Arca performing at Brooklyn Steel, July 6, 2017. Photo: Fuck Theory.

AMONG THE PECULIARITIES of our current moment is an unprecedented willingness to give attractive, clearly male-presenting individuals radical gender points for wearing heels in public. That post-Butlerian zeitgeist certainly isn’t hurting the popularity of Venezuelan performer/producer Arca, and it probably explains the presence of the “I shop at Nasty Pig on lunch break from my Manhattan gallery job” contingent at his show at Brooklyn Steel earlier this month. But Arca taps into a much deeper and more powerful tradition of queer experimentation—less RuPaul’s Drag Race and more COIL’s soundtracks to Derek Jarman’s films of the 1980s. Imagine Peter Christopherson’s video for Nine Inch Nails’s “Happiness in Slavery” but with Kate Bush instead of Bob Flanagan. This is not just a regular show with a varnish coat of gender trouble slapped on.

The Thursday-night event wasn’t a concert so much as a spectacle, or maybe a ritual—as close to an immersive experience as a rock venue with a two-thousand-person capacity and a proscenium stage can get. This was a long-form performance piece, not a band showing up to recreate a dozen songs off a recent album. Familiar moments from his latest, eponymous LP wove in and out to excited applause, but that’s not really what it was about.

Arca spent much of the evening on a catwalk that extended out into the audience, and quite a few minutes offstage entirely while we were occupied by the video projections, the light show, and the music, which included slabs of thick post–Throbbing Gristle noise alongside the sensuous, alien sound on which he’s built his reputation. Arca’s fame is currently cresting on the back of production work for Kelela, FKA Twigs, and Björk, for whom he has crafted rhythms with an instantly recognizable and now widely-imitated style: skittish beats woven into shockingly organic warmth with dark, Gothy synth-strings and glitchy noise.

Everything about Arca’s show suggests a desire to resist the expectations of those who came because they liked Björk’s 2015 album Vulnicura. Which is fair enough; I can see how becoming world-famous in your mid-twenties as a Björk collaborator might create a certain kind of pressure. But it’s easy to construct a false dichotomy between satisfying and disappointing an audience. That’s how both musicians and audiences become embittered—next thing you know Pink Floyd is recording a double album about how hard it is to be famous. Arca’s graceful, determined assault on our assumptions has nothing to do with disappointment: It has all the hallmarks of an artist determined to use a newfound spotlight to conjure their full creative force. Arca resists our desire by offering us something better that we didn’t know we wanted.

Not everyone came along for the ride. The opening barrage lasted long enough to melt eager anticipation into palpable tension. People didn’t relax until the first clearly pitched notes came over the PA. I noticed a few slip out during the show; it’s rare to have more room right up front at the end of a concert than at the beginning. But those who stayed, and most of us did, were treated to the gorgeous, incomparable experience of a performer brutally and sincerely putting themselves on display. The sea of rapturous, shocked faces as the house lights came on was testament to Arca’s determination. Go see this show, is what I’m saying.

Fuck Theory

Arca performed live at the Brooklyn Steel on Thursday, July 6. He next performs Saturday, July 22 at the FYF Festival in Los Angeles.

Wally Cardona and Jennifer Lacey, THE SET UP: ISLAND GHOST SLEEP PRINCESS TIME STORY SHOW, 2017. Performance view, June 25, 2017, LMCC Arts Center at Governors Island, New York. Kapila Venu and Rajeev Padiparampil. Photo: Darial Sneed.


That’s a note from 4:24 PM Saturday, two hours shy of having experienced twelve hours, spread over two weekends, of THE SET UP: ISLAND GHOST SLEEP PRINCESS TIME STORY SHOW, a series of dances unfurling on Governors Island as part of the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council’s River to River Festival, in makeshift locations ranging from carpeted office space to cavernous basement to the dry moat surrounding a nineteenth-century fort.

My dizziness was mild in the scheme of things: For the twenty-seven performers, the entire marathon spanned twenty-four hours (each day-long program ran twice), much of the intense, exquisite action taking place in humid air, on such unforgiving surfaces as stone and cement. And for the creators, dance artists Wally Cardona and Jennifer Lacey, it was the culmination of a five-year project spanning multiple continents and cultures. You could feel the time and care embedded in this work, like a finely woven fabric you might rub between thumb and forefinger.

Each of the dances in THE SET UP grew from a period of study with an artist immersed in a particular tradition: Nyoman Catra (Balinese Topeng), Proeung Chhieng (Cambodian), Junko Fisher (Okinawan), Saya Lei (Mandalay-style, classical Burmese), Jean-Christophe Paré (French baroque), Kapila Venu (Indian Kutiyattam), and Heni Winahyuningsih (Javanese refined). The resulting works were created in collaboration with these “masters,” as they were termed, and with the various casts, including the composers Jonathan Bepler, Reiko Fueting, and Megan Schubert.

I’d caught iterations of some of these pieces over the years. To see and hear them all in one place, for what was likely the only time, was overwhelming—a welter of movement impulses, values, and histories, interwoven with spoken and recorded texts by Lacey and Cardona and live music, full of percussion and voice and its own complex stew of influences and customs.

Picking out moments to describe the whole feels Sisyphean, but here are a few confused fragments: sitting cross-legged in a dim and cool tunnel at the fort, the wind blowing grit into my eyes, Lacey suddenly sashay-sauntering across my field of vision in the grassy moat, her thumbs tucked into her belt, while above a ridge of earth Cardona, bedecked with ribbons, moved through a series of decorous, balletic steps; sitting on a mat in the basement, watching Silas Riener slide into a gorgeously held split, all the while eyeing Cardona like a sulky teenager, as Cardona got not quite to the split, held, and then fell stiffly forward; sweating on a folding chair in a weird, hot, carpeted room as a significantly pregnant Molly Lieber stamped and hopped on a wooden platform and Lacey cut through the space like a blade and Schubert repeatedly cut a deck of cards, speaking clipped phrases in a foreign language; the audience’s utter concentration in a little side room as Winahyuningsih coiled through internal rhythmic shifts, energies circling and mounting but never fully cresting.

Wally Cardona and Jennifer Lacey, THE SET UP: ISLAND GHOST SLEEP PRINCESS TIME STORY SHOW, 2017. Performance view, June 26, 2017, LMCC Arts Center at Governors Island, New York. Jennifer Lacey, Molly Lieber, Wally Cardona. Photo: Darial Sneed.

Maybe more important than picking out moments is to try and describe the layering of disparate yet conversant virtuosities. It didn’t seem that Cardona, who appeared to be the main receiver for each form, was attempting to master any of these teachings in a pure sense (“pure,” he said at one point in answer to an audience question, “is a difficult word”). Rather he embodied them as fully as possible within his own prodigious training and sensitive readings. THE SET UP yielded complicated exchanges: According to a note in the program, Venu believes that the solo she created for Cardona is the first in the two-thousand-year-old Kutiyattam tradition “to depict a love story between two gay characters.” (The expressivity in Cardona’s face as he physically “told” this story was prodigious; Venu’s capacity for conveying states and characters, in her own solo, was unlike anything I’ve ever seen.)

Lacey meanwhile ran (delicately!) amok through the dances, adroitly fracturing the deep concentration embodied by Cardona and layering into the mix a sensibility both wry and wild. The sheer smarts and ferocity of her slippery movement, and her ability to seamlessly switch registers, astonished, forming an indefinable yet essential tracery, a translation into an expanded set of languages. The other dancers belled out from their two interlocking systems of intelligence (with some, like Riener and Lieber, occupying more principal roles), and the musicians surrounded and invaded this precision with their own marvelously calibrated systems: The parts were great, the sum far greater.

All this live action was augmented by a visual design created in collaboration with Jamie Boyle, who crafted an installation full of drawings, scores, notes, videos, and images like an exploded traveler’s notebook, as well as rooms within rooms in the varied performance spaces. Traveling among these delicately wrought containers, I occasionally thought of a recording of Lacey’s breathless voice that accompanied the opening salvo, a short, stunner of a solo performed by Melissa Toogood:

this is a dance for islanders
it is good to be an islander—as an island is small—when you move far away you can conceivably fit the island into your new home country—sometimes even right into your new hometown
this dance is a ritual adapted from a traditional dance.
this ritual ensures the transposition of the home island onto a new environment.

Wally Cardona and Jennifer Lacey, THE SET UP: ISLAND GHOST SLEEP PRINCESS TIME STORY SHOW, 2017. Performance view, June 25, 2017, LMCC Arts Center at Governors Island, New York. Proeung Chhieng. Photo: Darial Sneed.

Of course, as I think Cardona and Lacey are aware, such transpositions are ever fraught. During my two days on Governors Island, questions of appropriation and agency simmered continually in the conversations I had with fellow watchers. I understand these concerns and I see how parts of the work, particularly in isolation, might lend themselves to troubling readings. But for this receiver, THE SET UP seems a very important effort for white artists to be making — especially those who sit atop avant-garde lineages with ugly histories of claiming the sophisticated traditions of others as their own discoveries of natural phenomena.

Throughout the performance, Cardona and Lacey honored their collaborators’ complicated forms, offering the occasional contextualizing remarks, and weaving solo performances by Chhieng (feathery and honed), Venu, and Winahyuningsih within the larger flow, so that you could reflect on these artists as both traditional and experimental (and perhaps on why such categories persist, who they serve). THE SET UP is predicated not on taking a product out of context, but on asking (the seeking of permission is a crucial element) to study a process, to try and understand embodied knowledge from the inside-out. The results of this study are further complicated by Cardona and Lacey’s multilayered questioning and critique of their own histories.

This all sounds serious, and it was. It was also deeply weird and funny as hell. Watching THE SET UP I kept flashing on something an older choreographer once said to me about how strange and silly and porous downtown dance used to be before it curdled into a set of affects and stylistic markers. Nothing had yet curdled here. Everything overflowed. I left each day dazed, barefoot, feet slapping over warm pavement, dashing to catch the ferry that would take me from one island to another.

Claudia La Rocco

Wally Cardona and Jennifer Lacey’s THE SET UP: ISLAND GHOST SLEEP PRINCESS TIME STORY SHOW, made in collaboration with Proeung Chhieng, Junko Fisher, Saya Lei, Jean-Christophe Paré, Kapila Venu, Heni Winahyuningsih, Jonathan Bepler, Reiko Fueting, and Megan Schubert, ran June 17 through 25 at the Arts Center at Governors Island as part of LMCC’s River to River Festival.

Okwui Okpokwasili, Poor People’s TV Room, 2017. Performance view, New York Live Arts, April 18, 2017. Photo: Paul B. Goode.

“THERE WAS A TIME—way, way back—when Oprah was a human being, just a woman, she felt pain and she suffered. She felt fear and desire.”

So begins the storytelling in Poor People’s TV Room, a performance conceived by Okwui Okpokwasili, coauthored, designed, and directed in collaboration with Peter Born. Part theater, part dance, part installation, the piece hovers in an undefined space and time, conjuring the stories of four women: Merit (Katrina Reid), Madame (Okpokwasili), Honor (Thule Dumakude), and Yeru (Nehemoyia Young). From the grand tales of Oprah’s origin myth to the intimate gossip about one another; from stories about children and mothers and others who are no longer present to the descriptions of violence and death and T-shirts bearing slogans, the world they speak of is at once tender and viperous.

The performance is composed almost like a piece of music, in sections and phrases—monologues that erupt, dialogues that echo. The staging is split in two: Yeru and Honor sit on outdoor chairs, chatting with each other, sometimes repeating one another’s words in a way that sounds incantatory, if static. In her living room, Madame fusses and fights with Merit, her house girl, seeing things, lashing out at her young minder though she thrives by suckling at her bare breast. Words are heavy always, passed as wisdom and as weight—and they are not always to be trusted. As the radiant and exquisite Honor warns in a vivid, seething monologue:

I want to pry open your mouth—wide. I want to look deep in your throat. I know I’ll find a lie in there. I will go in there and I will grab that lie and I will drag it up across your tongue and out of your mouth. And I will stomp it into the truth.

Okpokwasili is a powerhouse artist with a molten presence on stage: steely, ever fluid. In Bronx Gothic, her 2014 solo piece that was recently adapted for film, she delivered intimate correspondences between two girls in the early bloom of adolescence and sexuality as she shivered and shook, as though she was the medium—the receiver—through which this tale must pass. Although her voice shifted registers as she spoke as one girl and then as the other, Okpokwasili bypassed the usual expressions of character, of literal embodiment, to locate the story somewhere nearer to the realm of phantoms. The words were all hers—she wrote the play, based on her own childhood—but her besieged body seemed to mark the distances through the thick muck of memory that her words had to travel to leave her mouth.

The spirit-characters of Poor People’s TV Room are embodied more firmly, forthrightly, though they’re not always clearly defined. The four women appear before us as something closer to visitations, materializing between the conditions of presence and absence, their voices alighting across song and stories, their bodies bearing burdens. At the top of the play, a woman covered in a blanket crawls across the stage; nearby, another dances before an opaque scrim, behind which we see another dancing too, her body blurred—we can just make out shape and color and movement through the plastic film.

Okwui Okpokwasili, Poor People’s TV Room, 2017. Performance view, New York Live Arts, April 18, 2017. Okwui Okpokwasili. Photo: Paul B. Goode.

Video also places these bodies apart from us, gives their absence/presence another dimension. In a beautiful, classic piece of stagecraft, a large table becomes a second stage on which Okpokwasili and Reid play the scenes between Madame and Merit while lying on their backs. With a video camera hanging overhead, and the tabletop decorated with wallpaper, a chair, and a window, the performers pose as though the room were “real,” upright. On the screen suspended above, we watch them, projected into this other space, with tiny slips of visual sense—Okpokwasili’s dress falling between her legs, the way both performers lean against the “wall”—to note that their image bears a different gravity than the rest of the room.

In some respects, Poor People’s TV Room is most directly about power and speech, via language and movement. How do words conjure the world, manifest our destinies and our selves, infuse earthbound lives with both the levity and heaviness of myth? What do bodies say, what do they know and hold, that can be read or heard or understood—or denied, destroyed? Okpokwasili and Born make no sharp point about all of this, though their source materials are rich and devastating: the “Bring Back Our Girls” movement/meme; the Igbo Women’s War of 1929; suicide bombings in the public markets of Northern Nigeria, often young women detonating themselves spurred on by the Boko Haram.

These subjects aren’t made explicit except in glimmers—we hear what sounds like the remixed recordings of women’s voices, the rhythms of their clapping hands and stomping feet—which is a shame since these are women and stories that rarely appear inside a New York theater. The piece is designed to be haunting, not altogether legible, yet it feels in some respects unresolved, like its central force hasn’t yet been fully harnessed. Its many facets mesmerize—the women are all marvelous to watch, and moment-to-moment there are resonant ideas, and graceful gestures—but the abstractions aren’t counterbalanced by even light anchors to orient and pull us through the whirl to a place we might come to know with greater clarity.

And yet the show throughout imparted a deep feeling of how bodies share parts of each other with one another, how they sustain, how they connect: with mother’s milk, with breath, with stories—and with theater. At one point, Okpokwasili sings in her rich, beautiful voice:

I’m irradiated
I’m illuminated
I’m intoxicated
I’m emblazoned
I won’t loosen this thread, no
I will wind it tighter
I will bind us closer
I will knot us up…
Don’t leave a wound tonight.

Standing there before us, channeling radical self-possession (and radical other-possession too), though belied by something grievous, she appeared to be singing to and for us, her audience, leaving no wound, but opening us to and for something more and more and more.

Jennifer Krasinski

Poor People’s TV Room premiered at New York Live Arts from April 19-22 and 26-29. Andrew Rossi’s film Bronx Gothic, based on Okpokwasili’s 2014 performance, premieres July 12 through 25 at Film Forum in New York.