At American Realness, it’s not rare to experience a feeling of déjà vu: whether you are watching new versions of shows you have seen before, or new shows by artists you know well, or new shows in familiar theater spaces. Although I try to meet each show on its own terms, in this festival setting I have a hard time not comparing and revisiting. The four works that I have selected below are all made by mid-career artists who are no strangers to New York stages. I am considering how each artist positions him or herself in relationship to the audience. As an audience member, I interrogated my own trajectories of desire—trying to determine what moved me and what did not.
Part I: Dancer from the Dance
Both Miguel Gutierrez and Jack Ferver have been criticized for creating works in the festival that are self-referential. Yes, both artists have presented works in American Realness about making work, and especially the emotional costs and context of that work. But the autobiographical mode only added more possibility for intimacy between the artist and the audience; mixed with spectacle, it becomes theater.
Miguel Gutierrez’s presence onstage is minimal in Age & Beauty Part 2: Asian Beauty @ the Werq Meeting or The Choreographer & Her Muse or &:@&—his primary function is orchestrating the live sound environment for the piece. This decentering of the choreographer is a fitting gesture for a piece that attempts to deconstruct the myth of the muse (delightfully rendered á la a Broadway tune, replete with a lit-up and fake-smiling Michelle Boulé, who blinks like a beauty pageant contestant), as well as to expose the working conditions and relationships between Gutierrez and Ben Pryor (his manager and the founder and producer of American Realness). Juxtaposing the long conversations recited by Pryor and Sean Donovan—who plays Gutierrez—Michelle Boulé delivers solo after solo, all of which she has originated and performed in Gutierrez’s earlier works. While we hear about Gutierrez’s struggle with the hold that the administrative realm places on him, Boulé’s dances literally push the real “work” front and center as she throws herself between the two men’s computers. The conversations become a backdrop as we marvel at her stamina and virtuosity. Even taken out of context, Boulé’s monologues from Last Meadow (2009), in which she personifies a sped-up and deranged James Dean, and Everyone (2007), in which she stands on a table and yells: “I needed you to know before you left!” leave me breathless. Her presence is so commanding it is hard to remember to look elsewhere. The conversations definitely have a place, especially the “fight” between Gutierrez and Pryor that raises really crucial issues about autonomy and capitalism, but by occupying more of the background, they avoid coming across as myopic. There is also something very humble about Gutierrez’s watching of Boulé and the short exchanges between them. At one point, Gutierrez replaces Donovan to dance a duet with Boulé, and you can see the closeness in their bodies, a tenderness borne of years of knowing each other. This quiet camaraderie is counterbalanced by playful forays into the genres of musical theater and even salsa. It was exhilarating to watch the four performers traipse around the stage to a disco song, engaging with the audience as well as their inner divas, calling out the moves: “It’s a lasso!” Gutierrez still knows how to work a crowd.
Making work about making work is more familiar terrain for Jack Ferver. His All of a Sudden (2013) also dealt with the relationships between performer and collaborators. In Night Light Bright Light, he works with his longtime friend and collaborator, Reid Bartelme, who also happens to be a gorgeous ballet dancer turned costume designer. I was a little skeptical about a work that was framed as a response to the suicide of Judson Dance Theater’s wayward Fred Herko, but he was only there as a benevolent ghost. Ferver begins with his back to the audience, holding a small mirror in front of his face (how’s that for self-referential?), his voice coming out of the speakers in a non-semantic representation of each movement. He then shifts and establishes a confessional relationship to the audience, explaining, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, his process for making the work we are about to see, and advocating on behalf of his recent work Chambre. Moving from his research of Herko’s suicide (“It’s been so much fun ruminating on despair”) he describes his own childhood obsession with torture (“Eat that fucking pudding!”). Ferver describes himself as not-the-best dancer and not-the-best singer, his small stature and high-drama affect contrasting with Bartelme’s balletic and blank-faced movements. Reenacting the performance of a “sexy dance” for his therapist, Ferver makes the audience complicit. Our watching him becomes inappropriate and we take pleasure in his acting out. The highlight of the piece, and the most direct homage to Herko, comes when Reid appears in a black silk dress and veil and pointe shoes. As Ferver stands on stage reciting: “I’m not afraid. I’m not afraid. I am afraid. I’m not afraid” into a mirror, holding a red candle, the audience is terrorized with delight by Bartelme, who tears up and down the aisles grabbing at us in our chairs.
Part II: Ritual as Proposition
Keith Hennessy’s Bear/Skin and luciana achugar’s OTRO TEATRO: The Pleasure Project both engage with ritual—Hennessy through his improvisational blend of lecture, dance, and props and achugar with a large group of performers mixed together in the dark with the audience and several bottles of whiskey. Although I admired the conceptualization of both pieces, and the challenges they placed on the audience, I was left feeling unsure—aware of myself and the distance I had not travelled.
I saw Hennessy’s Crotch (all the Joseph Beuys references in the world cannot heal the pain, confusion, regret, cruelty, betrayal, or trauma...) (2008)at American Realness in 2011. Seated on the stage in front of Hennessy as he sang in a warbly voice and sank a needle and thread into and out of his skin, I felt warbly myself, in the best way. I saw Turbulence (a dance about the economy) at New York Live Arts in 2012 and felt first cold and then actually angry—trapped in a world that I had nothing to do with and feeling like Hennessy was occupying a role of power that felt anything but liberatory. Bear/Skin sinks somewhere between these two works.
Hennessy begins by passing out a book (Wilder Mann: Images of the Savage, by Charles Fréger), offering a brief history of the making of The Rite of Spring, and explaining the additional material he has incorporated into the piece in light of the publicized shootings of black men and women by police. It is in action movies, he tells us, that he has found a “safe place to imagine that everything is fucked up and should be destroyed.” He recites a fast-paced poem in the satiric perspective of a young white man that may or may not be an action hero, culminating in the chant “shoot to kill / save the white girl.” He then proceeds to sing, dressed as a teddy bear, four “Bear Songs,” describe his four-directional map, and lecture about suicide communities (soldiers, seniors, and middle-aged white men, a demographic which he acknowledges he fits into). While he changes his costume, he passes out silver Mylar space blankets, and encourages us to get under them with our neighbors and create a rain dance. While I didn’t necessarily connect with my neighbors, the visual and tactile shifts in the environment were exciting. At this point I felt a lot of potential and momentum. The new costume he emerges wearing could be described as New-Age Wild Man, including floral leggings, a wig and mask, rainbow suspenders, and a sash made out of credit cards. He performs a version of Nijinsky’s Rite of Spring that is quite beautiful and shows the exertion it requires of him, which he prolongs by ending in a boat pose. The final dance evokes trance and club culture, and seems intended to be a performance of ritual while also a critique of appropriation. I wasn’t able to find a way in. It didn’t seem ironic but it was also hard to take seriously; if it was meant as a reparative gesture and not just critique, it seemed to be lacking in vulnerability, in intimacy. It didn’t seem to involve us. Is he the one to be sacrificed, or is he the hero, or—? Either way, I felt a contradiction between his centrality and his emphasis on the historical appropriation of and violence against indigenous and black Americans. As he whirled around, I wasn’t sure where he stood.
I saw achugar’s first iteration of OTRO TEATRO at New York Live Arts last spring. I found the performers’ writhing in their seats, disguised as audience members, to be a little gimmicky and also unbelievable in terms of an experience of actual pleasure. Once the group was on stage, there were some beautiful movement sequences, notably performed by achugar and Gillian Walsh, but, like Turbulence, I was not able to observe that the group transformed itself or the audience. The Playhouse stage at Abrons made for a much more appropriate setting for this second iteration of OTRO TEATRO—The Pleasure Project—more punk, more rough.
The audience gathers into a circle around the perimeter and bottles of whiskey are passed around (many bottles, big ones). The performers are also seated among us, and start to curl and bend, kick, take off their clothes, and rock. The lights go off and the performers create sounds—humming, moaning, burping. achugar is face-down near me, circling her lower right leg, landing with a slap on the floor over and over again. Audience members choose whether to get toppled on or to move. The curtain is open just a few inches—seeing the flash of red that is the house reminds me of where we are, and conjures up a feeling of complicity and camaraderie, a sense that this is a secret gathering. Eventually, the performers open the curtain and move into the empty house. (The sense of surprise I might feel here is undercut by having witnessed a similar use of the space in Miguel Gutierrez’s 2007 work Everyone). The audience moves closer to the edge of the stage to watch what happens, and a few people even move into the house themselves and take a seat. Although there is a sense of escalation, of momentum, no structure emerges, only a traveling of bodies through the dark, a shift of rhythms as these bodies meet with the surfaces of the space and other bodies. There is no collective breaking point. A few performers reach ecstatic states individually—there is proximity and proxy but ultimately the transformation that achugar seems to be in search of (“a utopian body, a sensational body, […] an anarchic body”) still seems far away. However, there are compelling moments, such as when Michael Mahalchick, a longtime collaborator of achugar’s, rolls across the stage until he encounters a member of the audience (everyone else has moved out of the way) and then peacefully rests with his arm flung across him. Gradually, the breathing slows, the movements get more controlled, and the performers exit one by one out of the front doors of the theater.
Can pleasure be contagious? Can ritual be simultaneously deconstructed and produced? Are you talking at me or to me? Are you moving with me or near me? Why am I not moved when others are? What does it take? I’m still not sure. I guess I want a performance to remind me that I am capable of feeling more. I want to be lifted; I want to be giddy; I want to be devastated; I want to be surprised. I want to find my vulnerability, and let it stay just where it is. I want to be emotionally topped, to let go of my critical lens for a moment, to forget where and who I am, to exist in the potential tense.