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.

Andy Horwitz

Andy Horwitz is the founder of Culturebot.org and works as a critic, curator, cultural producer and consultant through his company Applied Creativity, LLC. He is a 2014 recipient of the prestigious Creative Capital | Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant for his new research project, Ephemeral Objects: Art Criticism for the Post-Material World

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