American Realness Festival
January 7 – January 17, 2016
For the better part of this decade, New York audiences have kick-started each new year with their senses and intellects stimulated, challenged, teased, and even assaulted at the American Realness festival, curated by the indomitable Ben Pryor at the Lower East Side’s Abrons Arts Center. Accustomed as we are to seeing New York (and world) premieres along with return engagements of boundary-pushing dance and performance works at the festival, it is hard to imagine or even recall that this was not the case several years ago.
Rewind to the latter part of the 2000s: Mr. Pryor was working as an artist representative at a large agency, traveling to regional booking conferences, making the rounds during the Performing Arts Presenters conference (APAP) in New York, and trying to connect up-and-coming contemporary dance artists with presenters he thought may be interested in their work. It was an uphill battle: finding presenters was difficult, and the work was only being shown in the context of bare-bones showcases in which artists shared production costs—often to the work’s (and the artists’) detriment. Meanwhile, in the realm of theater, conditions were significantly more advantageous, with fully staged works being presented in the context of festivals such as Under the Radar and COIL.
Fortuitously, all this was transpiring around the time that Pryor was beginning to collaborate with Jay Wegman of the Abrons Arts Center. While his idea to create a kind of “Under the Radar for dance” was met with Wegman’s instant enthusiasm, the project hit a snag when Pryor pitched it to his booking agency superiors. “No one is going to go down there,” they said, brushing the idea off. “It’s just too far from the Hilton,” which is, of course, the APAP’s hub in Midtown.
Two years later and newly independent, Pryor was seeking a fitting venue to present Miguel Gutierrez’s highly atmospheric production of Last Meadow during the APAP season, with the bit of support that the choreographer was able to obtain as part of his Creative Capital award. Jay Wegman offered him the Playhouse, the largest of the three stages at Abrons. “Why don’t you do that festival that we discussed years ago?” Wegman added. Unintimidated by the challenge, Pryor took full advantage of the free week in the Playhouse. He invited a number of artists he was looking to represent at the time, including Jack Ferver and Ann Liv Young, and even managed to include several artists affiliated with peer institutions (Trajal Harrell at the New Museum and Jeremy Wade at the Japan Society.) The American Realness festival was born.
Currently in its seventh year, the festival has not only vastly altered the landscape of showcasing dance productions during the January presenting season, it has also made a significant impact on the international perception of American contemporary dance. Committed to presenting works that capture the zeitgeist of contemporary American dance output, the festival continues to make significant strides in dispelling the notion that the “lights and tights” aesthetic associated with the works of master artists such as Trisha Brown and Merce Cunningham still dominates our choreographic landscape. In relationship to their international peers, the current cadre of American dancemakers is working with a different set of tools, which is related to the comparatively limited resources stateside. “Artists are working intelligently within their means,” said Pryor during a recent conversation I had with him. “They are exploiting their means in relationship to the totality of the canon they are next to, or against, or in relationship to, in one way or another.”
Further still, in my estimation, the festival has been highly successful in freeing dance from its commonly prescribed disciplinary boundaries, and initiating discourse on otherness. An intuitive sampling of works I viewed at last month’s edition of American Realness speaks for itself: from a meditative deconstruction of stereotypes of “blackness” in Ligia Lewis’s highly atmospheric Sorrow Swag, to Yvonne Meier’s hilarious and aggressively non-conforming Durch Nacht und Nebel, works presented at the festival comfortably transgressed boundaries of genre, discipline, gender, and culture. In MIRA EL!, Antonio Ramos took the audience on a surrealistic gender-bender, Jillian Peña mesmerized them with a Beckettian choreographic Rorschach test of sorts in her Panopticon, while Jonathan Capdevielle’s drag-infused Adishatz/Adieu gleefully twisted familiar tropes into unfamiliar territory.
Getting to this point may have been a tall order, but it does not end there for Pryor. The festival continues to grow and evolve, with an international version in France coming up this spring. His future plans include incorporating Realness as a fully fledged non-profit organization with the intention of securing greater funding for the festival and expanding its scope—both infrastructure-wise and artistically. Ideally, the festival would operate close to a half-million dollar budget and include a full-time staff, greater support for artists, and commissions of new works.
As always, ambitions run high in the house of American Realness, but considering its relentless fervor, I suspect they may get there even sooner than we think.