Now in its 15th year, Performa is a Chelsea institution whose object has been to summon and unify the artistic disciplines through live performance. In honor of the 100th anniversary of Bauhaus, the Performa 19 Biennial takes up the principles, kindred to its own, of the German design school. Bauhaus flourished between the wars in Weimar, Dessau, and Berlin. It laid down as its founding proposition a union under one roof of art and industry, of form and function. Behind its walls the disciplines commingled. The most salient for Performa is, of course, performance, yet the programming not only revisits the Bauhaus theater workshops and its dances, but also extends the school’s broader vision, offering a variety of contemporary takes on bodies in built environments. From the domestic setting of Maria Hassabi and Nairy Baghramian’s Entre Deux Actes (Ménages à Quatre) in a Fifth Avenue townhouse to the meditation on public gathering in Sarah Friedland’s dance-film installation CROWDS, we see bodies shaped by, and shaping, their environs.
Entre Deux Actes (Ménages à Quatre) tells the story of the artistic relationships that formed it. At the beginning is visual artist Nairy Baghramian’s friendship with the late Art Deco designer Janette Laverrière. The work’s title refers to Laverrière’s 1947 design of a greenroom: Entre deux actes—Loge de comédienne, upon which Baghramian drew in her own 2009 installation, working closely with Laverrière and stamping a “II” on the title. Later, Baghramian added to the installation her personal collection of erotic Polaroid photographs by the Italian architect, Carlo Mollino. Now the partnership becomes a ménage à trois. With the addition of choreographer and dancer Maria Hassabi, a fourth character joins the affair.
The installation performance brims with contrasts. The high society ghosts of the Upper East Side townhouse billow among an interior design wrought by the belief—shared by Bauhaus and Laverrière—in affordability. (Bauhaus rescued artful design from the exclusive demesne of the wealthy with mass manufacture.) And the framework of a home, with its intimacy and comfort, houses Hassabi’s detached, contorted, otherworldly performers.
Audience members wait in the entrance of the townhouse (now run as cultural space by the nonprofit 1014) before filing in to a back room. Hassabi’s FIGURES (2019) unfolds. “51, 52,” a projected voice counts as four dancers move subtly between twisted sculptural poses. The harsh fluorescent light overhead cancels what warm tones would have been offered by the ornate, wood molding. At moments, the light flashes on and off, disorienting the viewers and strobing the movement sequences. The dancers unfurl their spiraled bodies and exit through the doorway, by ones and twos, until the last one leaves her dancing trance and is swallowed up by the crowd.
Up the curved stairway, the unsettling atmosphere thickens. One dancer lies draped on the cerulean velvet stairs, as if passed out or dead—a common Hassabian motif. In one room stands Baghramian’s installation, taking up a modest corner of the grand parlor facing The MET Museum. The decor elements rest on a black platform, their own stage: a minimalist dressing table, a purple couch, an orange wireframe partition. The titular comédienne is nowhere suggested—she wouldn’t live in this home or use this skeletal set. Out in the hallway, Mollino’s Polaroids lay waiting on a geometric wood-framed display. The tiny vintage photographs offer snapshots of narrative—a nude silhouette, a sultry stare—dwarfed in scale by the sprawling house. On the other end of the hallway, Hassabi and dancer Oisín Monaghan mount a platform in a dark wood-paneled room and begin TOGETHER (2019); the audience settles in on benches for a long durational haul. Here, after wading through slow, restrained movement, the two dancers’ vacant interactions reveal a snapshot of intimacy, just like the Polaroids. One rests a chin in the crook of the other’s neck, their profiles cross each other, linger. It looks for a moment that their lips might be touching. Their proximity, on the surface, suggests passion, drama, intrigue, but the gesture is ambiguous. They are two beings on different geometric planes—perhaps they’ve met at the wrong place, the wrong time.
Downtown at La MaMa La Galleria, Friedland’s CROWDS loops on three screens. Here, one is not part of a crowd following individual dancers through a building, but rather an individual watching a crowd of dancers on flat projections. Set in a beige and gray plaza whose subtle grid pattern mirrors the surrounding architecture—and the guiding Bauhaus design principle—the video’s urban design is familiar but difficult to place. (Part way through, I notice an Italian flag next to an EU one.) The installation draws from dance and film, combining the choreography of bodies and camera positions.
The first channel offers a bird’s eye view, removed, like a surveillance camera. People emerge and are not remarkable, like any passerby or pedestrian. To the diegetic sounds, the movers take poses, like a subdued, durational flash-mob. As you progress further into the gallery, the second channel takes a street-level view, as if you were a few feet away citizen-reporting a protest breakout through your iPhone screen. The third and final channel is a close-up shot, lending a narrative effect similar to following characters in a film. Moments almost synch up among the screens; facial expressions on one annotate its corresponding aerial view, forcing the viewers to entertain synchronous thoughts of the individual and the collective and reminding us that the latter ever comprises the former.
In both pieces, the calibrated scale of body to built environs toggles between macro-perspectives and intimate glimpses. The human and architectural surroundings of each—much like the Bauhaus school—facilitates the mixing of disciplines and expansion of the arts into society: the home, the street. In Baghramian-Hassabi, the container townhouse, apparitional choreography, and vintage photos conjure les temps perdu, yet each performer lays themselves bare inches from the viewer. In Friedland, the container is both the public plaza and the camera frame. Together they show us how to see through the artifice of numbers and into the truth of each constituent individual, including those next to whom we might be standing.