Keeping it Realness

Ann Liv Young’s Mermaid Solo at Abrons Arts Center during American Realness. Photo by Christy Pessagno, courtesy tbspMGMT.

Keith Hennessy’s Crotch (all the Joseph Beuys references in the world cannot heal the pain, confusion, regret, cruelty, betrayal or trauma…) was a high point of American Realness, Benjamin Pryor’s second annual festival of contemporary performance, which spanned the second weekend in January at the Abrons Arts Center. During his show, Hennessy seemed to evoke the seminal artist’s ancient, strange magic, as if Beuys’s healing essence had been carried through time, fulfilling the promise of his ritualistic performance actions as he intended them: seeds to promote actions by others. I think he traveled through the hot breath of the individuals gathered on stage around the nude, glittered, simultaneously tension- and relief-soaked Hennessy. Ideas such as Beuys’s may lead an independent life, but it’s only through the right artistic catalyst that they can morph into raw performance energy, more deeply sensed than intellectually understood.

Hennessy performed sections of the piece as they were laid out in his score: an audience wandering on stage amid his and Beuys’s symbolic materials, a cleverly edited seven-minute lecture on the history of art, an underwear-clad dance in a Scream mask, and the final close circling in of the audience around him on stage. The night I saw Crotch, Hennessy spoke about previous performances of the piece, the way the audience interacted with it, and how it has changed because of that interaction. The “should he wear underwear or pants for the dance” question, for example, was one he felt all audiences answered the same way. As he took off his pants, he said there was no use in asking, that everyone always said “underwear.” He told us to take care of each other as we came up to the stage for the final section; he wanted to make sure that all could see.

Performance art can just as easily become an object as a painting or sculpture that gets stuck in its own materiality, denying the viewer a “real” experience. Many of the American Realness artists speak directly to the audience, acknowledging both the specific environment and their own artist-roles and imperfections in those roles; they’re attempting to take the performance beyond the materials of construction and into genuine experience. This particular way of becoming more human, of challenging the conventions of performance (specifically in a dance context), is almost overwhelmingly popular among a certain set these days. The technique itself now has the potential to objectify a performance; still, the transformative promise of confessional language remains. Communing directly with an audience has become like executing any formalized technique: some do it more successfully than others.

THEM by Ishmael Houston-Jones at Abrons Arts Center during American Realness. Photo by Ian Douglas, courtesy tbspMGMT.

I’m ambivalent about Ann Liv Young’s mean-girl persona. But her Mermaid Solo is an excellent example of how well-designed naturalism, specifically in the context of sensationalistic sadomasochism, can give viewers an experience of “realness.” At first, she lay calmly in a kiddie pool, naked from the waist up and wearing a large fish tail on her lower half. Before long, courtesy of the tail, the water was out of the pool and onto the audience, who began seated in a circle around Ann Liv the mermaid; some of them were soon huddled by the door or standing with their backs flush to the wall, gripping coats and purses up and away from the fishy water. The energy in the room was as palpable as the energy around Hennessy, if less endearingly humane and community oriented. An odor of dead fish permeated the space. It was nausea inducing, as was the way Young berated her dancers (who were dressed as sailors) for everything that was going “wrong.” But oh how spectators do enjoy the idea that something dangerous, unscripted, or embarrassing might actually transpire. Parts of me actually do admire this woman, an individual who appears free of social responsibility and anxiety, who can and will flop around in a giant fish tail, gnaw on smelly raw fish, let her heavy breasts hang (what must be painfully) free, and still remain so empowered. Still, I find it impossible to like her.

And clearly she prefers it that way: her on-stage persona practically begs for reproach. Others who presented themselves as halfway sincere versions of themselves tried harder to endear the audience to them-playing-them. Miguel Gutierrez’s solo, Heavens What Have I Done (which I saw not at American Realness but in an earlier incarnation at the Mount Tremper Arts Festival in July), starts as a biographical lecture-performance evocative of French intellectual non-dance from the 1990s, but he quickly lets the piece transform into aggressively sensationalistic, heavily layered physical theater, complete with opera singing and tap dancing. He draws us in, creating a false sense of closeness with overly intimate details about his life—unpacking a suitcase to reveal his sexual recovery book, yoga blocks, and research materials for a future project. And he explains how he doesn’t get the respect he feels he deserves, expressing the frustrations of a mid-career artist who has earned an enormous amount of success, but still feels marginalized.

Through language, including intimate confessions, Gutierrez constructs an institutional and cultural critique. It’s always such a fine line to walk when the subject is ostensibly “me, me, me,” and although we know by now that the personal is political, sometimes the personal seems like it’s just exercising the ego. And yet, it’s still a brave act to get up on stage and reveal oneself with the intention of making art that lives outside of the old rules of dance. That Tarek Halaby titled his performance, “An attempt to understand my socio-political disposition through artistic research on personal identity in relationship to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, Part One,” makes clear his intentions—the key words here are research and identity.

Keith Hennessy in Crotch at Abrons Arts Center during the American Realness Festival. Photo by Ian Douglas, courtesy tbspMGMT.

Yes, it matters that Halaby has a political message in this piece. But since he takes a straightforward human rights advocacy position, his formal decisions are more thought provoking. He attempts to make us feel compassion for Palestinians by placing us, at least in our imagination, in positions where we can relate to what it feels like to be them. He wants us to see Palestinians as individual human beings, and so he presents himself as aligned with their struggle: Palestinian himself, utterly, overly relatable. There is nothing polished and performer-like about his timid, charming, but self-deprecating persona (including the fact that he is never entirely believable). That we can’t actually relate to what the Palestinians go through is also clear and merges (not accidentally) to a personal thread running through the piece—his failure to actually make a dance. He’s sophisticated enough not to actually mean he’s failed: the dance he’s made is entirely on trend. Notably, however, Halaby does skip the formalized movement completely, instead interspersing his speech with faintly physicalized enactments of his research, including things he read in books, stories he heard, and personal experiences.

That Halaby is inspired by Gutierrez’s work is no secret. He discusses his relationship with the seasoned choreographer within the first few moments of his monologue, and doesn’t seem to feel the need to distance himself from this influence. He puts himself in a difficult position by doing so, because a retrospective comparison with Gutierrez’s finely calibrated manipulation of the crowd deflates the memory of Halaby’s attempt. His talk of dancing for Gutierrez is, however, effective as a nod (intentional or no) to his own “failure” to make a dance. It is also a helpful reminder that many of the American Realness artists are communicating regularly with each other; as a community, they are working with new techniques for conveying certain choreographic ideas that have become more important to them conceptually than body-based craft alone.

In a co-production with Performance Space 122’s COIL festival, American Realness also included THEM, a piece by the choreographer Ishmael Houston-Jones, composer Chris Cochrane, and writer Dennis Cooper, which premiered in 1986 and was revived this fall. There is an unusual urgency in this piece, which is performed by the three artists who conceived it as well as a new group of young male dancers. The subject here—interactions between young gay men—thrums with undertones of street life, rejection, sickness, and trauma. The setting, made clear from the way the dancers dressed to the words Cooper spoke into the microphone, is a time and place where sexual interactions, especially in the gay community, held more danger, a greater tinge of death. Perhaps that’s what wrestling the dead goat on a dirty mattress was about. It was the single most disturbing and morally questionable animal interaction I’ve ever seen on stage, yet there was a certain beauty and necessity about the act. It was desperate and tender in a way that could never translate outside of the context of the piece.

THEM proves that live works can’t be bottled and preserved for eternity. The piece has changed since 1986: the audience is broader, the subject matter references history rather than emergency, the bodies cast in the work are older (in the case of Houston-Jones), and newer (in the case of the young dancers). Live works change; they continue to grow and age the way humans do. If it’s performance unencumbered by traditional conventions—experimental, subversive—then what it is today, it probably won’t be the next time you see it. And there’s something quite beautiful in that idea alone: that there is nothing but the present, replete with glorious failure and the endless potential to do it wrong all over again.

Contributor

Patricia Milder

PATRICIA MILDER is an art and performance writer based in Brooklyn. She was a former Managing Art Editor at the Brooklyn Rail.

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