“Realness” is slang for the ability of a drag queen, transgender, or other LGBT person to pass as the opposite gender. And American Realness? According to the press release of American Realness, a new contemporary performance festival held January 7th-11th at Abrons Arts Center, it is “an expansion of realness beyond gender roles into style, ways of life, and art making.” In fact, the release sounded like a manifesto: “American Realness commands attention to the proliferation of choreographic practices transcending the traditions and expanding the definition of American dance and performance.” The festival also promised to be “loud, queer, disturbing…and undeniably present.”
Of the three choreographers presented at Sunday afternoon’s performance, Layard Thompson fit the bill to perfection, while luciana achugar and Zoe Scofield were engaging but lacked the boldness—and perhaps the otherness—at the heart of the festival’s mission. Then again, American Realness is about expanding dance’s definition, not categorizing artists. Such artistic freedom speaks to the festival’s ability to endure, to challenge audiences, and to hopefully become an annual event.
Luciana achugar’s 2007 Franny & Zooey featured five women and two cats, the latter appearing in raw video excerpts reacting to achugar’s movement in the studio. Process and product converged when the onscreen achugar walked backwards while bent at the hip and the onstage achugar, wearing only a hooded sweatshirt, did the same. Perhaps the laid back, slow tempo of the work reflected achugar’s dance-making process, but it was tiring. Although the women stripped for the rap conclusion and vigorously shook their hips while marching up the aisles, they never really plunged into the work. Whatever hidden knowledge they gained from the process was not revealed in performance.
In excerpts from Zoe|Juniper’s forthcoming A Crack in Everything, choreographer Zoe Scofield and three other dancers juxtaposed slow, controlled movement with distorted, convulsing spasms and gasps. Just when it seemed as though Scofield would burst with rage, she contained her energy and paused, creating an intriguing tension between stillness and speed. There are psychological and emotional undercurrents in the work, but these never fully surfaced.
Plastic bags falling from the balcony, a hot pink Victoria’s Secret bag, and an elaborate gown made from disposable cups were featured in Layard Thompson’s cUp-pUck…verb-alll vessel…la la la trasshhhh, a messy but heavily calculated commentary on consumerism, materialism, and waste. Wandering down the aisle wearing only a white undershirt, Thompson’s slurred V’s turned out to be “Vicky” (for the Victoria’s Secret bag on his head); his stuttering “haha’s” became “Hanes” as he showed off his underwear; his “gaga’s” turned into Lady Gaga’s “gaga, ooh la la” as he strutted across the stage. Thompson’s blend of self-consciousness and sexual posing, thrusting, and high-pitched screeches was smart and engaging. The audience was covered in a sea of plastic bags by the piece’s end, but Thompson was too riveting to notice.