I’m writing from New York, at the end of a three-week family holiday/Fire Drill tour/performance-viewing extravaganza. My collaborator, Billy, and I put together a tour to fall between Christmas and APAP—which landed us in New York during the highest density of performance events. When I say APAP, I don’t actually mean the Association of Performing Arts Presenters Conference, but rather the constellation of performance festivals that take place simultaneously, including Under the Radar (UTR) at the Public Theater, PS122’s COIL, American Realness at Abrons Arts Center. APAP functions as a performing arts market, where artists showcase their work to presenters in hopes of booking touring gigs in the coming year. Under The Radar, Realness, and COIL present full-length works and are public-facing festivals, but they’re also a major destination for presenters from the United States and Europe to discover new artists. It’s hard to describe the whole circus without sounding jaded and insider-y, and like all business, these festivals are to some degree exploitive. But for an artist like me, living outside New York, it’s an efficient way to stay current with the work that’s happening in the field.
This is our second visit to the January festivals in New York, having performed in Contemporary Performance’s Special Effects festival last year; but we’re also outside of this economy by virtue of the not-insignificant fact that all of our touring for Fire Drill is DIY. We’re working artist-to-artist and paying for it through our day jobs and a few wads of cash that comprise our cut of the door, rather than from the budget of a presenting organization. We’ve just performed at FringeArts in Philadelphia and E.M.P. Collective in Baltimore. We’re also set to show some new work and experiments at Panoply Performance Laboratory (PPL) in Brooklyn, where the intellectual community and the relative anti-spectacle, anti-consumption atmosphere is especially appealing in the scrum of other festival performances. I’m in town for the first week of these events, bouncing between Fire Drill’s own project at PPL and seeing up to four shows a day.
In the midst of this binge-watching streak, I question what is happening to my critical faculties. Am I entering performances as a sponge for experience? As a judge of craft? As a social researcher? The unavoidable context is that Fire Drill’s own project deals, quite literally, with experimentation. Though the curators and artists of Realness, COIL, or UTR may not use the word “experimental” to define their offerings, it comes up so often in relation to contemporary performance that we don’t even notice it anymore. In the context of these concurrent festivals, if APAP itself is the epicenter, it’s generally understood that the further you move away from it, the more experimental the work. But short of genuine empirical study or execution of the scientific method, what practices, contexts, and embodiments are properly considered experimental? Is performance deemed challenging if it goes against larger cultural norms? Is it the presence of glittery stilettos? Is it weighty social topics? Is it extreme commitment? Is it the presentation of non-normative bodies? Is it an immersive audience experience? Better yet—in each work, what is being tested? This is a way of asking what is new about the work, but also a way to look at the lenses that define what “new” even is.
Ligia Lewis’s work Sorrow Swag seemed to be testing two main elements: a recombining of artistic forms and a presentation of white masculinity. In the arresting opening image, performer Brian Getnick emerges onto a stage filled with blue fog only to disappear once again into the mist, an environment of live sound by George Lewis Jr. of Twin Shadow. I read this moment as an extreme demonstration of power, where the space becomes his body rather than being consumed by it. He manages to own the stage even as the physical manifestation of his power is obscured. I am reminded of Nate Young’s The Unseen Evidence of Things Substantiated, which I just saw at the Fabric Workshop and Museum in Philadelphia (and which was also covered on Mn Artists), where bodies and objects that have already been representationally and literally vanished coalesce into undeniable materiality as the viewer approaches. Here, it’s the inverse effect: the obscuring of Getnick’s body shows his power as disseminated, normalized, banal. Throughout the work, I am struck by Lewis’s dense, mercurial, multivalent images: an arm extended into a punch becomes swimming, becomes driving, becomes knocking at a door; aggression becomes exertion, becomes attitude, becomes asking permission. I am compelled by this choreographic density: instead of offering an extrapolation of movements around a single idea, Lewis inflects a host of nuance and signification into what is, in physical denotation, just one repeating gesture, some steps with an arm extended. There’s similar play on the level of language: Jean Anouilh’s Antigone and Samuel Beckett’s Not I are source material for Lewis’s investigation of (white, male) sorrow, but she often fractures the language, so that a word is broken down into its phonemes, or found to contain other words entirely. Other subtle power shifts arise within the movement as well: Getnick gallops around the space, first as a horse and then as the rider; a microphone enables his voice and then he carries it as a burden; arms spread in victory becomes an apology to the gods. In cycling through these shades of combativeness and defensiveness, posturing and vulnerability, Lewis draws out the contradictions that make up contemporary white masculinity. I recognize these dynamics from life, but I had not before seen them encapsulated in such sophisticated performance analysis, notably through the authorship of a woman of color.
To experience Kaneza Schaal’s GO FORTH, the viewer must literally descend into the underworld, down into the basement of Westbeth Artists Community and through a series of winding hallways, to reach the performance space. The walls are lined with a photography exhibition, featuring performers, objects, and themes from the show. But to me, the sense of the space itself does as much to prepare me for the work. What I remember of this work has everything to do with atmosphere. My experience of the dark basement is tactile and evanescent, with the texture of the room shifting throughout: an endless dark abyss, a luxurious gold wall, a convivial social space. The effects of light and sound are resonant here. I remember a sunrise through a faraway window, the echo of glass bottles on concrete, the final slam of a metal fire door, a human voice filling and spilling out of a large stone jar. Despite the captivating presence of the performers—Justin Hicks, William Nadylam, and David Thompson—their presence served to illuminate the space more than the human elements of the work. This seemed to me an extension of Schaal’s subject matter: our lives are small things within a great expanse. We join together in dark humor to celebrate this fact, and the taste of beer on the tongue as we do so is testament to the meeting of life and death. Schaal’s program notes mention that the piece is “galvanized by the intimate relationship between black people and death around the world”—a relationship that is not mine, but which I held in my mind throughout the piece. Though the execution is raw and visceral, this work does not rest in the political or the violent. Instead, it builds on the complex social and aesthetic traditions that we develop around the all-too-present fact of death. GO FORTH is “experimental” in that it comes out of the experimental theater tradition, privileging physicality, non-linear narrative, site-specificity. Even though the work feels timeless, I think there is another kind of “experimental” expressed, too, through the way it relates politics and aesthetics in the contemporary moment.
I experienced another kind of environmental immersion in Ranters Theatre’s work at the New Ohio Theater, Song. This performance installation attempts to create the ideal conditions for listening, a premise I relate to strongly through my own practice. I often think of choreography in terms of creating the ideal conditions to view certain material; likewise, I think of curation as creating conditions for other performance work. For Song, the crowd is invited into a dim black box theater to find red blankets and pillows covering the ground. The group files in, and we arrange ourselves in rows, sitting on the pillows. Then one person lies down, and the whole crowd descends further onto the floor. There are speakers hanging waist high around the space and already emitting the soft sound of crickets; a large, circular, white screen is situated above the risers. The circle of the screen is illuminated by a soft and dimensional orange; throughout the performance, it’s the only surface onto which I can project my vision. It gently tricks my perception throughout the piece: the light seems to shift across it as if across the surface of the moon, but the play of light and shadow is so slow, that I could be imagining its movement. I’m drawn to this visual, but the work is really about the sound. Out of the speakers, we hear several types of white noise: a chorus of insects, distant cars on a highway, a forest at night, waves crashing on a beach. The white noise is interspersed with a series of soft, folky songs, including guitar, piano, a male and a female voice. I’m struck that, in this work, the opposite of music is not silence but white noise, as obvious as the dial settings on a store-bought machine. Sometimes after the periods of white noise, a strum of the guitar feels deeply resonant and considered, but by the end, the song and the not-song begin to run together. I suspect this is the design of the piece—to train us to listen closer, so that everything can be heard as song. But I still wonder, why this song, why this cultural context, why now? What’s the contribution, post-Cage? I wonder if this work—which is truly the most relaxing experience I’ve had in months—is a reaction against the speed of contemporary life and the dispersed focus of the internet. Does that make it reactionary? Or is it just human?
This is the first time I’ve seen Heather Kravas perform, and I’m blown away by the precision of her execution. Her piece dead, disappears is set in a dance studio, with a single row of chairs flanking three walls of the studio and a ballet barre traversing the fourth. The uncompromising clarity of Kravas’s movement exerts itself on the space as well, so that the black of the marley, the patterns of black and white paint, the tick marks on the clock all seem meticulously prepared. The work unfolds as a series of actions that display pattern and repetition, often pitting their demands against Kravas’s virtuosic memory and physical endurance. In thick black clogs, she counts out a rhythm of heel taps, a seemingly random but utterly specific number on each foot. When she repeats this pattern later, she counts the numbers aloud, then gradually sinks into a deep lunge. She holds willful eye contact with a viewer as her quadricep trembles just a foot or two away. The sound that the clogs make on the floor is exquisitely choreographed, producing a standard rhythm as she rolls over the floor clutching a pillow. Several props and vocalizations later, Kravas tops her own extreme control as she pisses into a bucket. This moment is not about scatological transgression, but rather the fine training of her pelvic floor muscles and the metered cadence of urine hitting the metal bucket. dead, disappears quenches my brain’s desire for order and specificity. And, as a performer—holy shit, now I know what clarity looks like. I didn’t know it was possible for the interplay of body, mind, and space to be so exacting. This speaks to the relationship between woman and object that Kravas mentions in her writing about the piece: When the body onstage is presented as arguably more mechanized than the clocks, does that change how the spectator approaches it? Is the regulation of bodies integral to dance? Where does the performer’s effort spill over to reveal the viscera and sheer will at the core?
Another work at American Realness dealt with precision, control, and viewing: Jillian Peña’s Panopticon. This duet for two dancers (Alexandra Albrecht and Andrew Champlin) was built around angles: the lines of ballet and Merce Cunningham’s vocabulary in the body, the shape of two bodies mirroring each other, the perspective of the viewer on the dancers’ bodies. As the dancers move through steadily-paced developments and refractions of the movement material, they speak to each other in texts culled from Samuel Beckett (again!), Tom Stoppard, and writings by the artists themselves. Their words establish a state of waiting, of stuck-ness, in which they examine the possibility of separating from each other before immediately dismissing it as impossible: “There are times I wonder if it wouldn’t be better for us to part.” “You wouldn’t go far.” Their flat tone of recitation, along with the music and pastel costumes, combines to give the whole an infantilized, storybook quality. It feels as if the dancers are not exercising their own volition, as if they are figures in someone else’s dollhouse. This sense brings me back to the title and the foregrounding of power relationships within this work. Peña doesn’t compose a panopticon in the strict Foucauldian sense: while that architecture designs one omniscient viewer, the viewers in this work are seated around all edges of the space, constantly aware of the partiality of our view, because we see the other viewers in the same frame as the dancers. Structurally, the dancers occupy the location of the panoptic viewer—but they are presented as constructs to be looked at; they never perform looking at the audience. Still, this strong title raises many questions: Who is the surveyor here, and who is the surveilled? Is this an inverted panopticon, flipped around to show us our role as viewers? Is the surveyor the choreographer herself?
To my eye, these works make up a larger conversation about form: about what happens when controlled structures break down, how layered images create complex meaning, and how viewers variously approach a highly constructed performance environment. In part two of my festival recaps, I’ll dig into some more process-oriented works, examine feminist methods in performance, and scrutinize existing structures for self-representation.
Emily Gastineau is an independent artist working in and beyond the fields of dance, performance, and criticism. She collaborates with Billy Mullaney under the name Fire Drill. They work along the disciplinary boundaries of dance, theater, and performance art, conducting experiments around the notion of contemporary and how performance art is meant to be watched. She is the co-founder of Criticism Exchange and Program Coordinator for Mn Artists.