In January, New York played host to the Association of Performing Arts Presenters Conference. A number of festivals and venues showcased dance, theater and performance at venues throughout the city, the idea being that international presenters would swoop down on the shiny things they saw and bring them to their own institutions. Risky business in the midst of this economy, but riskier still for artists and for pieces that lie in between forms. Highlights from P.S. 122′s COIL Festival and the American Realness Festival at Abrons Art Center exemplify the kinds of events that reside between these interstices.
The most stunning performances I attended were those where the repetition of speech and/or movement were the key forces catalyzing the experience, as in Daniel Linehan’s Not About Everything Dance at the American Realness Festival and Heather Kravas’ The Green Surround at the COIL Festival. I have tried to theorize this tendency in performance to understand why repetition yields such a strong reaction in me and others.
In Difference and Repetition (Columbia Press 1994), Gilles Deleuze writes that it is repetition that remakes us. Repetition contains within it three different concepts of time: passive synthesis, active synthesis, and empty time. In empty time, the sense of past, present and future give way to an entirely symbolic relationship to action. The ego collapses into itself and the activity yields a “sublime image.” In the case of Linehan’s performance, Deleuze’s theory holds true. Throughout Not About Everything Dance, the dancer revolves within a circle of of reading materials that form a type of sacred boundary, delineating the area of his performance.
While Linehan’s turning is persistent, his spoken words express a sense of futility and failure to make an impact on, or real difference in, the world at large. ”Since I can’t escape the question of what is good when I am making art, I thought that, in addition to the artistic good, I could try to do something that I might be able to consider good in a different sense of that word…The only way I can do it is by spinning around and around so that I can de-personalize the audience so that they become a blur, and so I can avoid the shame of me pretending to be generous when I’m really being self-aggrandizing…I know almost nothing. Is what I’m doing a creative act or in fact a destructive act? Is the artistic good actually any good, or is it the most worthless good of all?”
Not About Everything Dance is a trial of reversing signifiers. The longer Linehan spins, the more desperate his language becomes, and the more he questions his action. He negates all of the possible motivations or effects of the action as the experience of watching him intensifies. There is a whirling-dervish quality to his repetitive movements, and the artist’s constant negation of their meaning allows the audience to move between associations and toward a more mysterious relationship with his circling form. The trance-like effect of this solo performance did have a visceral impact on me–I found myself confronting all of my own questions about the urgent nature of performance-making in the face of violence and political and economic upheaval.
The tyrannical acts of endurance in The Green Surround similarly brought the viewer to an edge or threshold of a recognizable action which, once crossed, made the forms and images of the dancers appear strange. Kravas has the unique ability to shoot right to the breaking point, showing in ways both resolutely punk and downright terrifying that the body is capable of transcending the limits we imagine that it has. It would be easy to critique what appears to be a commentary on ballet training–we see dancers in black leotards urinate on the floor, change into tutus, and scream a polyphonic “boo-hoo” on their hands and knees for what feels like twenty minutes. But each action is in fact so precise, and the gaze of the dancers so steely, there’s a sense that there is more to the story. Linehan’s questioning of his own work can also be applied to Kravas, but in reverse: “Is what I’m doing a destructive act, or in fact a creative one?” Witnessing the labor of this performance, where catharsis is neither granted nor withheld, pushed me to recall spaces of darkness and violence where I have experienced the competing forces of being a self-possessed artist and a cultural servant.
These competing forces were deconstructed in full by San Francisco-based choreographer and performance artist Keith Hennessy through his improvised performance, Almost. Utilizing materials left in Abrons Art Center and wearing a garish, neo-zebra print two-piece pant suit (and matching scarf), Hennessy danced, thrashed, and wielded props and objects to the noise accompaniment of, and sometimes in opposition to, the noise-music of Jassem Hindi. Each moment of the forty-five minute performance presented new possibilities for Hennessy’s imagination and wit.
During the performance I attended, Hennessy built an installation of wigs on tree branches in plexi-glass boxes, and then jumped six feet high onto stacked foam cubes. The precarious wobbling of the foam under his feet was excruciating to witness. Yet for Hennessy, a performance seems to be not worth doing unless it’s potentially risky. In this way the audience is implicated, if not directly (such as in the above image), then through the tension between Hennessy’s actions and their possible unstable outcomes. I was grateful for his willingness to experiment during the APAP showcase, where overall, the emphasis on turning performances into products tended to overshadow the role of artistic agency.
Jennifer Lacey, the expatriate cult-choreographer gracing the American Realness Festival from Paris, delivered an illuminating performance-lecture on “the future of performance” which, though first presented four years ago for Tanzquartier Vienna, is no less pertinent now. Gattaca earned its name from the 1997 sci-fi thriller, which set the scene for Lacey to recite her “In the future” list of visions for the future that combined science fiction, the everyday, theory and commentary on everything from fashion to politics and of course, performance. From lines like, “In the future the vagina will lose its quality as an absolute and will promise neither moral aptitude nor emotional weakness. One of the many repercussions of this change will be that possessors of vaginas will be free to campaign for political office without wearing a white pants suit” to “In the future the term dilettante will no longer be pejorative” and “In the future some of us will die and then the rest of us will,” Lacey’s satirical yet prescient predictions led to a dance in the dark and a failed participatory entreaty to the audience to sing along with her. The thing is, it never was about pulling the song off. In each phase of Gattaca, Lacey let the audience in on the solitary work of being an artist and citizen, oracle and eternal itinerant.