Watching Big Eater is an immersive experience, although sometimes spoofs on an academic panel discussion emphasize the gulf between audience and performer. David Neumann doesn’t engage in creative seating arrangements like the ones Meg Stuart used in her take on the panel, last fall’s Auf den Tisch! (At the table!) at Baryshnikov Arts Center (the audience sat around an oversized conference table among the performers, with the table as the stage). Still, in Big Eater Neumann achieves a similar atmospheric quality. Portions of the show transition seamlessly from dreamy abstraction to direct confrontation to slapstick and parody, creating an encounter that is more performance installation than dance show.
A tall tower of metal folding chairs seems to grow organically out of the floor in the far left corner; the charming, bearded Andrew Dinwiddie picks a few out of the pile and dances gracefully while holding them. They are unfolded and clanging about. In sparkly leggings and a faux fur vest, Neal Medlyn leaps onto the stage like a gazelle, although I doubt even a gazelle in the wild could burst with as much presence. He puts his hand down his tight, glittery pants and stares at the audience. Video of Neumann’s father eating and speaking in the forest plays on a small retro television set, set to the right. “This forest is obscene,” he says. The look of the old TV contrasts with wall size video projections that play periodically behind the performers.
Eventually Weena Pauly—playing the moderator in this conference, which is ostensibly about the ways in which the world might end—takes the mic; others talk over her. Someone asks, “Who wants to get things moving?” They dance for a while with or without props, with or without talking. The movement can be funny. It can be emotionally resonant. It can sometimes reference pop culture, and other times the ballet Giselle. Will Rawls and Kennis Hawkins speak less than the others, but they dance with more urgency for communication in their bodies, perhaps because of this. When Rawls takes the mic and gives a short, autobiographical-style monologue about a shy kid who felt at home on the stage, I imagine that it’s not fiction. But then again, nothing personal in this piece is without wider social implications. I want Rawls to keep speaking but he trails off, turning the mic stand upside down and slowly spinning the pole as he slips into the darkness on the side of the stage.
Eventually the subject matter becomes more clearly focused, honing in on a widely circulated Youtube video clip of David Hasselhoff. In it, he’s drunk, lying on the floor, making a mess of his hamburger and getting scolded by his frustrated teenage daughter. Neumann explores the outward language of Hasselhoff’s unfortunate, inebriated movement and the metaphoric value of his alcoholism as it relates to the rest of us, which might just mean America as a whole. When Medlyn and Dinwiddie first re-enact Hasselhoff’s part in the video, I’m reminded of Brody Condon’s dance re-creations of Youtube clips of college kids on psychedelic drugs. But Condon, although he is clearly interested in the effect drugs have on society, goes about the physical interpretation of intoxication by way of abstraction. Neumann approaches the recreation of Hasselhoff’s humiliating moment on the floor “eating a Wendy’s” in many different ways. He replays the scene so many times that the abstraction actually fades, the humor melts off the movement, and the words of this aging actor and his teenage daughter can sufficiently break your heart.
In one rendition of the Hasselhoff and daughter drama, Natalie Agee and Kennis Hawkins speak and dance the role of the teenage daughter at her wit’s end. We hear the crescendo in her voice as she tries desperately to convince her father not to drink. To embody this voice, each of them picks up a metal folding chair and winds up as if they’ve lost control and they’re going to swing the makeshift weapon right into their father’s head. It’s an expression that contains all the rage of youth and shows desperation to get through to someone who won’t respond to reason. Of course, the swing never happens; the chairs are artfully contained and the rage swallowed and transmuted into a less explicit but lovely sequence of glides and turns.
The piece ends with a seated, interview-style, face-to-face conversation between Medlyn (Hasselhoff) and Pauly (daughter). This time, Medlyn clearly articulates Hasselhoff’s slurred answers to his daughter’s questions: “because I’m lonely, I have a lot of trouble in my life” and, “bullshit, fuck you, I don’t have you in my life.” It’s a sobering note to end on; by isolating the man’s words away from Internet video titles like “Hasselhoff drunk off his ass! Very funny video!” we can finally hear him express the emptiness that fuels his alcoholism. In the mean spirited comments on Youtube, people drunk on celebrity gossip make judgments in order to create distance for themselves. As a counterpoint to this norm, Neumann deconstructs Hasselhoff and in the process, shows us our collective insides. America’s guts, it turns out, aren’t all that pretty.
PATRICIA MILDER is an art and performance writer based in Brooklyn. She was a former Managing Art Editor at the Brooklyn Rail.