SUNSETTING COIL (AND PS122)
January 10 – February 4, 2018
Last fall, when I agreed to write about the final edition of the annual Coil festival, I could not have imagined that come mid-January the festival’s mother ship—the organization formerly known as Performance Space 122—would find itself rocked by some seriously choppy seas.
Let’s rewind a bit: Coil was created twelve years ago by PS122’s then-Artistic Director Vallejo Gantner. The festival gained additional prominence in recent years after the organization’s home—a former public school building from which it drew its name—embarked on an ambitious renovation project in 2011. Financed with New York City’s public funding—to the tune of some $37 million—and initially forecast as a relatively swift two-year project, the construction was plagued with cascading delays and ended up taking three times as long to complete. During the protracted exile from its own venue, Coil became the backbone of the organization’s programming, benefitting also from robust partnerships with other NYC venues. It also went through a major leadership change last year, announcing the appointment of Jenny Schlenzka as its first female Executive Artistic Director. This January, along with the launch of the thirteenth Coil Festival—Gantner’s (and PS122’s) final edition—as well as the organization’s triumphant homecoming to its finally renovated building, an eleventh-hour announcement was made, effectively renaming the institution as the Performance Space New York. The response of the City’s arts community spread like wildfire, swiftly and ferociously, resulting mostly in two sharply divided camps: one celebrating the promise of greater access and inclusiveness, the other bemoaning the perceived departure from the iconic institution’s historic legacy.
Parsing through my social media feeds, it has been a challenge to find some shades of grey amongst numerous responses to this momentous occasion, though one did emerge, in the form of a post from a respected colleague, former BAM Publicity Manager Adriana Leshko, shifting the conversation towards the art, respectfully asking us to take the time to consider PSNY’s upcoming season before passing judgment. It seems that the organization’s administration took a similar approach, directing attention towards its programming rather than directly addressing the controversy. “The 13th iteration of Coil is filled with some of the most exciting artists making performance right now,” Schlenzka said of the festival’s final edition in a statement, written before the renaming announcement. “A lot of the works are world premieres and conceived with the idea of opening our new spaces in mind. We are discontinuing Coil for a very practical reason: now that we have our spaces back we can program year-round and do not need to concentrate our main activities into one festival. Coil has played an enormous successful role in maintaining Performance Space 122’s presence while we were homeless during the last six years. It will always be an important part of our organization’s history.”
In the spirit of Ms. Leshko’s remarks, I am turning my attention to a sampling of works presented in the final edition of Coil. In early January, I conversed with four dance artists whose pieces were featured at the festival, some of which were presented early enough for me to view as well.
Performance Space New York opened its doors to the public and inaugurated its brand-new fourth-floor theater with Heather Kravas’s visions of beauty. Premiered last year at On The Boards in Seattle, Kravas re-imagined the work for its New York premiere in consideration of the architecture of the PSNY’s new space. In conversation with the choreographer, I learned that she initially conceived visions of beauty as a structurally inverted companion piece to her 2001 work The Green Surround, an examination of the pursuit of perfection performed by a cast of nine women. “Many people thought the work was ‘quintessentially female,’ and after a time I wanted to test that,” said Kravas during our conversation. “I first thought to cast this work, visions of beauty, with men. Very early on in our process, I realized it was neither structural inversion nor making a ‘men's piece’ that was of interest to me. What the piece is for me, is this volley between abstraction and the power of making something together.” All of these considerations indeed shone through during Coil’s opening night performance of this work. Both Kravas’s choreography and her nearly all-male cast (featuring one female and eight male dancers) explored the entire footprint of PSNY’s expansive new performance space. Unfolding over seven distinct sections, the work’s topography traced, continuously evolving shapes through the space with mathematical precision. At the same time, a deeply committed, collective human effort was evident throughout the duration of the piece. I felt that Kravas’s work achieved the delicate balance of negotiating in abstract choreographic language, while at the same time hinting at timely political issues, such as gender inequality and the need for unity in an otherwise deeply divisive political climate. “I really wanted to make something that was not about oral language,” said Kravas. “We made this work primarily last fall and winter and the very act of being together was powerful—a place where we could be together in ways that were complex, yet unfixed.”
The second of the two works I was able to view the same evening was the U.S. debut of Australian choreographer Atlanta Eke’s enigmatic Body of Work. Eke’s work was performed in what used to be the larger of the two spaces occupied by the former PS122. Even though a work I had created with my company, WaxFactory, had been presented there during a pre-renovation era, I had a hard time recognizing the refurbished, spatially reconfigured space—until I spotted the two beloved, frustrating columns that remain standing. Just like Kravas, Eke made ample use of the intimate second-floor space, creating a video echo-chamber of sorts, featuring live feed and a single performer (Ivey Wawn, standing in for Eke on the occasion of the New York premiere). According to the choreographer, Body of Work explores the tension between the performance and the documentation of the performance by making them one in the same. As the live performance unfolds, it is incrementally video-recorded; as the documentation accumulates, it is projected back into the live performance, producing a recursive effect. Perhaps unwittingly, Eke’s work echoes the early multimedia performance experiments of the era when “video killed the radio star.” For the duration of the piece, Wawn essentially performs for the camera, prompting the audience to experience her disparate, performance-arty acts vicariously by watching her image on video, favoring the mediated image over the live performance. These include vomiting blue paint, balancing on a pilates ball, and animating a set of floating cymbals to appear as a flying saucer. “A performance that dissolves the distinction between human and machine; Body of Work is a synthesis, a hybrid, a cyborg,” said Eke of the work, “a performance where opposition is irrelevant, so that the question remains: who choreographs and who is choreographed?” Replete with the psychedelic effects and kaleidoscopic feedback-loop video patterns, Body of Work indeed came off as a bit of a head-scratcher, while at the same time managing to remain charming, in an early 70s DIY sci-fi way.
As of the time of this writing, two more dance productions are gearing up for their respective world premieres, to be unveiled as part of Coil’s final edition. Dean Moss’s Petra was slated to premiere in June 2017, but was postponed to January 2018 due to the aforementioned delays with the building’s renovation process. Yet, Moss seems to have been unencumbered by the delay. “The process reflects the nature of the circumstance: episodic with unusually long spaces of planning interspersed with short intense rehearsals,” said Moss in a recent interview. “My performer/collaborators have been magnificent: brilliantly rising to the occasion. As such, the work is now more layered, subtle, and deeply conceived.” The piece draws its name from Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s cinematic masterpiece, his paean to unrequited love, The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (1972), providing, in Moss’s words, “a complex play of power through which to scaffold the inquiry.” “I [like] to draw connections and parallels between the imagined and the actual,” the choreographer continued, “so, in Petra, knowing the relationship between the performer and the role matters. For example: Kaneza Schaal performs the namesake role of Petra, an ambitious director of performance and video works, but Ms. Schaal is also a director of theater in her actual life, and this knowledge impacts not only on how the work was made but also on how it’s viewed. In fact, the movement, the roles, costumes, and visual designs of Petra are all conceived with this layering in mind.”
David Hamilton Thomson’s he his own mythical beast will be Coil’s final production. The work is the result of an extended, multi-layered development process, prompted by a very early iteration of the work, presented in 2012 as part of a platform curated by Ralph Lemon, during which Thomson began developing ideas on presence and the black body in postmodern work. “From there, I began looking at other aspects of identity and playing with concepts of power and presence through different modes of performance,” said Thomson of his process. “I am particularly interested in the relationship of audience to the work—finding alternatives to proscenium that engage in unexpected ways.” Since 2012, Thomson’s investigation has gone through several iterations, primarily presented as solo works-in-process, yet he acknowledges that completed work will be the embodiment of a meaningful collaboration with several artists, some of whom will also appear on stage during the work’s late-January premiere. “As for this final iteration,” said Thomson, “the concept of their roles is buried within the work and may not be obvious. One concept is that of the sole 'white' person in the work, which mirrors my role as the sole 'black' person in the work of many postmodern choreographers. Another is how we transfer and transform ourselves within the work, the shared bodies and personas that are separate and together.” Still, Thomson remains involved in the production, not only as the choreographer, but also as the performer, embodying the characters of Venus dark and Venus light. “I guess you can say they are the same in the way that we all embody contradiction. Their objectives were different. The black mask functions on a number of metaphoric levels: blackface, sex, power dynamic, anonymity—while the Venus light reminds me of Sadus in India—a holy man. The black was threatening and, with the heels, felt dangerous for some. The light was part of a magical space that ultimately functioned as a confessional booth. Between the two there is the ongoing question of gender, and I guess one could say culture.”
In spite of the ongoing debate about what the rebranding of Performance Space New York signifies for the organization’s future, the artists I spoke with seem to present a unified front of hope. “I have so many memories of the old building, of the performances I saw and performed in, the people,” said Kravas. “I thought there may be more ghosts here now but instead I am struck by the visions I have for future dances I might see.” Thomson said, “I've been around long enough to see many things come and go. There is always a renaming and reconfiguration of festivals. I’m glad they’re finally back home and retooled for the future.” For Moss’s part, he is thrilled that, after delays, his work will finally premiere. “It’s of course also gratifying to be a part of PSNY’s reopening season and the Coil festival,” he said, “but honestly my excitement is focused on the performances.” Mirroring this sentiment, Eke said, “Presenting a piece for the first season of [PSNY’s] return to the East Village, to become a part of the organization’s long and iconic history is an enormous privilege.”
And, what comes after Coil? For Schlenka’s part, she and her staff feel “ecstatic” to welcome people to PSNY’s new spaces, designed by the architecture firm Deborah Berke & Partners. “I am very excited for the inaugural East Village series, which will run from February through June 2018, […] a way of re-anchoring the organization in our immediate neighborhood. Going forward, we will have a differently themed series for each season. The idea is to create a vital dialogue between the individual works, and to show how performance can push us to engage with the world in meaningful and exciting ways.”
IVAN TALIJANCIC is a founder and artistic co-director of WaxFactory, a New York-based interdisciplinary art group. He is currently completing his first feature film, 416 MINUTES, and regularly writes on the arts for BOMB, London-based Bachtrack, and the Brooklyn Rail.