Widening the I

commentary on dance and other events that catch my fancy. mostly dance though.

American Realness wrap-up

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The American Realness festival managed to hit a number of sweet spots. I was glad to have the chance to see productions that I had missed earlier in the season by not being in New York, works that are currently in development, and work in between these two spots on the spectrum. Likewise, I appreciated the blend of artists that I had seen before, performers I was familiar with but hadn’t gotten to see live, and those who were unknown to me. The format of the festival was satisfying as well, with the work having longer than 20 minutes to sink into the soul, but never any marathon sessions that induced brain or booty numbness.

But the real success was the festival’s explicit promotion of risk as a virtue. Let’s make dance with two trash cans and see what happens when we throw them really high, as John Jasperse and James McGinn did. Let’s put on festivals of interesting home-grown work because no one else is doing it, or festivals of the far-flung because the home-grown in our particular hamlet is stale and insular. Let’s take some real risks and see what happens and talk about it—and when we fall on our faces, let’s try something else instead of doing the same thing again. Let’s stick a pin in some of the pretentious bubbles swirling around us. Let’s be vulnerable together. That’s what I heard whispered from the walls of the Abrons Arts Center in between all of the performances of the festival’s run, and they were welcome whisperings indeed.

Written by wideningthei

January 21, 2011 at 9:53 am

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American Realness: a g-chat in response to “Brave New Girl”

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Andy Holtin and I talked about Neal Medlyn’s performance piece “Brave New Girl” quite a bit in face-to-face life, but we grabbed an hour to talk about the work online. I was interested in capturing some of the spontaneity that comes when two people who know each other are discussing something they’ve seen together. “Brave New Girl” was created by Neal Medlyn, with performances and choreography by Medlyn, Farris Craddock, and Carmine Covelli, music by Medlyn, and lighting design by Madeline Best. The performance was a snow-covered musical exploration of the inner lives of Hannah Montana.

photo by Andrea Mohin for the New York Times

2:46 PM Andy: i’m here
me: hello
ready for some kunst-talk?
2:47 PM Andy: indeed
me: so, welcome to Widening the I
we both attended the performance of Neal Medlyn’s “Brave New Girl”
2:48 PM on friday, January 7, 2011
and it’s been a week and it seems like it’s still kind of sloshing around for both of us
2:49 PM Andy: yeah i find i have the whole show stuck in my head the same way the songs, Hannah/Miley covers, seem to do
2:50 PM me: why do you think that is?
but yeah, for me too, even in a weekend really packed with performances and art, that one is standing out
2:53 PM you writing a novel over there?
2:54 PM Andy: well to begin with, it was for me (and i suspect for much of the audience) quite a fundamental education about who/what Hannah Montana/Miley Cyrus is. This isn’t something i can claim to have clearly understood before seeing this piece. I mean, i was generally aware of some grotesque character out there associated with those names, but i just filed it in with the broad pool of things i don’t pay attention to, don’t know the details of, and yet feel fairly sure are bad for everyone.
2:56 PM me: right; that’s something really interesting to me. it seems like the piece is intended for consumption by an audience that doesn’t overlap with the mainstream. and yet it doesn’t just take hits at this cultural target that seems really huge and easy.
2:57 PM Andy: stop typing!
me: i mean, i actually felt real empathy for miley cyrus by the end.
which i hadn’t expected
ok, ok, sorry!
3:02 PM Andy: there is a question in there though, of who the mainstream is, who actually knows the characters, real and scripted, in this little story. i doubt that a real majority of american-culture consumers are really paying attention to hannah montana’s ins and out, but the producers/marketing end certainly can make sure we all know it exists, and somehow that mild ubiquity is connected to the this state of being barely aware that she/it/they are a cultural object. I think this it what made it such a surprise to see hannah/miley’s lives portrayed the way neal did.
3:04 PM me: i can see that, that there’s a broad swath of us that are vaguely aware of these characters
3:05 PM i was talking to our friend r. yesterday who had also seen the performance and she thought the strongest part of the show was the introduction, which i also loved
3:06 PM mostly because i feel like i must have played axis and allies with farris craddock from 1993-1997
3:07 PM i thought he did such a convincing job of not appearing to be acting
3:08 PM Andy: yeah it was great, though i thought it might have relied a bit much on heavy-handed “remember this bit for later in the show” foreshadowing, and a little over-earnestness
me: i am a sucker for the earnest
3:11 PM i think i’m not patient enough for this kind of response….
3:12 PM Andy: for me the strongest possible parts of the show were neal’s bewigged song performances. THAT was earnest. besides filling in for me which blurred and artless pop songs i’m hearing belong to hannah/miley (H&M?), they presented clearly the tone, the lyrics, the invisible hand of the ghost writer we know is churning them out and attempting to write them in the “voice” that the entertainment narrative needs her to have
ok let me keep going…
3:13 PM me: ha! ok
3:14 PM but i may start my own side-track…
Andy: no!
me: and now we have the image of neal any time we hear those songs
which is really satisfying for me
3:15 PM it’s like a protest that just keeps rippling out
3:17 PM it’s like the most effective form of pop culture protest i can think of, transforming the banal pop flotsam we’re all drifting in
3:20 PM Andy: so, we’re getting these exposures of the management and scripting of her hannah character’s life, her new public miley character’s life, and her “real” life (represented by her “5am me time” moments). The amazing moment for me, though, was when neal, in one of those 5am scenes, lurks into the middle of the audience and starts in on a soliloquy that begins as a rumination on H&M’s complicated arc, but somehow slips into a story of a self and troubles and lost jobs and crappy shared apartments that might be neal’s own story, or mine, or someone else who isn’t miley cyrus. This was the onliest realest dialog in the piece, and Neal puppeteered it out of her mouth the same as her pop song writers.
3:23 PM me: right… and who knows where it really came from. it makes me question the idea of believability and what relevance that has anymore
Andy: genau
me: it might be completely out the window. because all of that script seemed ‘believable’ at some level
3:25 PM but i wanted to go back to that idea of not just taking pot-shots
3:26 PM Andy: right
me: and i could be wrong about this, but we talked earlier about the use of that nina simone song (desperate ones)
and how it didn’t seem like they were setting up an easy equation of authenticity (nina simone) vs. artificiality (miley cyrus)
3:28 PM it was a bit hard to hear the nina simone song, but it seemed like there were some common elements of desperation, and longing, and loneliness
or did you think there was some simplistic opposition going on?
3:31 PM Andy: honestly i could hardly hear it at all, and i didn’t know the original well enough to rely on my own information. for me, it connects too strongly to the beginning, to the greek-chorus bit of farris’s introduction, and felt like an attempt to wrap up too cleanly. But, you know me, the stranger and less resolved the better IMHO.
3:32 PM me: hence your favorite part being neal’s soliloquy from the audience…
Andy: right
3:34 PM me: (as a sidenote, how do neal and dwayne ray not know each other? was palestine, texas just cranking out the really skinny musical smarties so fast in the 70s that they couldn’t even keep track of them all?)
3:39 PM Andy: for me, the best elements had to do with combining the reality of what she/they are singing/saying, who they’re speaking to, how we encounter and process it, what it must be like to move in and out of those roles, and how much we, outside of it, know or care. This was most perfectly and poignantly seen in the prolonged mutation of the “Party in the USA” performance, in which the song faded in all its parts but the iconic keyboard riff while the three performers continued locked into a dance moved tied to the riff. As the sound became further and further detached from the song it came from, the “choreography” looked more are more distorted, involuntary, and uncomfortable, just like everything else about H&M’s life presented.
3:42 PM me: i think that’s a good way to put it and a good place to wrap up for now
any closing thoughts that will burn you up if they go unsaid?
3:43 PM Andy: no, i think that taps me out 🙂
3:45 PM me: all right, thanks for coming along
you are invited back anytime
3:46 PM Andy: certainly! really enjoyed it

Written by wideningthei

January 17, 2011 at 5:55 pm

American Realness: everything but the kitchen sink, a story in response to “Heavens What Have I Done”

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The performance of “Heavens What Have I Done” on Friday, January 7, felt like comfort food. The audience was assembled on the stage, seated and clustered around solo performer Miguel Gutierrez. I couldn’t get over the sensation of becoming like a child again, and so created a sort of short children’s story for adults in response to the performance. Click the audio link below for ‘everything but the kitchen sink’.

Miguel Gutierrez, photographer: Ian Douglas

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January 16, 2011 at 7:58 pm

American Realness: an epistolary response to “PURO DESEO”

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Dear fellow audience members of luciana achugar’s performance of PURO DESEO on Sunday, January 10, 2011,

An exorcism, that’s what we’ve been through together. Did you too have to peel yourself from your seat at the end of the show, put on your scarf in a daze, and attempt to go on with your evening as planned? Or did you wander about the city, processing the strange vision you had just witnessed? Or go home and curl up in a corner with a blanket and some hot tea, putting on some poppy music to dispel the chilling images? Or did you grab the closest human you could find and celebrate what incredible creatures we are, capable of making art like this? It felt as if achugar had located the murkiest, most hidden repositories of fears in the body, put in a direct line, and piped them out onto the stage.

I’m not sure how they managed to get it so pitch-black in the theater, because it seemed darker than just having all of the lights off and blocking out outside light. Imagine the darkest space you’ve ever been in and you’re approximating the sensation. Into this darkness came achugar’s sonorous intonation of a Spanish language chant for children, designed for healing when they’ve been hurt. (Sana sana, colita de rana. Si no sanas hoy, sanarás mañana.) The rhyme is said to have special healing powers, and it did in achugar’s tending. I turned my eyes away from the red exit sign, the only light source in the theater, and enjoyed the inkiness all around, with achugar’s piercing voice from the back of the room. And then the thudding footfalls started from the back as well and I felt a large presence stomp by me, achugar’s collaborator Michael Mahalchick.

The costumes and the sounds and movement were so evocative that somehow I turned the back of the stage, a partially brick wall, into an elaborate set with a house façade and an old door. I only realized halfway through the piece that what I had thought was a house was just the back of the stage. That’s some truly effective atmospheric creation when you don’t even have to build a set because you have the audience imagine one for you. Did you fall for this as well or are your eyes smarter or your imagination less susceptible?

And then I could have watched achugar shuffle along a diagonal line for the next 20 years or so. She indulged me for a good long while, the repetition comfortably numbing, but it could have gone on even longer. The pace picked up and achugar started shedding pieces of her vaguely Victorian and completely fantastic black frock (designed by Walter Dundervill) a bit at a time. Towards the end when they were doing that section with the arms that was like part signaling ships, part ritual, part drill team, I thought one of us was going to explode.

I hope I didn’t distract you with my own movement, as I found myself unable to keep from putting my hand to my forehead in sheer disbelief at the stunning use of light, repeatedly. Is there someone on the MacArthur selection committee reading this? Because lighting designer Madeline Best should be given a genius award right this second. The sudden pools of light appearing like islands. The murky light of the back of the stage that the eyes were forced to make sense of. The simplicity and restraint.

Anyway. I’m glad you were there. I’m glad I was there. Maybe we were all healed in some small, monumentally unmeasurable way.

Con cariño,

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January 14, 2011 at 8:46 pm

American Realness: a chat about “THEM”

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Ellen and Ben Wegman discuss their experiences with “THEM,” a collaboration between Ishmael Houston-Jones, Chris Cochrane, and Dennis Cooper. Performed at the Abrons Arts Center on Saturday, January 8, 2011 by the three collaborators and Joey Cannizzaro, Felix Cruz, Niall Noel, Jeremy Pheiffer, Jacob Slominski, Arturo Vidich and Enrico D. Wey.

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January 14, 2011 at 7:04 am

American Realness: improv in response to Faye Driscoll

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After seeing Faye Driscoll’s work in progress not…not at the festival, I was interested in exploring embodied responses to the work. This response was a sort of micro-collaboration between myself and Stephanie Miracle. We both attended the performance held at the Abrons Arts Center on Friday, January 7, 2011, with choreography by Driscoll, performed by Driscoll and the always-interesting Jesse Zaritt, with an original sound score by Brandon Wolcott and lighting by Amanda K. Ringger.

For one layer of the response, I made a list of half a dozen words that were still surfacing for me a few days later when I thought about the dance: gremlin, skipping, smeared, frenetic, ashamed and awkward. I gave the list of words to Stephanie to have her keep in mind as she was improvising, along with her own memories and impressions of the work. I thought it was fascinating to see what Stephanie thought and how she felt about the piece through watching her movement. The result is not a re-creation, but has a definite link and connection to the original. Stephanie spoke a bit about the strangeness of responding to a work with two performers with only her own body, and noted that she was relating more to Driscoll’s movement than Zaritt’s. So check out the layered response in this 5 minute solo improv below…

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January 12, 2011 at 8:39 pm

American Realness: Ann Liv Young mermaid madlibs

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Shamu – Sea World

***To do the madlibs, cut and paste all of the *** words and fill them in in order of appearance.***

Those who sit in the “splash zone” at Sea World should expect to get (***past tense verb***), much like those who come to an Ann Liv Young (***noun***). I was game for it last Saturday night and showed up ready to (***verb***) my love for all things oceanic in a preview performance of Young’s Mermaid Solo. But a number of opinions stood between me and a mermaid (***compound noun***). For example, the belief that a work should be (***any number above 0 and below 101***)% completed before offering a preview performance to a paying audience. Or that it is (***adjective***) to require all members of the audience to sit on the floor without a chair, regardless of physical difficulties due to age or disability. And there are tons of (***positive adjective***) reasons to try on a costume before any given performance.

So yes, the performance was marred by difficulties with the costume (a gorgeous tail created by The Mertailor) and the sound. I insisted on believing, until proven otherwise, that the technical difficulties were an intentional part of the show, because it seemed like there would have been a mere (***number between 5 and 15***) minutes of content had there been no technical problems. The sailors and other assistants for Mermaid Solo deserve a loud (***congratulatory exclamation***), especially Steven Luka, who was engaged in a tug-of-war with Young and the microphone with all his might. The most (***adjective***) moment was an illustrious dance maven erupting in giggles as a half-eaten raw fish was (***verb, past tense***) her way. Sadly the best aspect of the performance was equally as fleeting, but for a few moments, there was an atmosphere of charged potential, teeter-tottering with real uncertainty in the air, as we all wondered what the (***expletive***) was going to happen next. As the minutes ticked away, that question was replaced by another: does the emperor have any clothes?

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January 12, 2011 at 2:30 am

American Realness introduction

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“I have found useful a distinction that societies make in east and central Africa. According to John Mbiti, Kiswahili speakers divide the deceased into two categories: sasha and zamani. The recently departed whose time on earth overlapped with people still here are the sasha, living dead. They are not wholly dead, for they live on in the memories of the living, who can call them to mind, create their likeness in art and bring them to life in anecdote. When the last person to know an ancestor dies, that ancestor leaves the sasha for the zamani, the dead.”

James Loewen, Lies Across America: What Our Historic Sites Get Wrong
(read this book if you haven’t already)

I’d been kicking around the idea of doing some non-traditional dance reviews for a while and decided to use the American Realness festival as a launch-pad for some experimental formats. The reviews will be coming out in the next few days, and are my attempts to help keep the performances in the realm of the sasha. If a performance happens over a two-night run and no one ever mentions it again or remembers it a month later, that work is dead; zamani dead. Talking about it can deepen the experience, solidify it in the bones, help extend the memory. I believe that the work gets better, and heavier (in a good way) when people are engaged in responding to it, in their own minds and spirits and with each other.

Traditional dance criticism may not be dead, but it’s certainly not a healthy creature at the moment. We need new models for new audiences, new conversations around new hybrid artforms. With the decline of the hierarchical, authoritative professional critic, I hope that more voices can bubble up in the public sphere and the dialogue around performance can become richer and more expansive. These responses to the shows I saw at the festival are intended as experiments. Let me know if you’re insulted or elated, mystified or hungry for more.

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January 11, 2011 at 11:25 pm