The big show for the night saw me head to
Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) with CAC Director and Chief Curator Raphaela
Platow to see Sun, the latest dance piece from acclaimed Israeli-born,
Britain-based choreographer Hofesh Shechter. A packed theater was introduced to
the work via an announcement that the company was to show us a snippet of the
very end of the piece in order to ensure us that “everything is going to be
OK”. A comedic beginning to a performance full of sharp wit and contrast.
Consisting of various vignettes that reappeared at points throughout the
performance, Sun utilizes smart lighting and a brutal sound design
(composed for the most part by Shechter himself) to rather brilliantly and
swiftly turn on a dime and take the piece from moments of intensity and anger
to those of subtle and soft humor; highly sexualized slo-mo gyrations of female
dancers to male dancers prancing around the stage with cutout sheep drawings. Sun
was certainly intent on making a political point of some kind. The
aforementioned sheep cutouts were being stalked by a wolf, cutouts of
indigenous tribesmen were being stalked into conversing with a colonist, and at
one point a dancer addresses (shrieks at) the crowd with, “The wolf is behind
The main event Thursday evening was not a part of Performa 13. Instead, the evening saw my virgin visit to the Metropolitan Opera to take in the final night of composer (and frequent Cincinnati visitor) Nico Muhly's Two Boys. Muhly became the youngest composer to be commissioned by the Met when they asked him to create a new work in 2006. Having a run in 2011 in London in a co-production with English National Opera, Two Boys finally made its American debut last month.
Based on true events in Manchester, England, 10 years ago, the story centers on a seemingly normal 16-year-old boy and his involvement in a confusing web of chat room relationships that ultimately lead to him stabbing and nearly killing a 13-year-old boy. It was, shall we say, not your standard opera fare. While I've not been to many an opera in my life thus far, I don't imagine there have been many to have featured projected chat acronyms and two separate instances of onstage masturbation. But on to the show.
The story of Two Boys is a complicated one, without question. A young boy has been stabbed, his friend and the only witness, Brian, is the key suspect, and an over-worked and under-appreciated police detective is tasked with putting the pieces together in a case she never wanted to take. As we begin to learn more about Brian, we are shown a world of chat room conversations and desperate boys seeking connections that mean something. By the end, we understand that the young boy pretended to be three different people in various roles and chats with Brian, concocting an insanely complex story before, essentially, convincing Brian to stab him while he would repeat, “I love you, bro” to the dying boy. Everyone has access to a search engine, so I'll let you look up the story on your own...
A certain triumph for Two Boys is the set design and realization of an online world on a physical stage. Multiple large-scale projections land upon movable walls that dance across the stage at various depths. Frequently these walls become transparent and reveal young people inside, half-illuminated by laptop screens. The multimedia execution inspired and amazed, serving to highlight the production's digital world concept and add a new and exciting layer to a traditional performance form.
Knowing Muhly's work rather well, and having enjoyed the chance to see him twice in Cincinnati in the past 18 months as part of MusicNOW and Tatiana Berman's Constella Festival, I was eager to hear what he had done for Two Boys. I was somewhat surprised — though pleased — to find that this work did not veer too far from his compositional oeuvre; dark with intricate rhythms, the score never threatens to take complete control of the production, while the influence of modern composers like Benjamin Britten and Meredith Monk, as he acknowledged in the program notes, could be felt throughout. For me, the standout compositional moments came in the form of choral scenes performed by the company carrying laptops in their hands, faces lit and animated by the screens, feeling like a reference to the pull of the digital world and the countless hours young people like Brian spend seeking something of meaning in an environment of empty promises. Multi-layered lines repeating chat room requests and responses, the voices build to a disorienting swirl. In these moments, the marriage of precocity, tradition, and progressivism felt too immense to not hold your breath.
Another Performa show, another mesmerizing experience. But we'll get to that.
While my nights are reserved for performances, the days allow me an opportunity to put some miles on my MTA card, shuttling around the city to meet people in various outposts. Wednesday morning saw me grab breakfast and coffee with artist Roberto Lange, a frequent Cincinnati visitor under the guise of Helado Negro. Roberto has a long history working with Cincinnati's own Paul Coors on various projects over a number of years, and Helado Negro's packed performance at MOTR Pub closed this past edition of Midpoint. A graduate of Savannah College of Art and Design, Roberto's creative output is not limited to the standard write/record/tour process, and his vision for future projects across various mediums was exciting to talk about.
Another meeting of note was a jump across Fort Greene to the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) to sit down with Joseph Melillo, executive producer of BAM overseeing artistic direction over the esteemed organization and its venues. Our chat nearly didn't happen as our CAC email had been out of service for the past 24 hours (work traveler's worst nightmare realized) and all emails to me were bouncing back. Thankfully everything got up and running just before the one window of opportunity and we were able to connect The operational realities of the performance programs at BAM and the CAC may be very different, but the conversation on our shared ideologies and the approach to the work we program was inspirational and left me feeling energized for the performance I was heading to immediately thereafter.
Quickly grabbing dinner to go (a cubano sandwich, for those interested), I made my way to Chelsea and New York Live Arts, a venue dedicated to movement-based artistry that was created in 2011 by a merger of the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company and Dance Theater Workshop. Tonight's performance was the much-discussed Disabled Theater, a collaboration between French choreographer Jérôme Bel and Zurich's Theater HORA, a company of actors with learning disabilities. Debated and praised all over Europe after its premiere at dOCUMENTA (13) in Kassel, Germany, the work sees the actors' conditions and their (dis)abilities laid bare as they remain onstage for the duration of the performance as they respond, often with humor, to a series of tasks proposed by Bel. A translator to the side of the stage began by addressing the crowd. The actors only speak Swiss German fluently, so she would be our guide. Each of the ten actors individually came out to stand in front of the audience for one minute. Even with this task, you began to learn about their conditions, their strengths and their fears. The actors ranged in age from 20 to 43. Some suffered from more severe or noticeable conditions than others. Asked to name their disability, some were fully aware of their diagnosed reality while others were limited to describing themselves as “slower than normal”.
The main focus of the night was the dance routines, with the actors selecting the music, choreographing and then performing their own pieces. One by one, they would jump up when their name was called, taking the opportunity to show their moves and completely invest in the moment. With each new dance different questions would come to mind, as well as a new awareness of what expectations or preconceptions I might generally have had of artists — and people — with disabilities. Essentially, these actors were just being themselves, out in front, onstage, mostly without concern for how the audience was feeling. There were moments, however, in which we see that these actors have had experiences whereby they feel different from the so-called “normal people”. In one heartbreaking instance, a young, energetic girl with Down syndrome informed us of her disability when prompted, said “I am sorry,” and rushed back to her chair in tears, straight into the arms of a consoling friend.
With Disabled Theater, Bel has made the notion of disability commonplace. The idiosyncrasies, weaknesses and natural gestures of the performers are displayed free of outside influence, allowing each audience member to accept and appreciate the artists as they would any other. An honest, highly impressive look at how we relate to a group typically viewed under a different lens.
Follow citybeat.com for more Performa 13 updates from Drew Klein. Read Part One here.
Arriving in New York for a work-related trip always causes my nerves to stand at full attention. I typically overcomplicate my schedule with back-to-back caffeine dates in different neighborhoods, or try and sneak in one more performance than would be wise. At the same time, I know when I'm back here that I'm going to be seeing some of the most forward-thinking live art happening in the world today, and the energy and inspiration I pull from the shows I see and the people I meet will influence my programming for seasons to come.
One layover, a two-hour delay and an annoying navigation out of Newark Airport later, I'm in the city and frantically sprinting to my first pow wow of the week with artist Hisham Bharoocha. Hisham is highly regarded for his music, visual art and photography, though I'm talking with him mainly in regard to the former. A founding member of the group Black Dice, his recent experiences have seen him organize the now legendary BOADRUM experiences in which 77 and, later, 88 drummers played the same number of kits on the dates 07/07/07 and 08/08/08, respectively, as well as other projects utilizing the two main parts of his live creative output — voice and percussion. Hisham owns a unique ability to take a live concept and build it into something visceral yet magical, and I was glad to find that I enjoyed him as a human being as well. I hate bad coffee dates.
However, the main reason for being in New York this time of year is Performa 13, the performance art biennial hosted at various venues around the city that runs for 24 days in November. Started in 2005 by art historian RoseLee Goldberg (she has written a book on performance art and is now revered as a key figure in that world), Performa presents some of today's most compelling performance art works and, more famously, commissions new work from reputable artists who work across various mediums — artists ranging from Carlos Amorales to Japanther to Ragnar Kjartansson. Earlier performances this month have featured Dean Spunt of No Age, a Contemporary Arts Center performer this past September, and C. Spencer Yeh, the longtime Cincinnati resident and noise art maestro whose visual art exhibition Standard Definition opened at the CAC in October 2009. My experience two years ago at Performa 11 introduced me to a rough working of Jace Clayton's Julius Eastman Memorial Dinner, and that serendipitous event lead to the project being further developed and realized before its world premiere as a production-in-full in our performance program this past April.
The first experience I had with Performa 13 will be hard to beat, I imagine. Arriving at the quaint Connelly Theater Ryan McNamara's MEƎM: A Story Ballet About The Internet, the attendants were instructed to check all coats and bags at the entrance before entering what served as a sort of waiting room of art school students, seasoned performance art patrons and those seeking something out of the ordinary. The room resembled a high school cafeteria in look and ambiance, filled with social chatter between friends and colleagues. As I paid little attention to the conversations, I went into the performance completely unaware of what would happen.
After being lead into an auditorium with standard seating facing an elevated stage, the program began with three male dancers contorting their bodies slowly and precisely to a modern dance Pop soundtrack. Not long into the routine it became clear that “something” was happening directly behind the audience. Too unbothered to turn around and take my attention from the stage, I heard small laughs and continued to feel like the program was turning into something entirely new. As the energy picked up around me, I finally glanced back and for the first time noticed that nearly all of the rows behind me were no longer there, and that two other dancers had set up shop in the back corners of the room and portions of the audience were now seated, in the same chairs, facing those performances. At the same time, two audience members appeared in their chairs moving up the ramps at the sides of the stage, being pulled by two production team members. Before too long, my own chair was lifted up and I was swiftly carted, passing through one room with three leotard-adorned dancers moving to strobe-affected disco before being delivered to a room where two women in matching outfits performed a laconic dance to a playlist of suspenseful film score pieces. This routine continued for an hour, with roughly 10 minutes spent at each location. At the end, after we were all put back in what we thought were our resting positions, there was still time for one final, beautiful, balletic piece. Then our chairs were forcefully reconfigured, and our expectations were once again turned upside down.
The music was mostly modern, referencing pop culture, and the dance routines were pulled (stolen) from popular internet videos. The anxiety over being completely unable to control your own attention, while still desperately attempting to, was incredibly effective in highlighting the performance's entire concept of questioning the very possibility of a singular “experience” today. There were roughly 10-12 possible positions, and each person probably experienced no more than six of those. We all wanted to catch more of what was happening all around, but often ignored what was right in front us. In the end, nobody seemed to leave feeling like they didn't get to experience it all.
Follow citybeat.com for more Performa 13 updates from Drew Klein.