American Realness: “Puro Deseo,” John Jasperse, Faye Driscoll & Miguel Gutierrez

Last year, everyone I knew who made the trek to NYC around APAP came back talking more about the American Realness Festival than Under the Radar or COIL. The brainchild of a young artist manager named Ben Pryor (of tbspMGMT), American Realness was a last minute presentation sponsored by the Abrons Arts Center that collected some of New York’s–and a selection from around the country–best or most interesting choreographers and related performance artists. And this year, I can’t help but agree with my friends’ assessment: American Realness has one of the tightest line-ups around.

Our own Aaron Mattocks caught Keith Hennessy’s Crotch: (all the Joseph Beuys references in the world could not heal the pain, confusion, regret, cruelty, betrayal or trauma …) Thursday, and emailed me that “Keith Hennessy was amazing – if you haven’t seen it, and can…do!” (You have one more chance: today at 6:30.) And today, they’re restaging what made pretty much everyone’s best-of lists last year: THEM, the Ishmael Houston-Jones/Chris Cochran/Dennis Cooper piece that debuted in 1985 as a provocation and has aged, like a fine single-malt scotch, into a masterpiece.

And yesterday I saw two presentations there: Luciana Achugar’s Puro Deseo, which I missed the first time around at the Kitchen last spring, and was glad to get to experience, and a showcase lin-up billed as Entree + Le Plat.

Puro Deseo is certainly a beautiful piece. A duet of sorts between Achugar, who starts in a rustling black dress and ends in a rather revealing and tortured corset, and Michael Mahalchick, whose imposing size, accentuated by his burly costume, leaves him looking vaguely like an opera tenor drifting through the shadows.

The piece’s production is almost cinematic in its pacing, which is achieved mainly through Madeline Best’s lighting design. The angles and techniques are par for the course when it comes to dance lighting: direct overheads and floor units downstage to cast long shadows upstage on the wall, but only once or twice did it risk straying into outright cliche. Instead, it’s a fine example of judicious use of traditional techniques.

Using brief illuminations of repetitive movement fragments (such as moving up and down the diagonals, with the same turn of the head), Achugar patiently builds an intense–even melodramatic–piece. Sound plays a strong role throughout, from the opening sequence in the dark, with Achugar singing and Mahalchick stomping loudly down the aisle to the stage, to the sound of rustling dresses, to pounding on the scene-shop garage door, to tinny clatters in the wings. As the piece builds, the sounds becomes more physical: in one sequence, Achugar performs as series of pounding collapses the floor as she breaks down, and later wails from the edge of the stage.

In short, it was a beautiful piece, and Achugar demonstrates that she has the capacity to think well outside the box of traditional dance technique, achieving some truly amazing moments.

Later, after a short dinner break, I caught the festival’s Entree + Le Plat showing: the Entree was a 20 minute piece by John Jasperse, Janitors of Lunacy, followed up by a work-in-progress showing by Faye Driscoll (who alternates that spot with Kyle Abraham). The Le Plat is Miguel Guttierez’s Heavens What Have I Done.

This was my first experience of Jasperse’s work, having missed his presentation at TBA Festival, and seriously, it did not disappoint. The piece opens with the theatre slowing filling with fog, and then Jasperse and Jame McGinn emerge in the dark, with 15 bright white, halogen-y bulbed lights strapped to various parts of their bodies. The first movement of the work is a hyperkinetic dance performance in which all you can see are the tight beams of light swinging through the fog. It actually briefly made my jaw drop, it was so surprisingly simple but effective. Then the two simple remove the lights and place them in a row downstage, facing up like footlights (there’s no lighting otherwise in the entire piece), and proceed through a first comic, them meditative performance with gray rubber trash cans. It was a simple but deliciously amazing performance that at the very least makes perfectly clear to me why Jasperse is such a talked about choreograher.

Driscoll’s piece is a work-in-progress, so I won’t remotely subject it to analysis other than to say that even in a such a rough format, she demonstrates her considerable gifts as a choreographer, particularly in terms of movement dynamism and stage geometry, to say nothing of her winking sense of humor. And dancer Jesse Zaritt, with whom she performs, is of course an amazing artist.

And finally, there was Gutierrez: like Jasperse, this was my first chance to see such a notable artist’s work, and while Heavens What Have I Done isn’t exactly what I expected, it was still revealing as to why Gutierrez has the rep he does.

A good half the performance is him running around setting up for it and rambling through a tangent-laden monologue about his life, the backstory of the piece, things he’s reading, how he hurt his back. The entire time he wears a sort of clown-face make-up job, and after some thirty minutes, having changed into an odd clown outfit and donning a Marie Antoinette wig, he live mixes a score of French declamatory phrases, writes out lyrics on the back wall, and sings along to an opera score before falling in a heap on the floor, with a long and strangely intense movement piece thrown in the middle. I have to admit, I’m still a little baffled, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy every moment of it.

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