“Are You Here for the Performance Piece?”
January 9 – January 16, 2018
“Are you here for the performance piece?” asks the gentleman at the door as he politely ushers me into an unassuming foyer in Brooklyn, under the Williamsburg Bridge. I am at one of the numerous venues hosting American Realness 2018, the dance and performance festival founded by Thomas Benjamin Snapp Pryor, and presented by Gibney Dance with Abrons Art Center. Now in its ninth year, American Realness has cemented its brand, which the festival’s website advertises as “a festival of dance, performance and discourse,” and “a platform for the discovery of new works from subversive artists, tearing at the boundaries of their forms.” That is, a dance festival that evokes the question: what counts as dance, and is this it? I came to the festival for gaskin’s [a swatch of lavender]: a self portrait, Mariana Valencia’s ALBUM, Neal Medlyn’s I <3 PINA, and for Simone Aughterlony and Jen Rosenblit with Miguel Gutierrez and Colin Self’s Everything Fits In The Room, curious of how these pieces would toe the lines between performance, dance, and discourse, or even propose that there are no lines at all.
In 1946, New York Times dance critic John Martin wrote, in championing modern dance as a means of communication, and as a discrete art form from classical ballet: “This is the prime purpose of the modern dance; it is not interested in spectacle, but in the communication of emotional experiences—intuitive perceptions, elusive truths—which cannot be communicated in reasoned terms or reduced to mere statement of fact.” Yvonne Rainer echoed this aversion to spectacle in her 1965 “No Manifesto.” But, a half-century later at American Realness (with the wavering historical influences of conceptual art, performance art, postmodern dance, etc.), the converse seems to be true; elusive truths are not always best expressed solely by well-executed physical feats. Sometimes, spectacle and stated facts are valuable performative choices.
Everything Fits In The Room easily melds physicality, spectacle, and sound, stretching luxuriously across its performance space at Industria. The 4,500-square-foot area is strewn with items that form any number of intriguing dichotomies: organic versus synthetic, neutral versus neon, industrial versus erotic. A rolling and well-lit table, laden with sound equipment and piloted by Gutierrez and Self, orbits the space throughout the performance. It skirts buckets of bones and tree branches, a wall fitted with bondage accoutrement, and various free-floating bits of chains, skins, and latex-y sheets. Minus the performers, this could pass as a fully-realized art installation. Aughterlony and Rosenblit, plus “guest performer” Niall Noel Jones, conduct an exhaustive investigation of their strange landscape, with movements that read as structured improvisation. They are alternately lewd, playful, aggressive, and submissive, moving through various states of undress and periodically crossing paths with each other. They suspend their weight, slam objects and grind against the walls, alternately bounce on or recline in buckets, and apply similar treatment to a tall construction ladder. It is powerful when the performers combine their efforts to play with the tension of crisscrossing ropes and bits of bondage ephemera, but the performance’s quieter moments are especially intriguing. The audience stands transfixed as Aughterlony juices a grapefruit into Rosenblit’s waiting mouth. Gutierrez and Self energize the entire room when they emit siren calls into their microphones. As the audience, we are investigating and playing as well; sans seats, we move freely through the space, viewing the action from all angles.
A similar sense of play and autonomy as audience member is present in keyon gaskin’s work [a swatch of lavender]: a self portrait. At downtown gallery space Participant Inc., we are instructed to “stay away from the walls” and to take one of the small square books offered near the door, but to otherwise move freely throughout the performance as we see fit. Soon, the dancers (who, per the program, rotate by performance) begin to silently, meditatively complete domestic tasks in various stations of the room: balancing a potted plant; cooking noodles and drawing them out in starchy stripes across the floor; adorning themselves with said noodles; arranging items around a floor lamp. These acts create a choice for the audience: do we shift and jostle other viewers in order to have a clear view of the action, or accept partial sight lines? Do we follow the most rigorous action, or the performer we find most compelling? As the dancers begin to move more aggressively and lift their focus, the choices shift: given the opportunity to interact directly with a performer, do we engage or keep our distance? In practice, I find gaskin’s concept more compelling than its performance (sitting closer to the ethos of conceptual art than Martin’s early-twentieth-century theories), though the books provided a pleasantly tactile anchor to an otherwise freeform experience. Before we are instructed to return our books, one of the dancers helpfully encourages us to shine our smartphone flashlights on a swatch of sequins affixed to one of the pages. We cascade purple and blue light across the walls, providing gaskin’s self-portrait with an unexpectedly glamorous conclusion.
Self-portraiture seems a common theme at American Realness, and carries through to Mariana Valencia’s solo work ALBUM. Valencia’s program notes explain, “I’m not sure who will write a herstory about me, so I’m starting now so that they can have good notes.” Valencia relays the aforementioned herstory by hopping genres, splicing story-telling with singing and playing music, while striding and dancing across the stage, and then even past its boundaries. Her movement style is grounded and direct, hovering closer to “technical” dance than many of the other performances. Isolated movements shift her body to present different planes to the audience: a popped hip or shoulder, a tucked pelvis, or a realignment of her gaze. Funny moments arise in Valencia’s demonstration of movements specific to her body: “this is how I look when I fluff a pillow.” Valencia’s stories highlight her early life experiences, ethnicity, and sexuality, including a discussion about “The Lesbian Dilemma” and an homage to rice. She regales us with her re-enactment of singing Edith Piaf as a young child, lunging at the audience and producing throaty calls that approximate Piaf’s “No Regrets.” Valencia closes her tableaux by donning literal rose-colored glasses and then dancing for us: freely, groovily taking her pleasure in showing us who she is, defined in her own terms.
Merriam-Webster defines a fanatic as “a person exhibiting excessive enthusiasm and intense uncritical devotion toward some controversial matter (as in religion or politics),” and it feels like an apt descriptor for Medlyn’s I <3 Pina, a complicated presentation of the choreographer’s affinity for Pina Bausch. Themes from the television phenomenon the Bachelorette bookend the performance, a videoclip up front, and a cocktail party wrapping things up. In the body of the piece, several things happen simultaneously. A dense script scrolls up the back wall, detailing Medlyn’s electronic messages, anecdotes from “dates” with other Pina Bausch enthusiasts (including the Brooklyn Rail’s occasional contributor, and New York Times writer, Siobhan Burke), and fragments of texts from other reviews and notes. This moves along at a business-like pace, while Medlyn and his fellow performers Maggie Cloud and Gillian Walsh move through variations on Bausch’s choreography from the iconic Café Muller. Medlyn also engages in what is either lip-synching or very ineffectual singing into a microphone downstage, a conversation about how many dance classes he’s taken (one, and he was high at the time), and some ASL, which the dancers perform in unison. All this to say, I <3 Pina is exhausting to watch, and the Bachelorette/Bausch convergence is jarring. Focusing on the dance created the problem of missing the text and then losing the thread of the narrative altogether, a sensation not unlike re-awakening midway through a philosophy lecture. But perhaps this sensory overload speaks to Medlyn’s expressed themes of fanaticism and romanticism; which are, by definition, overwhelming. And the choreographer’s history belies his belief that, often, more is more; one of Medlyn’s more curious credits includes creating a re-enactment of a Beyoncé concert.
Above all, American Realness seems to advocate for more: more freedom, more story-telling, and more unapologetic spectacle. Though dance as a technical craft may have constituted only a fraction of the performances I saw, it remains a solid foundation for the various manifestations of physical performance throughout the festival. The precise poses and rhythmic steps shown in Valencia’s ALBUM peacefully coexist with gaskin’s noodle promenade. Medlyn’s reproduced Café Müller duet choreography spills gracefully to the stage, and we are equally compelled by the abrupt slam of a bucket on the floor in Everything Fits In The Room. Perhaps John Martin’s words retain a certain amount of validity: some elusive truths are best expressed through movement of the body.