Andy’s Week In Review(s)

It’s been a busy week here at Culturebot! The season is in full swing and we wish we could clone ourselves to try and cover all the work that is gracing NYC’s stages! This week was a pretty eclectic group of shows starting with the raw, hallucinatory ramblings of D.J. Mendel and concluding with the sleek and sculptural “Connected” from Chunky Move.

Tuesday night took us to The Bushwick Starr for D.J. Mendel’s “Dick Done Broke”, directed by Dan Safer.  While waiting for curtain time I was talking to Sue Kessler and Noel Allain, ED and AD respectively of The Starr, about the show. Mendel first performed “Dick Done Broke” in 1999 and has had this notion of revisiting it for awhile – or perhaps revisiting it every ten years to see how he (and the piece) have changed. Noel and D.J. had been talking about working together and this came up, so they decided to do it. Noel was understandably thrilled about working with D.J. – Mendel is kind of a downtown legend, an iconic actor and reliable presence in Richard Foreman’s work and countless other productions, he brings a kind of sinister, threatening, serpentine but thoughtful and complicated masculinity to all of his roles. You kind of expect him to have a career like Paul Lazar or Eric Bogosian – original, quirky and unexpected downtown artists who carve out a career as character actors sans pareil in mainstream film. Time will tell!

“Dick Done Broke” is a slippy stream of consciousness ride through the mind of an extremely inebriated working class Joe, face-planted on the floor of a bar looking back wistfully at his youth, wrestling with his present and staring down a bleak future. The performance takes place on a platform (maybe 10×12?) suspended from the grid by aircraft cable that is swinging in perpetual motion, pendulum-like. It is above a field of empty liquor bottles. I’ll be honest – after a while it was kind of hard to watch, it alternately made me seasick and sleepy and I have no idea how Mendel managed to stay so incredibly focused while in constant motion. It definitely gave me the feeling of the kind of borderline-blackout wasted state of mind that the character was experiencing.

The writing is reminiscent of early Sam Shepard, memories flow seamlessly into philosophical musings into seeming nonsense, creating a vivid, hallucinatory effect. The character muses on his broken-ness, physically, mentally, emotionally. He has a certain amount  of self-awareness and a bruised psyche that wryly reflects on his condition without swerving into self-pity. Mendel delivers the monologue in a gruff but surprisingly nuanced torrent of words, pausing occasionally to let the imagery to sink in and then diving back into the narrative with force and passion. From time to time he stands up on the swaying platform, struggling to stay on his feet, simultaneously conveying his drunkenness and the precarious mental state of the character. At one point he even rolls over to take a piss off the back of the platform, which is both hilarious and pathetic. Towards the end of the show Mendel steps off the platform and steps around it, dodging it in motion, barely escaping collision. It is a very suspenseful, and funny, sequence that brings the show to a poignant yet elliptical confusion. Our hero will go on, he must go on, but it isn’t going to be easy or pretty and he’s not going to have any self-realizations that will change him as he stumbles into the future.

Jay Ryan’s lighting and Daniel Bernard Roumain’s sound score flesh out the actor’s presence nicely, creating a moody world of bars at closing time, of that horrible moment of drunken realization – “Oh My God! You’re All Ugly!” – exteriorizing (is that a word?) the inner state of the actor. Under Dan Safer’s direction all the pieces come together seamlessly. While I wouldn’t say “Dick Done Broke” is covering any particularly new territory story-wise or thematically, the collective talent of the collaborators and D.J. Mendel’s performance makes it a compelling, intriguing hour in the theater.

Wednesday night took us to BAM for Phantom Limb Company‘s “69 Degrees South” – a dream-like multimedia meditation on Shackleton’s journey to Antarctica. I first met Jessica Grindstaff (who, along with partner Erik Sanko are Phantom Limb) at The Tipping Point, a conference convened by the British Council, The Earth Institute at Columbia University and the CUNY Institute for Sustainable Cities to bring together artists and scientists to explore issues around climate change. I subsequently saw the re-staging of their breakthrough show The Fortune Teller at HERE and their collaboration with Ping Chong, The Devil You Know. Sanko’s puppets are really incredible, beautifully made and fascinating to watch. He’s also the founder and leader of the band Skeleton Key, a fixture in the downtown music scene in the mid/late 90’s and continuing through today with a heady sound of rock-based avant-noise sound texture songs. Grindstaff’s set design is imaginative and transporting.

“69 Degrees South” brings Sanko’s marionettes together with his Skeleton Key  project and adds collaboration with The Kronos Quartet, choreographer Andrea Miller, director Sophie Hunter, video by Shaun Irons and Lauren Petty, costumes by fashion house threeASFOUR and a host of other top-notch artists and designers to create a multimedia dreamscape that is visually stunning and sonically multi-textured.

Narratively the show is a little bit lacking, and those expecting to learn actual facts about the Shackleton Expedition will be disappointed. (For that, I would recommend the film Shackleton’s Antarctic Adventure, which I saw at the Imax theater at the Baltimore Science Center. It’s probably okay on a TV but was awesome in Imax!) For instance – it is kind of hard to tell from the show that all of Shackleton’s men survived – which was a miracle – instead the returning presence of a death skeleton puppet gives the impression that they are lost.

“69 Degrees South” probably works best if you imagine it as a kind of immersive, non-linear, music video-type experience. The sound – both live and pre-recorded – is really great, it moves seamlessly from Skeleton Key to Kronos Quartet, the live mix is complicated and multi-dimensional, you’re constantly asking yourself  “Where is that sound coming from?” and “Is it live or recorded?” The video is massive – frequently covering the whole stage – and, thankfully, is deeply integrated into the overall aesthetic. Grindstaff’s set design, that includes three towering icebergs, is clean, cool and stylish, well-complemented by the lighting design. And the actor/puppeteers do a great job in their various roles.

If anything the performers and puppets are underutilized. The music, video and staging kind of overwhelm what could have been a very central, humanizing, component. As a result the project overall feels somewhat distanced and abstract. The marionettes don’t do much more than walk around, I found myself wishing that they were doing more. Having seen what Phantom Limb has done previously, I was hoping that the marionettes would play a more pivotal role in this show. There were a few moments that suggested the humor and depth that could have been more richly explored, including an interlude between a seal puppet and Shackleton.

Also, if I didn’t know that Phantom Limb had actually gone to Antarctica for research and to do field recordings (that were incorporated into the soundtrack) I probably wouldn’t have been aware of that dramaturgical element.

Overall I found the show to be beautiful, meditative and mostly enjoyable. There were some stretches where my attention wandered a bit and I would have liked to have seen more use of the marionettes, but I definitely applaud the ambition and scope of the project and appreciated the seamless mix of disciplines and media.

Thursday night took me to The Kitchen for Maria Hassabi’s SHOW. This piece harkens back to her 2007 piece Gloria at PS122. Once again she is collaborating on a duet with Hristoula Harakas, once again she is exploring a series of posed situations and glacial choreographies. In this latest iteration she has changed the context, bisecting the space of the Kitchen to half, removing the seats and creating a more gallery/”happening” type environment. The audience enters the space and waits a good ten minutes before anything happens. In the empty space with a bunch of lights on the floor in one half of the room, we endure the now all-too-familiar experience of being abandoned to our own devices. People chat amongst themselves and then start to look around the room expectantly. Then everyone quiets down, waiting. And nothing happens, and everyone starts looking around again, and you can almost hear everyone thinking the same thing, “Is this the show? Are they really going to leave us here on our own for an hour? I mean, it is called “Show”? Maybe she’s making a statement about show?” And just when you think you’re totally fucked, Maria and Hristoula enter and strike a pose in the middle of the crowd.

Over the course of the next 70 minutes or so, they move through a sequence of postures and movements, alternately staring fiercely into each other’s eyes or deeply into the audience, face to face. The first sequence, which was basically a duet, a glacial descent to the ground, was riveting. The dancers created tension in and between their bodies, inciting an air of expectancy. We watched as they slowly descended, muscles taut, legs and torso extended, subtly twitching under the strain, in deep concentration.

From there the piece moved on to explore the same basic idea, in different variations. For me the most compelling parts were when the two were in (silent) dialogue with each other. They really have a deep rapport, and they’re both intense performers. When they were moving closely together, either in mirror or variation, there was a tension and subconscious communication that you could almost tap into. When they moved apart and to different areas of the space, that tension and connection seemed to wane, it was harder to maintain focus and my attention wandered. My experience of the work was alternately fascination and boredom. I appreciate the demands on my attention, the way I was being asked to focus on the minutiae of motion, the subtleties of interaction and the feeling of tension and expectation. But over the course of the hour I also felt fatigued and frustrated, waiting for something more to happen.

The sound design was very atmospheric – it sounded like it was just a recording of a crowd of people in a lobby waiting for a show to start. For a moment I thought that was what it was – that they had recorded us in the lobby of the Kitchen prior to the show and were playing our own ambient noise back to us, which would have added an interesting meta-layer to the experience. But I don’t think that was the case.


Alex Waterman, the sound designer, takes a recording of the first few minutes of the piece when the audience enters the space.  That gets played back into the house and he re-records that playback with the room sound.  And then that gets played back into the house and re-recorded, over and over till the end of the piece.  So the original few minutes of the start of the piece gets muddier and muddier with the new sounds on top of each playback.

Very cool!

I really loved Joe Levasseur’s lighting – it was incredibly  bright and clean it almost seemed hyper-real, as if it added a dimension of extra clarity to my vision. As I looked at the dancers and, when my attention wandered, at my fellow audience members, it was as if I could see every hair on someone’s head, every line on their face, every subtle flex or twitch of a muscle. I don’t know if it is possible to create increased visual clarity through lighting design, but it sure seemed like it. The only element I kind of disagreed with was the ending. I’m not going to say what it was – I don’t want to give it away – but it is actually a pretty familiar and obvious thing and I was surprised that she used it. I mean, it makes sense, but it sort of undercut the previous hour’s worth of experience.

I like Maria’s work. While her choreography is pretty out there, she definitely pushes the body into interesting and unexpected directions. She asks compelling questions about the meaning of the observed body and about the dynamic and expectations between audience and performer. That doesn’t mean I always love the experience of the work – like I said, I alternated between fascination and boredom. But it is well worth checking out.

Friday night I went to the Joyce to check out “Connected” by Chunky Move at The Joyce. I’ve really enjoyed Chunky Move since I first saw Tense Dave at DTW back in 2005. Their subsequent work that has been shown in NYC has always been forward-thinking and compelling, so I didn’t want to miss this opportunity. Especially because this is the last piece created for the company by founding artistic director Gideon Obarzanek, who will be leaving at the end of this year to be replaced by Anouk Van Dijk.

“Connected” is an interesting piece. Where Glow, at The Kitchen in 2008 involved direct interface between a dancer and digital technology, “Connected” places dancers in juxtaposition with a kinetic sculpture created by California-based artist Reuben Margolin. At the beginning of the piece there is a duet on stage right as other ensemble members complete the construction of the sculpture/machine on stage left. Once it is complete it begins to undulate, lift and transform – manipulated by strings attached to wheel and operated by the dancers. Eventually the dancers remove the string and the sculpture is operated by the movement of the wheel on its own.

As always, the choreography is both complex and clean. The dancers make it look simple and easy, but as you look deeply at their movements, you find yourself discovering all kinds of nuance and subtlety, as they weave together elaborate movement sequences into one unbroken chain. They’re beautiful dancers and bring presence and muscularity to the choreography. As they work in concert with the sculpture/machine you start to meditate on the meaning of “hand made” – the role of human imagination and technical dexterity on the manipulation of the natural world. Since the sculpture moves in wave-like, undulatory patterns, it almost looks like a physical manifestation of a digital rendering of some architectural structure. Knowing that it is wood and string creates a sense of wonder and mystery. And the ending tableau was really striking.

The lighting was clean, simple and elegant, matched by a similarly environmental sound score. The overall effect was of a well-integrated work of art, where sculpture, movement, technology and mechanics came together in one extraordinary living aesthetic machine.

Mostly I found myself fascinated and delighted by the interplay of the dancers with each other and with the sculpture. Sometimes it was hard to focus on one specific thing and I found my mind wandering. That could be as much a result of show-going fatigue as anything else, though.

It is playing tonight and tomorrow. Check it out if you can.

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