Andy’s Week In Review(s)
It is Sunday night and time to recap this past week’s adventures in performance.
WEDNESDAY took us to The Jazz Gallery to see John Ellis and Andy Bragen’s jazz opera (that’s what I’m calling it, anyway) Mobro. First off, I’ve lived in NYC since 1995 and can’t believe I’ve never been to The Jazz Gallery! It is a cozy loft space on Hudson just below Spring and it is fantastic. It definitely reminds me of what NYC was when I first got here, when you could still taste the bohemian, downtown history of Manhattan in a tangible way. You walk up the stairs to the loft and check in at the door, there’s a table with some bottles of wine and plastic cups with a donation jar, the walls are covered in posters and paintings of jazz greats, there are a bunch of benches and folding chairs in front of a tiny stage. For Mobro, the stage was packed with 9 musicians and 4 vocalists. I started sitting in the front but was soon overwhelmed, eventually going to stand in the back. But even from the back the space has this wonderful warmth and intimacy – you can really hear the music well and you can see the musicians getting into the music, communicating with each other and riffing off of each other as they launch into this dynamic, swinging, complex composition.
The story of Mobro is this: In March 1987 a garbage barge, The Mobro 4000, set out from Islip, New York with 3,168 tons of industrial waste headed for a methane farm in North Carolina. North Carolina rejected the cargo and the Mobro set out for New Orleans, Mexico and Belize, rejected each time, before finally returning to Brooklyn where the garbage was incinerated and returned to Islip. The journey took 5 months and covered 6000 miles.
Composer John Ellis and playwright Andy Bragen approach the story as an epic journey, an Odyssey that unfolds across twelve sections moving from Anticipation to Doldrums and culminating in Celebration. I don’t know a whole lot about jazz, so I don’t feel qualified to critique it in that framework. But as an audience member and music lover, I was bowled over. Ellis is facile in a number of different forms and style – Mobro starts out in a kind of traditional modern jazz mode, moves into a more musical/song genre and into this really interesting electronic/computer/noise section before returning to jazz mode and culminating in a New Orleans-style jazz epilogue. It is kind of a jazz opera that you want to dance to. And the musicians were fantastic – a really interesting multiculti ensemble of great players all of whom took a turn soloing and just blowing our minds with their talent and inventiveness. The space-y noise jam during the Doldrums section was created by Roberto Carlos Lange and it was freakin’ great. I don’t know if it was coincidental, but I saw him sitting at his laptop rocking a Grateful Dead t-shirt, and his electronic composition definitely reminded me of the trippy feedback “space” section that was the centerpiece of every Dead show. Ellis is also a dynamic bandleader, getting out there and bopping along to the music, giving direction and every once in awhile stepping front and center to solo.
The sound system was not totally up to the task of dealing with the vocals, so it was a little hard to understand the lyrics. But the vocalists all sounded great and, from what I could hear and understand, Bragen’s writing was evocative and compelling.
Sadly the run at the Jazz Gallery is over, but the piece could definitely translate well to a bigger venue in its present form. What would be really great would be for some savvy producer to pick it up, attach a director, dramaturg and some set/lighting/video designers and blow this thing up into a full-on show. It has, as they say, sea legs.
THURSDAY night took us to The Kitchen to see Kyle Abraham‘s Live! The Realest MC which was absolutely stunning. I already tweeted about it and wrote a short blurb on Facebook but I’ll expand a bit here.
On its most basic level, Live! The Realest MC is about trying to be gay in the ‘hood. But to reduce it to only that would be vastly understating the importance of the work and its remarkable technical and artistic accomplishment. Abraham’s investigations have frequently been about taking movement vocabulary from “street” and “hip-hop”, abstracting it, re-contextualizing it, and infusing it with contemporary choreography. This show takes this investigation to an entirely new level, getting into the emotional and cultural resonance of these movements, digging deep and coming back from the depths with vision, insight, passion and conviction. Abraham finds what these movements mean, how they are meant to represent power – or a relationship to power – and masculinity, social status, gender, psychology. He seamlessly interweaves and juxtaposes these movements in a way that we watch one simple gesture – a hip roll, for instance – transform from an expression of machismo and masculine privilege into a sensuous and effeminate expression of queer identity. All within one sequence.
I tried to track the exact series of sequences – the show starts with Abraham on the floor downstage right in a glittery shirt and glitter-trimmed Adidas track pants – but I didn’t want to look down too often to write. There are a series of interactions between Abraham and his two male dancers, Chalvar Monteiro and Maleek Malaki Washington, that could be read alternately as hetero “fronting” and gay cruising. The girls enter shortly after that: two African-American girls (Rena Butler and Elyse Morris), an Asian girl (Hsiao-Jou Tang) and a white(?) girl (Rachelle Rafailedes). The show alternates between group sequences and smaller trios and duets, punctuated with solos by Abraham. During one sequence Abraham comes up to the mic and has this incredible moment as an actor (a dancer who can really act!! OMG!) where he starts out posturing as a kind of thug or rapper, honing in on the phrase, “They held me down” and repeating it with different inflections until it shifts from being a statement against “the man” holding a brother down, to a brutalized gay boy who has been held down, beaten and abused by his peers. It is riveting and heartbreaking.
The whole show is not all pathos and heartbreak – there is a lot of humor in there. A particularly hilarious video sequence features an instructional video of a middle-aged southern white woman teaching a class in hip-hop dance. Funny and absurd but also remarkably sharp and insightful into how this movement has been decontextualized, commodified and misunderstood to the point of absurdity.
All of Abraham’s dancers are topnotch and they have the skills to really deliver his vision as a choreographer. Each has their own strengths and as the evening goes on I started to notice little distinctions between the dancers. Chalvar Monteiro seemed a little more sensitive where Maleek Malaki Washington seemed to be comfortable playing the tough. Rena Butler had the most intense and expressive gaze – her eyes were focused and wide and bright, almost supernatural. Elyse Morris brought a kind of grounded, humorous, sensual presence to all of her sequences – but one that seemed like it could go tough and angry at any minute. Hsiao-Jou Tang definitely rocked the “modern dancer” thing, very centered and fluid but with occasional flashes of the cerebral. And I may be a bit obsessive – or this may be because she was the only white girl – but I kept being drawn to Rafailedes’ point and extension. She must have been a ballerina at some point, because it was, like, crazy how far she could extend and how sharp her point was.
The multicultural casting brought a layer of sociological complication to the work, while the ability of each performer to embody Abraham’s movement while maintaining their individuality just made it deeper and richer and more engaging. The soundtrack, the lighting, the video – all of it came together perfectly.
That night I was with a friend of a friend who is a doctor in the Bronx. She works with disadvantaged teens, many of whom are struggling with their sexuality in a neighborhood and culture where homophobia is the norm. After the show she was in tears and she kept saying about the show, “Those are my kids! Those are my kids!”
Damn. That’s good stuff.
FRIDAY we went to Danspace Project to see Tere O’Connor‘s Cover Boy, a different take on gay identity. O’Connor’s work is a lot looser and lighter than Abraham’s. He has brought together four men – Michael Ingle, Niall Jones, Paul Monaghan, and Matthew Rogers – and placed them in a series of different vignettes and situations, riffing on the idea of closeted gay experience. We see various scenarios – two men paired with a third man looking longingly at them as an outsider, interactions that start as “ambiguously gay” and transform, a “catwalk” type sequence that plays with the idea of presentation and identity. In this context “Cover Boy” takes on a double meaning – it is both referring to the prettiness of the dancers, as in a model on the cover of a magazine, and the idea of “taking cover” – living in the closet.
The dancers have a great rapport that lends the piece an informal and improvisatory feel. While it is obviously meticulously structured and choreographed, the interplay of the dancers – the way they talk and whisper to each other, the way they move from sequence to sequence – brings us into a conversation or discussion that feels intimate, like a late-night confession or a “morning-after” recap of the previous night’s misadventures to a close friend.
Once again, each of the dancers has a unique presence, each one bringing a different attitude and tone to the ensemble. Michael Ingle brings a kind of effortless athleticism and gentle wit, Niall Jones brings – and I mean this in the best possible way – a hint of quirky, artsy, awkwardness. He is at home in his body but projects a hint of uncertainty and ambivalence, a gentle outsiderness. Matthew Rogers is like your fun gay hipster younger brother while Paul Monaghan, of slender frame and golden ringlets, is like some ephemeral androgyne from a magickal forest.
I don’t know much about O’Connor’s process, but a note in the program says that portions of the movement material for the work was made in collaboration with the performers. It shows. While O’Connor’s overarching vision for the work is ever-present, it feels as if he made room for each dancer to bring a part of themselves to the process, and the intermingling of these subjectivities joins together to make a fascinating whole.
Speaking of “overarching” – the set was this interesting canopy designed by Aptum Architecture, which, I think, was subtly raised and lowered at different points during the show. I couldn’t quite tell – but I occasionally looked up at the balcony and thought I saw the crew pulling on the ropes and levers that held the canopy aloft.
The music by James Baker and the lighting by Michael O’Connor were well integrated into the work. Together with the canopy they created a kind of intellectual/aesthetic frame for the the embodied emotionality of the performers. It was really wonderful how all the different elements came together into an enjoyable, engaging and satisfying whole.
It continues on 12/13 and 12/15 at Danspace Project, 8PM. Check it out.
SATURDAY took us to LaMama for the Mini Teater Ljubljana (Slovenia) and Novo Kazaliste Zagreb (Croatia) presentation of Ivica Buljan‘s staging of Macbeth After Shakespeare, from a text by Heiner Muller. Extremely physical, muscular and loud, Buljan’s minimal production places Macbeth in a bleak, bloody and amoral wasteland where violence begets violence with no end in sight. Muller adds characters and scenes, most notably a peasant killed for not paying rent, his body eaten by dogs as his widow and son attempt to retrieve him. We are brought into a world where the violence perpetrated by the ruling class trickles down to the common man, where the brutal and brutish warrior class indulges in orgies, drink and debauchery between bouts of frenzied blood lust. No one is innocent, no one untouched.
Buljan’s cast is mostly strapping young men who wrestle and shout and beat each other up, loudly declaiming their lines as they cast about the stage or run up and down the aisles. Banquo is played by a middle-aged woman (Polona Vetrih Distefani) who serves as a kind of thoughtful counterweight. No less invested in the culture of violence, Banquo is still not quite as heinous as the others and, when returning as a ghost, offers the only intimation of the consequences of murder. Lady Macbeth is also played by a middle aged woman, film actress Milena Zupancic, who wields her scheming sexuality as a weapon in the world of men.
At first I was a little put off by the Grotowski-esque presentation. It was so loud, rough and monotone that I found it difficult to engage. Also the supertitles, projected on the back wall, were frequently obscured by the actors and went by so quickly they were difficult to read. I started thinking about the multiple layers of translation – Shakespeare’s English adapted and interpreted by Muller’s German, translated and performed in Slovenian and then re-translated back into modern English, projected on a wall.
Soon I gave over to the experience and found myself being drawn into its relentless assault. The characters are one-dimensional without inner life, they are the embodiment of our animal nature, unfettered and unchecked. The cruelty and violence of this world is the reality of a world always at war, where introspection, over-thinking and sensitivity are seen as weaknesses leading to death.
I also started thinking about the experience of the performers. Coming from a part of the world that has, for the better part of the last 100 years, experienced ongoing political turmoil, oppression, violence and civil war. Even the youngest of the actors must have memories – or at least immediate, close family members who have memories and stories – of life during wartime. The brutality of a society constantly at war is embodied in their physicality, their emotions, their experiences. This kind of theater reflects that. At times, to the cynical American eye, it looks dated and less than subtle. But it represents a reality and perspective that most Americans are fortunate enough not to have experienced firsthand – though have been responsible for spreading abroad. So it is important for us to see this work, hear these voices, be exposed to these perspectives and reminded of the consequences of our actions. Be reminded how underneath all the high-minded rhetoric and professed ideals there is just blood, brutality and death, that when we foment war we risk, as does Macbeth, losing our humanity entirely and becoming mindless killing machines, bereft of moral compass or redemption.
I was going to go the Immediate Medium party after the show but was too drained and tired. Sorry guys! Hope it went well!
SUNDAY we went to The Joyce to go see Martha Clarke‘s Angel Reapers. Written by Alfred Uhry (Driving Miss Daisy), Angel Reapers is inspired by the life of Ann Lee, founder of the Shaker movement. As one might imagine, the show is about the effect of sexual repression, which was kind of what Ann Lee was all about, but it was pretty tame except for the brief glimpse of breasts and a moment of dangly man-bits.
Alfred Uhry has won a bunch of awards and Clarke is a revered, MacArthur Genius Award-winning icon of American Dance, the choreography, the text, the dancing, lighting, music, etc. was the embodiment of professionalism and excellence. I enjoyed it, especially the rhythmic footwork and the singing. That being said, it was definitely a little less experimental and edgy than my tastes usually run. Good mainstream stuff.
FINALLY, just a few hours ago, before I came home to write this article, I went to the Angelika with a friend of mine to see the new movie The Artist. It was absolutely, totally, beautiful and amazing. If I wasn’t so tired and achey and it weren’t so late I would write a whole huge essay about it. It is just a wonderful work of cinema – so smart and well-made. I’m sorry. I’m just too tired, my head hurts and so do my fingers. Go see the movie. And if you want to discuss it further, offer to buy me dinner and drinks. I’m a fun and witty companion who loves good company and free food at nice restaurants. Especially during holiday time and especially in the middle of the month when I’m between paychecks.