Bill T. Jones and other dance-y discontents

Okay so, in all deference to my esteemed colleague and contributor Beatrice, I would be a bit more reserved in my praise of “A Quarreling Pair”. To be honest I thought the music was great – especially the one song that sounded like Wilco and the extended, psychedelic cover of Dylan’s Hard Rain is Gonna Fall.  The dancers themselves were wonderful – strong, agile, beautiful and precise. I haven’t read the story on which the work is based, so maybe that would have helped. But to be honest the whole framing device seemed under-thought and underutilized and, by and large, I found the choreography itself to be somewhat uninspired. The work succeeded when it avoided literalism and shtick. There were moments of extraordinary beauty and poignancy when Jones stuck to the abstract; his use of a few simple movement phrases repeated over and over again in counterpoint to something simple like a woman in a yellow dress slowly moving across the stage – those were beautiful. The videography was wonderful and transporting, the scenography was lush, ambitious and impressive and, as I said, the music was great. Not to mention the quality of the sound at BAM – you could really hear the subtleties of the guitar and the Hammond organ and all the nuances of the sound. But there were long stretches of narrativity and literalism that made the evening as a whole somewhat less than satisfying. 

Speaking of writing and dancing and dissatisfaction – I tried to get to DV8 last night but the rush hour madness at Penn Station freaked me out so I ended up going to Ann Liv Young’s Bagwell In Me show at The Kitchen instead. Wow did it suck. I mean it was really, really mediocre. When I saw Michael a few years ago I was really excited about what Ms. Young was doing. Then I saw Snow White and I was kind of impressed by her audacity and willingness to just exhaust an audience, forcing them to endure a stunningly long, boring, frustrating piece. I could intellectualize away the unpleasantness of the experience – it was, I assumed, an intentional engagement with control, attention, spectacle, etc. etc.

But this Bagwell show was not only spectacularly lazy and uninspired, it was simplistic, unimaginative, obvious, completely lacking in insight, boring and, to be honest, not transgressive or shocking in the least. Karen Finley has been doing basically the same thing for thirty years, only better. For that matter Penny Arcade, Diamanda Galas and countless other women performers have explored these ideas – and presentations of the human body – in more intelligent, capable, insightful  and artful ways. Someone subsequently said I should read the Times preview of the piece, so I did.

Still, it’s refreshing to watch someone who isn’t out to please. Unlike a great deal of the work created by her peers, with the most cloying pieces turning sincerity into a new form of victim art, Ms. Young makes everyone the victim: her cast, her audience and at times even herself.

She is a star, and as with many stars, Ms. Young provokes an equal measure of cult worship and fury. During her relatively short career Ms. Young has toured extensively in Europe and alienated many in the dance world by her quick success, all-consuming working methods and reluctance to become an enthusiastic participant in the downtown dance scene.

“I hate what people make,” she said. “It doesn’t seem like it’s challenging, and it doesn’t seem like it’s very risk taking. I leave feeling depressed.”

Wow. I don’t even know where to start. First off – “it’s refreshing to watch someone who isn’t out to please. Unlike a great deal of the work created by her peers, with the most cloying pieces turning sincerity into a new form of victim art” – I don’t know what Kourlas has been seeing – I’m sure it is more than me – but I haven’t seen a whole lot of cloying, sincere “victim art” recently.  If anything I’d say that most of the work I see isn’t “out to please” – it is out to intentionally alienate. And while I’m fine with that – I love difficult work that challenges notions of performance, audience, accepted conventions and presentational aesthetics – I find this pathologically fashionable fetishization of disdain and weltschmerz to be both boring and pretentious. What is this, high school? This downtown dance clique that positions themselves as “anti-downtown dance scene”  could try a little harder to actually make work that doesn’t suck. All these faux-rebel badasses are completely full of shit. Rolling around on the floor with wires and feedback or prancing about in galliano dresses or playing at being cool by refusing to enthusiastically embrace the downtown dance scene. Whatevs – that’s bullshit. Even Sarah Michelson -the haughtiest diva in downtown dance – used to work at Movement Research which is the hub of feel-good supportive dancer-community stuff. Plus – this is all over-intellectualized to justify their funding. You want truly transgressive? Remember GG Allin? Remember the Butthole Surfers? For that matter look at film of the Living Theater who started doing radical, transgressive naked fucking-in-public performance work in 1948! They got thrown in jail by the federal government for their work.

I understand that Ann Liv Young “hate[s] what people make” – and there are lots of reasons to hate mediocre art. But at the same time – what was challenging about Bagwell? Nothing. What risk was taken? None. I didn’t feel like a victim – I felt like a codependent enabler of an immature adult with narcissistic personality disorder.

This work – and all the other carefully crafted and branded “anti-dance” dance/performance-  is, in my mind, a trick, a publicity stunt, an attempt to create the appearance of meaning, relevance and intellectual depth by people who, basically, are concerned about fashion.

I’m bored and disappointed. In this day and age what would be truly transgressive, challenging and dangerous would be to engage with the world, to really think about big ideas, make up your mind and stand up for you what you believe. Fashionable intentional obscurantism and solipsistic “shock” performance are just lazy, cowardly, easy ways to fake relevance in an increasingly less discerning cultural landscape.

9 thoughts on “Bill T. Jones and other dance-y discontents”

  1. Pingback: The Cunt In Me « countercritic
  2. Trackback: The Cunt In Me « countercritic
  3. countercritic says:

    Well put, Andy.

    Here’s our post:

    Bagwell was disappointing.

    I don’t think people were wrong to expect big things from Ann Liv Young. The problem is that she’s not living up to the hope that all the shock and awe was aiming at something larger.

    Bagwell also felt terribly fussy. But fuss for nothing, for no outcome other than her own control over things. And I would bet it’s her control for control’s sake that allows Ms. Young to expose all of her private parts in performance without showing even the smallest amount of genuine vulnerability.

  4. Young Jean Lee says:

    I wasn’t around in the 60s, so seeing live sex onstage is fun for me. What bothered me was that the show was racist. Yeah, I said it. Racist racist racist. Sophisticated nuances my ass. That shit did not work. The Bagwell in Me is a fucking racist show.

  5. Mikeah Ernest Jennings says:

    I am sad, outraged, and shocked that this piece of drivel spearheaded by an obnoxious, self-absorbed, selfish and abusive miscreant has the opportunity to tour – spreading creative apathy, racial malevolence, and an egregious disregard for the facts of a history in this country that too many people seek to ignore and diminish. It was not “boring” because this spectacle is simply another example of privilege abusing art to maintain the status quo. SHAME ON EVERY IDIOT INVOLVED IN THIS PROJECT.

  6. Lynn Brown says:

    I saw Snow White and concluded I need never see anything Ann did again, as most street corners in NY held more aesthetic satisfaction for me, but I would like to chime in on A Quarreling Pair. My connection to it definitely drifted in and out, but I had that rare response to the Hard Rain section. Formal, restrained, but so full of simple, direct, generous emotion. The dancing had space to be filled by me as an audience member, and it unerringly (for me anyway) built its own context of isolation, community, challenge, joy and disappointment. It might help that I am the father of a sixteen year old son, but damn that section rocked. For me, it was an all too rare composition of physical poetry.

    BTW…thanks for the smart, considered writing Andy.

  7. Laura Stinger says:

    I know I’m a little late in joining this conversation so I don’t know if anyone will see this response, but isn’t everyone ignoring Isabel Lewis’ agency in this process. I am assuming, and I have seen her perform her own work, that she is intelligent enough to choose or not choose to be in this project and to speak her mind during the rehearsal process and in the end decide that it is a statement she wants to be a part of. I find it a little creepy that people say she was used and abused as if she didn’t have the intelligence to choose to be involved.

    I think the Bagwell in me was a charged and exciting performance by two women that had many layers, including the use of a “slave” techie who was both in and out of the world of the play, including a comment on what a performer’s contract is with the audience, and the sexual and racial violence that occurred onstage was for me a very visceral physical manifestation of the racial and gender-based violence that pervades the whole history of our country. As opposed to a blase history lesson or an evening of abstraction, I found this to be an experience that has led me to multiple heated conversations and has really stuck with me. More than I can say for most of the theatre/art I see.



  8. Andy says:

    @Laura –

    Your first point about Isabel Lewis’ agency in the process is a good one. She chose to be in the project and she is comfortable with the “statement” it makes.

    Personally, I found it to be less a “visceral physical manifestation of the racial and gender-based violence that pervades the whole history of our country” than a self-indulgent, sloppy, amateurish, half-assed cry for attention from an over-privileged white girl. It was not a comment on the performer’s contract with the audience – it was a simplistic, selfish and manipulative tantrum.

    And if this stuck with you more than “most of the theatre/art I see” – that doesn’t speak to the quality of the work itself, just that Ms. Young has successfully marketed herself as a “controversial” artist by pushing obvious and well-worn political hot-buttons.

    If you want to “comment on the performer’s contract with the audience ” – then why do the piece in a theater? If you want to comment on gender or racially based violence, why not find some more interesting way to do it? How about a dance piece with severely anorexic women? Let people actually see the effects of societal pressure on the human body?

    I have this issue with well-meaning work that comments about political issues. You’re right – it should be more than a blase history lesson or abstraction. Want to educate people about genocide? Invite them to bring their pets to the show and then kill their dogs. Obvious that is extreme but it is certainly more transgressive and fucked-up than a white girl running around in her panties, wearing wigs, eating pussy and bossing people around.

    Not to mention that girl-on-girl live sex, even presented in a “anti-sexual” manner explicitly panders to the oppressively dominant hetero male gaze; it is not transgressive, thoughtful, challenging or informative. It is lazy.


  9. Laura Stinger says:

    Hi Andy,

    Thanks for your reply. I guess I like theatre that challenges the status quo. Challenging the relationship between the performer and the audience is a question that can be asked from time to time, so we grow.

    I understand that if a performance is amateur, selfish, and sloppy, it cannot succeed, but I didn’t think this piece was those things. I thought her use of live sex on stage supported the piece’s content and was strong in that she did not censor herself because of the specter of the male heterosexual gaze. She took it as her right to use her body as a tool and in my opinion she had control over how the sex-act was received because it was quite clear form the manner, their faces, etc…that this act was not being done for the erotic pleasure of the male audience.

    When we start saying that a white girl doesn’t have a leg to stand on when talking about race, we start to close the doors for conversation and analysis. She is privileged, fine, but does that mean she should stick to making work about doilies and poetry? I think she was quite self-aware of how white she is (white powder on her face only accentuated this) and actually used that fact as a way to explore race relations. She was re-enacting two slave-owners engaging in gross mis-treatment of their slave and she was acting as a modern-day white girl engaging in gross mis-treatment of her actors of color. Quite a compelling through line I think. It is important, however, to note that the modern-day white girl mis-treating her actors was a character as well, I don’t think her ensemble would have stuck around if she treated them in that manner offstage.

    I think there should be many different types of theatre. I don’t make work exactly like Ann Liv Young’s but I’m glad she does.

    Thanks for starting this conversation and engaging so many theatre and and art makers on your site.


  10. Pingback: “The Christ in Me” and “The Bagwell in Me”: A comparative analysis « countercritic
  11. Trackback: “The Christ in Me” and “The Bagwell in Me”: A comparative analysis « countercritic

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