both exasperation and more than just a hint of glee. It’s a capitalist model of ownership, to be sure, but one that feels radical nonetheless.

Without sound, these six seconds loop over and over again, becoming a silent refrain as the performative lecture moves associatively on. Syms riffs on photos of her aunt (affectionately known as “Bunt”) and the afterlife of a 1968 James Taylor lyric (“there’s something in the way she moves”), as it was borrowed first by George Harrison, then by a 2001 made-for-TV movie, and compressed still further into the title of yet another film, about a female dancer trying to break into the male-dominated world of stepping.

Backflips from that film, How She Move (2007), become a kaleidoscopic background for yet another layer of Syms’s onscreen choreography. This time it’s the 1907 Edison-produced gag film, Laughing Gas, starring Bertha Regustus. After a dose of nitrous oxide, her character’s uninhibited, uncontrollable laughter traverses the city in a racialized spectacle that is also contagious, inducing those around her to laugh along too.

Next we hear from Maxine Powell, giving a 1986 interview about her role as the self-appointed head of Motown Records’s “charm school” in the ’60s, a program aimed at getting the artists out of the so-called chitlin’ circuit and into “first-rate” (read: white) venues. In her impeccably tailored suit and hat, Powell admonishes, “Class will turn the heads of kings and queens.” In the audience, heads both nodded and rolled, well-schooled in respectability’s nefarious double-bind.

Even as she delves into the current vogue for “power poses” in the corporate world, Syms’s own body language is casual, in control. Her voice alternates from deadpan delivery to a tone of collusion, divulging childhood artifacts as if they were secrets. (A photo of the artist as a preteen at “T-Zone,” the summer camp for girl empowerment run by supermodel Tyra Banks, elicits both giggles and recognition.)

Among these confessions were Syms’s own “rules for presentation,” which include a three-step process of hair conditioning, a mandate to “be scuffed” (i.e. not too polished), and, when in public, an imperative to read books with obfuscating titles. These rules for self-care are also a kind of self-governance, both a luxury and a form of defense. As with most things, Audre Lorde said it first and said it best, caring for the self can be an act of political warfare.

Rife with Vines, GIFs, and other media signatures, Syms’s work is rightly considered as that of a digital native. But perhaps more than the techniques of the contemporary observer, it is those of the twenty-first-century art student that shape her oeuvre most.

What is a “performative lecture” after all? Perhaps it is merely a marketing ploy, bound up with the institutionalization of performance and the museum’s growing voracity for public programming, but the form is also emphatically related to the professionalization of artists of Syms’s generation: so trained in theory, studio visits, crits. They are so good at talking about their work, which, like Syms’s practice, is increasingly research-based. (Syms received her BFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 2007 and is an MFA candidate at Bard College.) Besides a whole lot of debt, the cynic might ask: What is art school but a kind of finishing school anyway?

Syms both masters and subverts that training. Laced with ambivalence—like the artist’s self-designation as a “conceptual entrepreneur”—her work both slakes our thirst and denies it, hews to our expectations and then cleaves brilliantly away.

Catherine Damman

Martine Syms’s Misdirected Kiss was organized by Jennifer Doyle and ran January 21 at The Broad in Los Angeles. Her exhibition “Black Box” is on view through February 27th at Human Resources LA.