Los Angeles Poverty Department, What Fuels Development, 2016. Performance view, Armory Center for the Arts, Pasadena, March 2016. Photo: Monica Nouwens.

IT’S HAPPY HOUR IN AMERICA. A day’s work done, the gainfully, under- and self-employed rush home by way of a well-earned pint. On South Main Street in Los Angeles, from a sidewalk cluttered with chalkboards, a dozen upscale haunts beckon the thirsty. 452 South Main is not among them.

That address, the once and future home of a food truck turned brick-and-mortar hopeful known as Great Balls, has stood empty for four lucrative years. The blank storefront has its neighbors to thank. In 2013, residents of the New Genesis Apartments, the low-income and recovery housing complex for which 452 is ground-level retail, balked righteously at the liquor license issued on their doorstep. Their building is owned and managed by Skid Row Housing Trust, a community bulwark which, they argue, should stick to addiction-recovery services, and leave alcoholic serveries to the profiteers.

On March 25th, I lined up not downtown, but in historic Pasadena; not for the opening of Great Balls, but of Great Ballz. It was the debut performance of What Fuels Development?, the centerpiece of a retrospective at the Armory Arts Center for John Malpede and the Skid Row–based performance troupe Los Angeles Poverty Department, or LAPD. Nine plasticky tables crowded a round, faux-wood stage beneath lozenge-colored lamps. The maître d’ handed each guest a menu as we took our seats, soon to savor the irony of dishes like The Urban Pioneer (squirrel meatballs), Gentri-Fried Chicken (it’s free-range), and drinks like Redundant IPA and Open Container. No liquor served here either though—only an impassioned dramatization of the true-life fight to keep Great Balls dry, a specific episode to counter the abstract surety of gentrification. On one side of the gallery, under a row of banners sewn in gold lamé with the puffy faces of Skid Row luminaries, was a lectern; on the other was a conference table, mics and placards, where zoning commissioners Brown, Acevedo, and Martorell would hear the arguments both for, but mostly against, the restaurant’s alcohol permit.

Per LAPD’s mission, current or former tenants of Skid Row played almost every role, on both sides of the issue—playing themselves, or people like them, or people opposed. “It’s the center of Gallery Row, and Art Walk,” said a “twelve-year resident of downtown” (not Skid Row, note), voiced by a Skid Row local. But an art gallery closes at 6, so, in the interest of safety, the neighborhood council insisted on a late-serving restaurant. You’ve heard about business, said one New Genesis resident, after listing the block’s extant bars. “Now, Commissioners—what about me? I live here.” The restaurant owners don’t. “And I have to live with their mess.” He’s worked for years on the Skid Row cleanup crew, and blames the littered street on its fickle customers, not its citizens.

Los Angeles Poverty Department, What Fuels Development, 2016. Performance view, Pasadena Armory Arts Center, March 2016. Photo: Monica Nouwens.

Suddenly the cast surrounded us and, kicking in unison, rotated the stage—a giant lazy Susan—90 degrees. Our perspective shifted, jostled, like we’d had a few, fast-forwarded through months of local bureaucratic process, tumbled through a litany of names and acronyms and hearings—between the main audience with the Area Planning Commission/Central (APC/C) and internal SRHT board deliberations, Downtown Los Angeles Neighborhood Council (DLANC) meetings and speculative handshake deals in hallways and back rooms.

Spin to a scene at a cafe table cluttered with empties, where DLANC members, development rep-for-hire Elizabeth Peterson, and Clint Peralta, cofounder and public face of Great Balls, discussed the fate of the New Genesis like some debauched Weimar landlords in a Grosz painting. True, SRHT struggled to get seventy-nine new very-low-income units added to an above-market-value Main Street—Skid Row side or no. “But we’re housing the homeless!” insisted one politician. “You can house them,” said another. “But you don’t have to showcase them!” Yet the Armory is that showcase. The cast in their imaginary council dock murmured genuine assent, called out heartfelt support—“That’s right.” “Tell the truth!”—for their real-life friends and neighbors.

For the stuffier, pitiless, victors’ version of history, see a string of editorials from LA Downtown News—three in two years—plus one from the Los Angeles Times, enskying the “progress” of the “Historic Core.” And by the way—why meatballs? “Because meatballs are universal,” Great Balls on Tires has actually claimed. Turns out the LAPD’s satire isn’t far from the inane ball-boosting rhetoric of supporters, or from downtown’s childish (not to say Freudian) fixation on having meatballs, and having them their way. Jane Jacobs urged mixed-use, including restaurants and bars, but Main Street’s zealous developers ignore other features of healthy neighborhoods: gradual change, a sense of common past, and—that old number—diversity. Alas, in LA’s pyrrhic imagination, success always has a bar.

In March 2013, the APC/C granted Skid Row residents’ appeal. But in June the next year, the Commission reinstated GB’s right to booze. For those who call New Genesis home, the events portrayed in What Fuels Development? (the answer, by the way, is money) mark only a brief reprieve between a slap in the face and a kick in the… I’ll say mouth. Let downtowners eat their balls. Let them have their Red, White & Brew. (And yet, as of this writing, Malpede and co. have taken the fight to the California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control; a public hearing is pending.) Regardless, the Skid Row community, through the artwork of LAPD, has won something that will likely outlast a trendy meatball stand: a moment of collective history, the legend of that spring day in 2013 when their voices made a difference. A final slow turn of the stage, all the way, 360 degrees. Another view. In March 2016, at the Armory, their appeal was granted once more. The residents clapped for joy. The LAPD cast surrounded the Great Ballz restaurant floor, joined hands, and took a bow.

Travis Diehl

Performances of What Fuels Development by the Los Angeles Poverty Department took place on March 25th and 26th and April 1st through 3rd. The group’s retrospective, “Do you want the cosmetic version or the real deal?: Los Angeles Poverty Department, 1985–2016” is on view at the Armory Center for the Arts, Pasadena through May 15th.

Cecil Taylor, Min Tanaka, and Tony Oxley in performance at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. April 14, 2016, as part of “Open Plan: Cecil Taylor.” Photo: Paula Court.

IN A THREE-NIGHT STRETCH earlier this month, I saw jazz legend Cecil Taylor’s concert with Min Tanaka and Tony Oxley at the Whitney, Miami City Ballet at Lincoln Center, and Vicky Shick at Danspace Project. “This is a totally weird amalgamation,” I wrote to my editor, “and so I’m thinking it might make for a good column.”

Such, it seems, are the dubious writerly frames I devise when faced with an overabundance of choices. I should have Shick choreograph this column for me; Another Spell, which marked the twentieth anniversary of her first commission at Danspace, showed yet again how skilled this echt downtown choreographer is at placing incongruent moments next to each other and letting them float down the same gossamer stream.

Echt downtown—what a weird thing to say in 2016. (I mean, my god, the Whitney just sent out a press release celebrating its “first anniversary downtown.”) But the crisscrossing lines of influence among artists like Shick, Susan Rethorst, Jodi Melnick, Jon Kinzel, and Juliette Mapp, many of them leading back in some way to Trisha Brown, still feel rooted in an aesthetic of time and place.

It’s an aesthetic with which I’ve been intimately engaged as a watcher for the past decade; I was aware of that on Saturday night, at a full house in Saint Mark’s Church, having felt just the opposite at the Taylor concert. I don’t belong here, I haven’t earned this, I thought to myself several times during that sold-out, buzzy show—such as when an artist-friend in the audience (I only think jokingly) scolded me with “This is Cecil Taylor. You’d better put that notebook away.” Or when the audience roared at the entrance of the man—this is when art is like church, and you know when you’re not part of the congregation.

Vicky Shick, Another Spell, 2016. Performance view, Danspace Project, Saint Mark's Church, New York, April 12, 2016. Donna Costello, Heather Olson, Jodi Bender, Lily Gold, Marilyn Maywald-Yahel, and Vicky Shick. Photo: Ian Douglas/Courtesy of Danspace Project.

The seven women in Another Spell come and go in restless eddies and bursts, going one way, going another. Finger snaps, forward rushes, the slow figure-eighting of pelvises and hips: eternity at the center of a wayward gravity.

At the risk of overextending the church metaphor, that’s what it felt like to me, as a very young critic, when older dance-goers talked about New York City Ballet during Balanchine’s reign. The literature reinforced their fervor. Here is Edwin Denby, in 1957, describing the opening night of Agon: “The balcony stood up shouting and whistling when the choreographer took his bow. Downstairs, people came out into the lobby, their eyes bright as if the piece had been champagne. Marcel Duchamp, the painter, said he felt the way he had after the opening of Le Sacre.”

There wasn’t any shouting or whistling, as I recall, for Miami City Ballet’s performance—though there is a flow and speed and attack in this company that is easy to feel swept up in. One could imagine this was Justin Peck’s experience when he made Heatscape for them last year—though he seems perpetually swept up. In this ballet and in his new work for San Francisco Ballet, In the Countenance of Kings, he sends the dancers rushing to the lip of the stage, as if they would overflow its bounds and pool into the orchestra and beyond. He hasn’t yet sent them any further, I don’t think, but one holds out hope.

Among my notes from the Miami City performance is this: “What would Justin Peck choreograph to Cecil Taylor?!”

Taylor’s intense charges and elusive breaks, it’s restlessness not, in the end, so unlike Shick’s feints of movement—but what Tanaka did with it, and with the dark, softly thick underlining of Oxley’s electronics, was something more akin to Petrushka on acid.

The body never finds the right position. How can it when beset by delicate anvils?

Taylor didn’t move very far at all, not once he had been helped to his piano. But his eyes tracked Tanaka everywhere, until the dancer curled down behind the musician, finally finding a core of stillness.

Petrushka on acid isn’t really right—it’s a placeholder, something an outsider would say in trying to describe what was coursing around that night. After the sunset darkened the glorious view from the fifth-floor wall of windows overlooking the Hudson River, a reflection of the gallery space seemed to extend out into the night sky, like the belly of an alien ship.

There was a second, impromptu act. There was more applause, the audience on its feet.

Claudia La Rocco

“Open Plan: Cecil Taylor” ran April 15 through 24 at the Whitney Museum of American Art; Vicky Shick and dancer’s Another Spell ran April 14 through 16 at Danspace Project; Miami City Ballet ran April 13 through 17 at Lincoln Center.

Big Words


Alvis Hermanis, Brodsky/Baryshnikov, 2016. Performance view, Baryshnikov Arts Center, New York, March 8, 2016. Mikhail Baryshnikov. Photo: Stephanie Berger.

IS DEATH A CRUELER FATE for those who have lived a creative life? Is it a greater tragedy that one day a body that has channeled dance or theater or poetry will betray not just life, but art too? These questions surfaced in two recent productions, each of which consider the condition of the male artist in his golden years: Alvis Hermanis’s Brodsky/Baryshnikov starring Mikhail Baryshnikov, and Robert Wilson’s performance of Samuel Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape. At the center of both plays are the words of long-dead authors, ego ideals for the artists on stage. In the face of their own mortality, Baryshnikov and Wilson look to Brodsky and Beckett respectively for a form that can both contain and express gratitude, anxiety, rage, and grief. But where one production succeeds in creating a work of theater that bangs against the inevitable with great life force, the other falls to a different kind of death: that of the lively imagination.

My slurred and hurried voice
will trouble you with bitterness.
But someday, bent over my tired smirk
in belated sorrow,
perhaps forgetting everything on earth,
in another country—sorry!—another century,
you’ll whisper my name without anger,
and I’ll shudder in my grave.

So reads Baryshnikov in the entrancing, incantatory Brodsky/Baryshnikov, devised by Hermanis, artistic director of The New Riga Theater, to pay respects to the late Nobel Prize–winning poet, Joseph Brodsky. The words heard over the ninety-minute piece are all Brodsky’s, clipped and collaged by Hermanis to create a text through which the poet is given a presence that is at once his own and not his own—a theatrical concoction, a wistful conjuring, his words in some sense casting an immeasurable shadow that illuminates the man himself. (“Why did black light come pouring from his eyes?”)

Brodsky chased The Grand Themes—life, nature, love, death—capturing the muses of his voracious mind with the aim and focus of a big-game hunter. Hermanis claims that when he first read Brodsky’s poems as a young man, they shook him to the core. Baryshnikov and the poet were famously close friends, both Russian exiles landing in 1970s New York to live as Western artists live. Although neither man can restore a body to Brodsky, together they can, and do, give him the power to move. We hear his words spoken from the stage by Baryshnikov; we hear them in taped recordings of the poet made during his lifetime. In the space of this performance, these two artists make Brodsky’s words physical—connecting poem to sound and sensation and action and reaction. Reverent, quixotic, Brodsky/Baryshnikov is a genteel meditation on what and who a writer’s life leaves behind, and what they can forge in his memory.

The action takes place in and around an empty, dilapidating solarium possessed of a fading elegance: Moss laces itself along the room’s ribs, and fraying wires spit sparks from an overstuffed fusebox hanging above its doors. (“Ruins are a celebration of oxygen and time,” wrote Brodsky). When Baryshnikov enters, the lights flicker, an electrical surge that might otherwise signal the beginning of a séance. (Someone is coming through.) From a briefcase, the dancer unpacks books, an alarm clock, and a bottle of Jameson whiskey, Brodsky’s favorite. He picks up one of the volumes, and begins to read, and from there the performance unfolds.

Baryshnikov recites, listens and moves to Brodsky’s words, which are all spoken in Russian. A reel-to-reel tape recorder sits on a bench, turning itself on and off, playing back the poet’s voice. (English supertitles scroll up the top of the solarium.) The dancer does not dance, per se; his movements are more an act of translation, of language and its images running through the body. In moments, his gestures are sweet, even a bit hokey, as though illustrating the text. “Watch the centuries pass, disappear around the corner,” we hear as Baryshnikov takes off his shirt, jacket, and shoes, pulls his trousers up over his knees, and smears his bare chest with what looks like cold cream. “See how moss grows in the groin, / and dust settles on the shoulders—it’s the tan of time.” Others are more poetic: He breathes on the solarium’s windows to fog them, his breath made visible only to disappear as quickly. Still others are more inscrutable. Toward the end of the play—at its de facto climax—Baryshnikov opens the double doors of the solarium and sits on a chair in the center of the threshold. “Let’s look at tragedy’s face,” we hear, as he convulses, goes rigid, his body pivoting in place, stiff as an antenna. “Hello tragedy, your clothes are out of fashion.” He begins to smacks himself in the stomach, to mime pulling out his guts, becoming some kind of writhing, awful creature.

We are parting forever, my friend,
draw a circle on paper.
That will be me: nothing inside.
Take a look, then erase the line.

When all is said and done by Brodsky and Baryshnikov, the performer packs up. A sip of whiskey, a look around, a last poem, and then he exits, leaving only what was there, having disturbed the air for a little while before going, before being gone.

Samuel Beckett, Krapp’s Last Tape, 1958. Directed by Robert Wilson. Performance view, Louis-Jouvet Theatre Paris, France, December 7, 2011. Robert Wilson. Photo: Lucie Jansch.

KRAPP ISN’T A POET. He’s a writer. At least, he wrote. “Seventeen copies sold,” he recounts into the microphone of his reel-to-reel recorder. It’s his sixty-ninth birthday, and he marks the occasion as he has for decades: recording the details of his previous year onto tape. His last book may have been a failure, but words are still what jolt him from the doldrums that seem to have descended long ago. He delights—revels is the verb he uses—in the word spool; he stirs from his desk to retrieve a dictionary when he can’t remember the meanings of viduity. He weeps rereading Fontane’s Effie Briest; and he listens, enrapt, when he plays back the words he recorded for his thirty-ninth year. Time and drink and solitude have withered old Krapp, now hollow as an eardrum; the words he hears echo in the space where memory would otherwise be. His younger self is fuller of himself: his voice, pompous, his mind clear as a newly frozen lake beneath which life is beginning to go dormant. Perhaps the elder Krapp clings to words in part because words have almost all but left him. “Nothing to say, not a squeak,” he dictates into the microphone, not long before he speaks his last.

“Language is the barrier of the imagination,” theater artist Robert Wilson famously declared, which is one reason it’s so odd that he would choose to direct and perform Samuel Beckett’s hallowed 1958 one-act Krapp’s Last Tape. Words have never been Wilson’s muse; if anything, they’ve been his bugaboo, a medium he deranges inside of his spectaculars. So if not for love of the playwright’s words, Wilson seems to find something else of interest in Beckett’s tale: the opportunity to watch this grand elder statesman of the avant-garde take on the story of a man nearing the end of his tape, so to speak.

“I think my work will not be around fifty years from now,” Wilson said in a 2015 interview. Is posterity even a possibility in the theater? Beckett believed so, and he took great pains to ensure that his plays were precisely mapped for those who wished to stage them. In a famous 1974 letter to a Dr. Kleinschmidt of Cologne, Beckett shared this thought on the matter of altering his work:

I am totally opposed to your idea of bringing Endgame up to date in an Alterscheim or other fashionable hell. This play can only function if performed strictly as written and in accordance with its stage directions, nothing added and nothing removed. The director’s job is to ensure this, not invent improvements.

Alas, for poor Beckett, Wilson may well be the reigning czar of invented improvements. He belongs to that irritating ilk of director who, having established their aesthetic—their brand, more to the point—seem to clang their theatrical style over a work of literature like cold armor over a warm body. (William Kentridge and Ivo van Hove are two others in line for this crown.) Rather than engage with the text in a collaborative spirit—in which the play and the director remain porous, open to each other—these artists inoculate themselves against a text, lest it infect or defect their vision. It appears (to this writer, at least) a self-serving auteurism, a paralyzing holdover from the era when it was discovered that killing daddy was a lot more work than just borrowing his stuff. Of course, Beckett’s dead, and there’s no reason to believe that an author should always have the last word on her or his plays, but Wilson’s Krapp evacuates the playwright where it would be far more interesting—at this point in the director’s esteemed career—to watch Wilson take Beckett in, metabolize him, and create a performance that belongs to neither, that bridges the wide space between the two.

For Beckett, Krapp may be an old fool—wearish is the word the playwright uses—but he’s no clown. Unfortunately, Wilson can’t do without his kabuki-ish makeup and cartoonish gestures, can’t appear unpainted, unhidden, on view for an audience to get a good long look at. He designs Krapp’s den so that it looks like a pristine, steely bunker, bound ledgers stacked neatly on both sides, in a grayscale palette interrupted only by Krapp’s ruby red socks. (Beckett had him in a “surprising pair of dirty white boots.”) The space is stunning, as ever. Wilson’s eye is never not brilliant; his sets and lighting are always possessed of the foreboding perfection of a fairy-tale land.

The director chooses to begin the play with the invented improvement of a deafening thunderstorm, as though a B-horror movie and Krapp—standing there stiff-haired and dumbstruck, like a deer in the footlights—is some kind of monster. Wilson’s movements channel Buster Keaton (star of Beckett’s only screenplay, Film), lumbering, stumbling, and occasionally leaping across the stage; his face, however, is more Gloria Swanson (Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard), eyebrows high, expressions extreme in imitation of emotion—a performance style that utterly flattens the nuanced emotional registers of Krapp’s tragicomic condition. “Writing words, words more words,” Desmond famously laments. (Like Wilson, she didn’t much care for them either.) It’s his disregard for Krapp’s words that’s the most disappointing and frustrating of all his choices. Wilson’s refusal to entertain the usefulness of Beckett’s strain of naturalism ripens the play into a pulpy version of itself. Krapp’s speech echoes that of a cartoon. “Spooool!” he rhapsodizes in what he describes as the “happiest moment of the past half million.” But out of Wilson’s mouth, this beloved word sounds like a slide whistle, careening up up up and away from the play.

The exaggerations continue. Wilson mugs and cackles throughout. He waves his hands in the air, and kicks up his feet. In what may be the most telling of his inventions, he looks out into the audience, performing for us, aware of us. Out with the delicacy, in with the ham. All sadly falls to near-parody, both of Beckett and of Wilson himself. At its most interesting, the production could be read as the director making a case against posterity—my work will not be around fifty years from now—performing the devastating effects the unknown future can have on a work of theater once its creator is gone. Perhaps. But to give Beckett the last words in the matter of Wilson’s Krapp: “Fail better.”

Jennifer Krasinski