Detroit and Other Apocalypses
For most of September and into October I traveled around the country checking out performances. I was going to write it all up but I was so busy I didn’t have the time. I also saw a bunch of shows in NYC and didn’t get to write them up either. But with the election around the corner I’ve been thinking a lot about my travels from PICA’s TBA Festival in Portland, OR to The Philadelphia Live Arts Festival to a dance platform in Minneapolis to the Headlands Arts Center in San Francisco and I’ve been thinking about America. I’ve been thinking about how America (and Americans) are presented on stage and what feels authentic, what reflects were we are today as artists. So I decided I had to take some time and link all this stuff together – at least the New York bits.
Back in the summer before I lit out for Portland, I was at the Wild Flag/Mission Of Burma/Ted Leo show at Celebrate Brooklyn and found myself standing next to Tim Sanford. In between the incredible rockitude of the bands (Carrie Brownstein=Supreme Badass Guitar Goddess of Immeasurable Awesomeness) we talked theater and Tim said I should check out Lisa D’Amour‘s DETROIT, soon to open the new season at Playwrights Horizons.
I hardly ever go to Playwrights Horizons but Tim has always been very nice to me and after our chat at the Wild Flag show I figured I’d check it out. I’ve known Lisa since about Anna Bella Eema and Nita and Zita era, from How To Build A Forest, the 8-hour installation/show that I heard so much about but managed to miss at The Kitchen and so forth. I had never actually seen any of her “play” plays and Detroit had been on the periphery of my awareness for a while. I remember hearing something about it being at Steppenwolf, that it almost went to Broadway, but not much else. So I was curious to see this work related to other things I had seen of Lisa’s and what, if anything, was different. So I went and saw an early preview and called Lisa to chat. Unfortunately my computer ate the recording and so all I had were some sketchy notes and I also realized I didn’t have much to say, so I kept putting it off until I found a wider context for it.
Detroit opens in the back yard of a nondescript suburban house in an unspecified location, a scenario that is at once familiar and uncanny. Throughout the play I kept waiting for it to “turn weird” the way downtown plays often do. But while it flirts with weirdness from time to time, mostly it stays on the straight and narrow. “It isn’t a formal experiment in any way, I wasn’t trying to deconstruct the ‘white suburban backyard play’,” Lisa told me, “It was more about this situation. I was really interested in the idea of two couples and particularly the women. It is based on a lot of people I know, especially from my time in Minneapolis. I know a lot of women who grow up in these surroundings and don’t have any models for how to live differently, Ben and Mary are those kind of people who managed to get through college, because that’s what you do, they get 9-5 jobs and then don’t quite know what to do or where to go from there. They sort of forget that maybe there was something else they meant to do, and then they don’t know how to get out of it. And next door are Sharon and Kenny who aspire to a sort of stability, they have an idea of what that looks like, but they just kind of don’t fit in.”
With the two couples struggling in different ways with attaining – or maintaining – the American Dream, Detroit seems especially resonant in this climate, in an election season that seems to offer two very starkly different visions of America. Lisa told me, “It was first written in the beginning of the economic crash and now it is an election year, but it really hasn’t changed much. It is interesting how it plays now – I’m not a political scientist or a historian, but it does seem that this is a conversation that we’re having as a country – where do we go from here?”
It’s a good question. And insofar as Detroit concludes with a kind of open ending where the lead couple stares at their burnt out house and imagines a possible future, it is ambiguously positive that something good will come from it all.
But as I left the theater I kept thinking about the larger implications of this production (not the play so much) and its context. Because of what I knew about Lisa as a theater maker, I went into the show thinking it was going to be some kind of interrogation of the form of the “suburban backyard play” and I kept waiting for that to happen. But it really was a suburban backyard play and though I know that Lisa actually knows the kind of people that were represented on stage, still something about the whole construct felt fantastically phony to me in the way that most mainstream theater predicated on psychological realism. The problem is that psychological realism, or “naturalism” is merely a style of acting, one descended from Ibsen and Chekhov through Stanislavski to Strasberg and Adler and then metastasizing throughout the American Theater landscape. It has become so ubiquitous that theater makers and audiences have agreed that it is the singular style through which “the real” can be represented – and it makes me crazy. People don’t talk like that, they don’t behave like that and they don’t deal with life like that. Naturalism is no more “natural” than kabuki – it is an unimaginative default mode of representation that is hardly up to the challenge of portraying the complexities of human behavior and experience in the 21st Century. Even if naturalism as a style was adequate to portray the authentic surreality of contemporary American life, most conventional plays don’t manage to construct a world that even suggests the appearance of truth. They are far more likely to reference television-based constructs of what we perceive to be American life.
And not to go off on a too much of a tangent but last year The Debate Society had a residency at Playwrights to develop Blood Play and just last week Stein-Holum Projects (ex-Pig Iron artists with a pick-up company of current Pig Iron and local actors) had a residency there. Debate Society’s Blood Play was fantastic (Birgit Huppuch!) and just extended a sold-out run at The Bushwick Starr. From the work-in-progress showing of the new Stein-Holum project about American politicians it looks like it is going to be awesome, too. Each in their own ways is more insightful, imaginative and adventurous than most of what happens at Playwrights. [Full disclosure, I’m on the board of the Debate Society and am close friends with the ladies of Stein-Holum].
For that matter, I think that Lisa D’Amour has done much more interesting work than Detroit and I was kind of bummed that I didn’t like it so much, because I really like Lisa and I really wanted to like her play. I was so excited that someone I consider a “downtown” writer with a really diverse practice – and a laudably down-to-earth approach to writing – was produced at Playwrights. I was thrilled that a major theater was willing to take a risk. But I guess they’re not and I just can’t wrap my head around why!? Why won’t Playwrights Horizons actually stage the projects that they support with residencies or give edgier, more innovative projects a chance? From a business perspective I can guarantee that almost all of those projects would be cheaper to produce than their current choices. And I’ll bet you the audiences would love to see something actually different. AUDIENCES ARE NOT STUPID. AUDIENCES ARE NOT SHEEP.
Anyway, so I didn’t write the interview with Lisa but I kept thinking about this whole issue of the “Standard American Play” when I went to see David Levine’s Habit as part of the Crossing The Line Festival. In case you haven’t heard of the project, David is a theater director and visual artist whose work challenges the aesthetics of both disciplines. For Habit David commissioned scenographer Marsha Ginsberg to design a ranch house set in which a play would be performed – essentially rebuilding the fourth wall, turning the Standard American Living Room Drama into an art installation that the audience could wander around and look into, coming and going at will. He hired Jason Grote to write a kind of “everyscript” – a generic mix of every possible American Theater cliché from Shepard to Rapp to Wilson to whoever else these days is writing interchangeable texts exploring the monotony and pathos of everyday American middle class suburban life as viewed by people with MFAs from liberal east coast institutions. The 60-minute play is performed on a continuous loop all day long so you can stay for a complete cycle or leave and come back or just watch a little and then do something else. It was fucking brilliant.
Levine actually managed to simultaneously interrogate and revive the form. I think David has great affection for traditional theater and he is disappointed in it as only a lover can be – he is disappointed at how poorly it does what it intends to do, how frequently it fails and how cowardly it is in confronting its own failings. Part of what is brilliant is that he leverages the self-interrogative, critical apparatus of the visual arts world to lay into both theater and visual art. He holds up the mediocre middle of the road suburban play and says to mainstream theater “Look! See!?” He is at once indicting mainstream theater for its obviousness and lameness and adherence to the hoary, outdated methodology of playmaking in the mode of psychological realism and celebrating what theater can be. The actors in the show were all fantastic and by making the play an art installation, by changing the mode of engagement from proscenium to exhibit, he allowed the audience to see how complicated the actor’s job is, how complicated theater is as a form, and how underutilized that complexity is in the mainstream. At the same time he seems to be saying to the visual arts world, “This is everything you hate about theater, and now it is art. Suck it.” Which I think is totally hilarious and fun.
Coincidentally, the day that I went to David Levine’s Habit later took me out to Peak Performances at Montclair for Dog Days, a new opera by David T. Little. Dog Days, from a short story by Judy Budnitz, tells the story of a rural family in the wake of an unspecified apocalypse from the perspective of Lisa, a 13-year-old girl. In a way this seemed to reference both Detroit and Habit, in that it was a variation or re-contextualization of the Standard American Play set in the suburbs.
The original short story is very much of a standard American genre and Dog Days’ libretto was consistent with Jason Grote’s “everyscript” for Habit – a generic mix of every possible American Theater cliché of the past 50 years. Steve Smith in the NY TIMES review wrote, “When was the last time a new opera got under your skin the way an Edward Albee play does?” A better question is when did an Albee play get under your skin the way it is purported to do? I suppose you could say just last week, as Albee is back on Broadway with Virginia Woolf – a show that premiered 50 years ago! But writing for the stage has evolved enormously over the past 50 years and there are many writers who “get under your skin” in more contemporary and innovative ways. Thus Smith’s statement is doubly troubling, first that he thought Dog Days was edgy or challenging at all, and second that his point of reference for a provocative script was Albee.
It is peculiar that Dog Days and other “new operas” of similar style are being heralded as adventurous, innovative and “provocative” when they are anything but. Most of the “new opera” I’ve seen and heard is conventionally narrative, pleasantly tonal and traditionally staged. While I’m reluctant to speak to the compositional innovation and have generally enjoyed the music itself, the productions generally seem to be not much more than 18th century opera with synthesizers and video. The most innovative operas I’ve seen in the recent past were Robert Ashley’s legendary work from the late-60’s That Morning Thing, presented at The Kitchen as part of Performa11, Joe Diebes’ Botch at HERE (which didn’t identify as opera, but after seeing Ashley’s piece, I talked to Joe and he conceded that he felt comfortable with that contextualization) and Two-Headed Calf’s diptych You, My Mother, performed by Yarn/Wire Ensemble.
As for Smith and Dog Days, it is hardly innovative to introduce pedestrian language into opera, and librettist Royce Vavrek’s text is a far cry from being as brutal, acerbic, witty or incisive as Albee’s. Vavrek’s naturalistic text is more suited to film and television than the stage and I find it puzzling, frankly, that this is being heralded as contemporary and provocative.
Not to give short shrift to Mr. Vavrek’s talents – the writing isn’t bad and I can imagine a situation where Mr. Vavrek’s text would be incorporated into a different opera to great effect. But in this case the text did not correspond to the composer’s powerful soundscapes or the epic reach of his sonic imagination.
I’m a life-long amateur musician with early training in voice, violin and piano, a self-taught guitar player and an omnivorous listener of all kinds of music, but I’m certainly not qualified to be a music critic. However, I have been exposed to enough music generally to feel that I have a modicum of discernment. Also, I’ve subsequently asked people more knowledgeable than myself for their thoughts and across the board everyone has confirmed my opinion that David T. Little’s composition was excellent. And when the words and music matched, it was brilliant.
The most powerful scenes featured Lauren Worsham as Lisa. Vavrek has a real gift for capturing the complexity and contradictions of adolescent emotions, honoring their intensity while acknowledging their youthful naiveté. First was a beautiful twilight scene of Lisa under the living room table writing in her diary. She didn’t sing at all, the worlds were projected on a screen in the back and the soundscape was ethereal and foreboding, a moment of respite before the horrors to come. It was stunning. Second was a scene where Lisa disrobes and examines her wasting body that has finally given her the cheekbones and figure of a model. Even as she is starving in a post-apocalyptic landscape she is tortured by the oppressive body ideals of consumerist culture. The music was unnerving, harrowing and beautiful, the words were heartbreaking and Ms. Worsham gave an extraordinary performance. It was in these scenes where Mr. Vavrek’s skill came to the fore and where one could imagine what this production might have been.
Alas, the overall production did not live up to the expectations set by those scenes. I was seated in the orchestra down stage left. The set was designed so that there was a huge upturned couch in front of me, and a similarly huge dining room table downstage center. As a result most of the action onstage was obscured from my view. Pretty much anywhere one sat in the house something was sure to block your view of the rest of the stage. At the same time there were peculiarities of staging. The mother’s most important aria, her emotional breakdown, her spotlight number, was performed three-quarters of the way upstage, blocked by a table and facing upstage left. I can’t for the life of me figure out why one wouldn’t bring her downstage center for her most important solo and a significant dramatic moment of the show. And I can’t figure out why the set didn’t have levels that would allow the audience to see things that happened in different parts of the stage. The music was wonderful, the performances powerful and expert and the creative team assembled for this production was stellar – Robert Woodruff is a well-known and well-regarded director, Alan Pierson is an exceptional conductor, musician and artistic director, Jim Findlay an innovative designer. And yet, in my opinion, it didn’t cohere.
This leads me to the second reason I am troubled by Steve Smith’s review. How can a thoughtful, knowledgeable music writer like Smith be so unaware of what is happening in the rest of the world of performance that the playwright he references is Albee? Not that Albee wasn’t provocative in his time, or that his work has lessened in its impact, but so much has come since and Dog Days is being positioned as contemporary, so why not reference a contemporaneous authorial voice? The scene that Smith identifies as being most provocative is one in which Lisa washes her dead mother’s corpse in her own urine. But it is not provocative – for better or worse I have seen much more upsetting displays in the plays of Thomas Bradshaw and the performances of Ann Liv Young, and much more artful provocation in Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ plays and in Sarah Michelson’s more challenging works. In another staging Dog Days’ ablution scene might have been heart wrenching but here it was merely sensationalistic.
In my opinion the trouble with Dog Days is indicative of two larger problems in performance these days: a lack of dramaturgy and of cross-disciplinary knowledge. Many artists want to make multidisciplinary work but there are very few people who know how to help them develop it in a rigorous, dramaturgically sound way. As artists develop increasingly complex, multilayered projects that involve numerous collaborators and complicated technologies, there is a need for another viewer to be in the process looking simultaneously at the individual parts and the gestalt. Someone needs to interrogate the choices being made and advocate for coherence; someone needs to track the evolution of ideas and aesthetic choices, to measure change and to insure that decisions are intentional, not default. There is a need for someone to ask the hard questions and challenge assumptions, to see that choices made for visual design, set design, sound design, choreography, performances, composition (both musical and stage) and text are all building one world. That world can be dissonant, it can be disjointed, can be all kinds of things, but it must be thoughtfully assembled and articulated.
The lack of dramaturgy reinforces another flaw in the ecosystem – artists no longer have time to learn about each other’s disciplines. The existing disciplinary silos and rigid, role-based hierarchies of production obstruct thoughtful collaboration. We live in a moment – especially in New York – where the professionalism of the arts and the gentrification of the city have created conditions that impede natural cross-pollination. To become a successful theater artist you have to be single-mindedly focused on achievement in the theater world – and it is the same with dance, music, visual art and media. People either are raised in the city or move to the city with their pre-existing networks (usually formed in college or grad school) and then focus on building a career in their discipline, within that social network. These become echo chambers of circular discourse where aesthetic provincialism is reinforced and authentic critical dialogue stunted. The days of hanging out in someone’s SoHo loft or the Cedar Tavern or Max’s Kansas City and meeting all kinds of different artists are long gone. The days of drunken brawls and the public exchange of heated essays about big ideas are over. There is no Black Mountain College for today’s artists to retreat to and wrestle with fundamental issues of time, space and perception; to ask the eternal, existential questions and challenge each other’s preconceptions. That world has been mostly replaced by a culture of single-minded careerism in the worst case, and in the best case, a struggle for survival that precludes time for reflection, adventure, experimentation and play. Now when artists set out to create work across silos they no longer have a common language or even the passing familiarity with other disciplines that is needed to develop that language.
Back in September I flew back from the dance platform Minneapolis and went straight from the airport to BAM to see Einstein On The Beach. I have to admit, I was dubious. I’ve never had much of a taste for Robert Wilson’s work; seeing it always feels like eating your vegetables or taking medicine – I know its good for me but I just don’t like it. But Einstein stood up to the hype as both a product of its time and as being very much timeless. As John Rockwell wrote in The New York Times:
“… “Einstein” was perhaps the proudest product of the extraordinary Lower Manhattan performing-arts scene in the 1970s. Its dreamy, painterly beauty; its mystical longueurs; its hypnotic music; its allusions to the brilliance and danger of Einstein’s work without ever quite stooping to the mere telling of a story: all spoke to a generation that still exerts a powerful hold on American, and global, vanguard arts.
“Einstein” was called an opera because Mr. Wilson liked to call all his big pieces (“The Life and Times of Joseph Stalin,” “Deafman Glance” and others) operas. It was scored not for an orchestra but for the Philip Glass Ensemble, which consisted of two electric keyboards, three wind instruments and a wordless solo soprano, all exuberantly amplified by a rock-style sound mixer. There was a chorus but no opera singers.
Instead, in 1976, a passel of SoHo artist-denizens both sang and danced, the singers dancing roughly and the dancers singing roughly. They sang numbers and solfège syllables. Otherwise Ms. Childs and Sheryl Sutton and a few others told elliptical stories and acted out slow-motion tableaus (Patty Hearst holding her rifle, the young Einstein and his wife on a train’s caboose platform)…”
Seeing Einstein now you see three artists in their prime – a composer, a choreographer and a director/visual artist – collaborating to develop a shared language and a transcendent experience that upends our notions of music, theater, dance and opera. That SoHo moment allowed three master innovators of their disciplines to create something beyond what any one of them could have done alone, something that inexorably changed the way we receive performance.
As Rockwell notes, the lead artists brought people of all disciplines together, dancers sang and singers danced but without the whiff of deliberately artless amateurism that clings to so much contemporary visual art performance. All of these artists were exceptionally talented, rigorous and skilled in their own métier and only under these circumstances could they come together, venture into each other’s territory and return with something so remarkable. Insomuch as Einstein is daringly interdisciplinary, it is also deeply integrated. It is a remarkable piece of clockwork and it astounds with its complexity, sheer force, scale and ambition. Glass’s relentless score, Childs’ intricate, geometrical choreography, Wilson’s artful staging and the deliberately elliptical and opaque text set a challenging barrier to engagement, and yet…
I was jetlagged and exhausted and afraid I wouldn’t make it after the first Trial scene and second Knee Play. Just when I thought I was a goner, Lucinda Childs’ transcendent first Field Dance unfolded with precision, joy and exuberance. It opened up the piece and let some air in, gave me a second wind that sustained me through the rest of the show.
Getting to see Einstein made me finally realize why people celebrate Glass, Wilson and Childs. Not that I didn’t appreciate their work previously, but experiencing this “opera” firsthand allowed me to imagine what it must have been like for audiences in 1976 when no-one had heard of these people nor seen work of this kind ever before.
It is worth noting (as Rockwell does) that:
“Einstein” was commissioned by Michel Guy and the Avignon Festival and had its first five performances there. It went on a wildly admired six-city European tour and washed ashore in America on Nov. 22 and 29 at a sold-out Metropolitan Opera House. This was hardly because the Met was foresighted enough to present it. It merely deigned to rent the house on two Sunday nights when it would otherwise have been dark. Mr. Wilson and Mr. Glass gained prestige (or notoriety) but lost a cataclysmic amount of money. Mr. Wilson went deep into debt, and Mr. Glass was back driving a cab soon after taking his curtain calls at the Met.
So when I think of how the confluence of professionalism in the cultural sector and current economic conditions creates this siloed, careerist arts ecology, I also try to remember that there was a time when even Robert Wilson couldn’t get presented in the U.S. and Philip Glass wrote a masterpiece but ended up back driving a cab. There are good things about professionalization but one wonders what it would be like if artists and producers spent less time in grad school studying theory and more time experimenting in the real world developing a practice while pushing their boundaries. Remember that Philip Glass was a co-founder with Lee Breuer of the theater company Mabou Mines; he was Richard Serra’s studio assistant. So Glass knew all these worlds intimately and could engage with artists in other disciplines through a shared vocabulary.
This shared vocabulary did not seem evident in Dog Days. Like I said, I don’t know enough about composition to critique the work of composers; of the various new operas I’ve attended, David T. Little’s music is my favorite because of its complexity and diversity of styles and moods, his willingness to move between structured tonal “music” and noise, its variable levels and intricacy. But with Dog Days and other new operas (and multidisciplinary works generally) I have seen little indication that the overall presentational aesthetic of these productions rise to the level of formal innovation that the music seems to demand and even less that I would characterize as new. Einstein was truly new in 1976 and even now it challenges in its duration and perplexes in its opacity. But if you stick with it, you emerge transformed. I suspect, though, that Wilson, Glass and Childs were less interested in issues of style and being of-the-moment than fundamental questions about their respective forms. I suspect they were more interested in interrogation and disruption; in using the unique qualities of live performance to change people’s perception of, and relationship to, time, space, sound and text.
Which leads me back to where I started with Detroit, Habit and the “Standard American Play” set in a suburban ranch house. It seems like a good moment to examine America’s self-perception as presented in various artistic disciplines and how the presentational aesthetics of each adumbrate how we see ourselves and the assumptions we hold dear.
For more than fifty years this suburban vision has held our imagination. In the aftermath of WWII it was idealized and actively pursued. The GI Bill and postwar prosperity brought a wide swath of Americans firmly into the middle class and we sought to raise everyone up collectively. In the 60’s, though wrought by turmoil, The Great Society tried to make that suburban dream –and all it entailed – attainable by as many Americans as possible. Even the Hippies’ revolutionary rhetoric, their outward rejection of Establishment positions, was predicated on assumptions of material wellbeing. Social justice and liberation movements are not only about equality, freedom and civil rights, they are about access to economic security and wellbeing, values embodied by the Suburban Ranch House. The world we now inhabit – post-mortgage crisis, post-financial meltdown, post-Bush II – has been radically transformed. We live in an incredibly complicated moment where people still aspire to economic security and wellbeing as embodied by the Suburban Ranch House, yet reject the philosophies and mechanisms that make that possible. We are sold visions of American exceptionalism even as we sink ever lower amongst our peers in the developed world in terms of infant mortality, life expectancy, education, social mobility and income inequality.
Detroit uses naturalistic style and the familiar forms of the “backyard play” to illustrate the precariousness of most people’s social position; how easy it is to slip from middle class into poverty and how it is nearly impossible to climb back up. It portrays the alienation and unease lurking under the appearance of normalcy. But at the same time the form, style and ambiguously positive ending seem to step back from a rigorous interrogation of the actual state of affairs. D’Amour doesn’t situate herself as a political playwright and it is not my intention to evaluate the play on that basis. Rather I’m suggesting that the mainstream American Theater, predicated as it is on the perpetuation of a “naturalistic” style of representation of “real life” is indulging the audience’s fantasy of itself; reinforcing nostalgia for an imagined world that is rapidly fading into history and that renders the medium toothless.
Habit purposefully re-contextualizes the “Standard American Play” set in a suburban ranch house as Art Object. On one hand this is a brilliant destabilization of the assumptions of both traditional theater and the visual arts world. At the same time it is a troubling position to take insofar as the Standard American Play Set In A Suburban Ranch House also represents the hopes, dreams and fears of middle class Americans. One could posit that Levine has, accidentally or intentionally, put the American Dream in a vitrine, an art object to be bought and sold by speculators in the art market, which is not too far from the truth, as high end art buyers and the grandees of the financial services industry are often one and the same.
Dog Days, like Detroit, offers a more straightforward take on the genre. Though it is presented as an opera, from a narrative and textual basis it is not substantially different from any number of generic suburban dramas from the likes of John Patrick Shanley or David Auburn. The story of the opera – Lisa befriends a man who has chosen to live as a dog, retreating into his animal nature rather than face life in the post-apocalyptic landscape – is a dire fantasia, a nightmare version of the American Dream. Here, the safety net has been destroyed, America is in a constant state of war and the only reliable source of employment and food is the military. It’s a dramatic dystopia to rival The Walking Dead and should be unsettling, but it just doesn’t cohere. Dog Days embrace of naturalism in text and as a performance style undercuts the scale of the music and the range of the performers; its dramaturgical instability blurs its focus and dulls its impact. It is, like Detroit, a shadow on the cave wall presented as the thing-in-itself.
As much as I love a good, dark dystopian song cycle or critical theatrical gaze into America’s suburban underbelly, I don’t think that dire representation is the only route to authenticity. In fact, of all the work I’ve seen recently, the one that most authentically represents this moment in American performance (IMHO) is also the one I found most fun and inspiring: Steven Reker and People Get Ready’s Specific Ocean at NYLA.
Late September took me to Minneapolis for a dance platform. In case you didn’t know, Minneapolis is America’s Dance Utopia. The funding climate and arts ecology is so supportive that dancers and choreographers there can actually have kids, start families and sometimes buy houses. Sometimes they can even get enough support to not have another job. Or only one other job. Over the course of a week I think I saw every single dance company they had and saw every dancer/choreographer in at least three other people’s work. It was fun and weird and quirky and exciting. They have a really good community there and a relatively diverse body of work. Also, the influx of New Yorkers has started to introduce a kind of rigor and investigative practice that is often absent in places that are less intense than NYC. Anyway, I was there with a mix of national and international presenters, most of whom have a Eurocentric or at least Globalist outlook.
And I’m watching great new work from Karen Sherman and Morgan Thorson, from Hijack, from these kids called Supergroup and I’m thinking about The Replacements, Husker Du, Soul Asylum and Trip Shakespeare, The Jayhawks, the Wallets and, of course, Prince. I started thinking about my days in Seattle, about DIY and punk rock and “alternative” culture and “just get in the van”. I started thinking about Detroit, the city, home of Motown, the MC5 and Iggy & The Stooges, the White Stripes, even Eminem. And I started thinking that as sophisticated as I think I might get, I’m also just a kid from the suburbs of Baltimore who grew up on garage rock and ‘zines and aimless car rides all night long; a child of trips to the inner city to see punk rock bands who traveled in vans across the country to play in abandoned lofts for other misfit kids, who crashed on couches and smoked cigarettes and drank beer in parking lots, who nurtured their discontent and inchoate dreams of revolution and change. And I’m thinking, see, that’s America. Or at least, that’s my America – and its not the failure of the Suburban American Ranch House Dream, it’s the promise of everything that is built both within it and reaction to it. In America artists work for a living, we do it in our garages, we do it low budget and we do it ourselves. And as much as we would like to get paid for it, as much as we would like respect for it, we do it no matter what it takes, because we’re punk rock and we have dreams and we have energy and we’re indomitable and maybe we’re a little more earnest than we like to let on, maybe we’re a little less ironically detached than our European friends because hey, underneath the irony is that slightly embarrassing but always burning flame of idealism. So we put songs by The Bangles and Kim Carnes in our shows with a nudge and a wink, but underneath we know its because we actually like those songs, we do. And that is who we are – a mixed-up ball of hope and confusion, irony and earnestness, pluck and lethargy, a dream we still believe we can save from dying.
And it is in that spirit that I received Specific Ocean.
Steven Reker is a musician and dancer who makes very little distinction between his practices. The members of his band, People Get Ready (Luke Fasano, James Rickman and Jen Goma) serve as a dancer corps that he supplements as needed. For Specific Ocean he added the talents of dancers Natalie Kuhn, Caitlin Marz and Aaron Mattocks, who doubled as musicians. Reker describes People Get Ready’s work as “multi-sensory mixtapes” and that is exactly how the show unfolds. The company is arrayed on either side of the stage where lie scattered guitars, keyboards, drums, microphones and other electronic instruments. Over the course of about 60 minutes they lay down sonic landscapes that reference everything from indie-pop confections to Spiritualized-style walls of sound. The performers regularly swap instruments and dance partners with the music and choreography perfectly intertwined – at once playful and rigorous, athletic and languorous, serious and silly.
Though the piece as a whole was immensely engaging and satisfying, three moments in particular stood out for me. First was what I call the Masonite Duet. The floor of NYLA’s stage was covered in taped-together sheets of 4×8 Masonite and at one point Fasano and Reker rip up two panels and start dancing around with them. Anyone who has ever worked with Masonite knows it has a lot of give and sway, so when you flop it around it makes noise. It is heavy and unwieldy but the two of them flip, twist and toss the Masonite around with each other like playthings in a clever exploration of movement and sound. At times they lift the Masonite high above their heads only to drop them slowly but silently to the ground. It was surprisingly dramatic and athletic and sonically fascinating.
Second was Aaron Mattocks’ Guitar Solo. He strapped on a prepared electric guitar like some kind of indie-rock icon, left it dangling from his back as he embarked on an athletic solo that made the guitar ring with feedback and squall. He ran up through the house at NYLA, around the audience and back onstage where he was joined by Caitlin Marz (I think) who doubled his choreography for a few minutes before receding offstage.
And finally, towards the end of the show there was a really fun, quirky music video of the band in silver space suits cavorting around Governors Island, Lower Manhattan and in somebody’s apartment. For once video in a staged piece felt contextual, stylistically consistent and appropriate. The video looked really good but still homemade, the visual vocabulary riffed off of every goofy music video from the early 80’s and yet felt totally current.
To conclude the show the group surrounded the drummer and gave us just a little taste of a kind of group drum percussion party before the stage went black.
To me this pitch-perfect blend of indie rock and choreography embodies the very best of American performance. I Specific Ocean was truly multidisciplinary with everyone doing everything, embodying a kind of collective can-do spirit that is characteristic of every cool artistic indie scene from Chapel Hill to Portland to Minneapolis to Bushwick. It was smart but unpretentious, artful but not artificial – Specific Ocean is serious fun.
Also, it was, in some ways, completely non-representational. It was exactly what it was. Where Dog Days and Detroit were variations on the ‘white suburban backyard play and Habit was a commentary on the same, Specific Ocean was the show the kids made in the garage when Mom & Dad were inside watching TV; the show that you make with your friends after school or over the course of a long boring summer when you’re broke and you use whatever you find lying around. Specific Ocean is the show that finds its inspiration in the magic and mystery of the everyday, points us to what is possible with an secondhand guitar, an old keyboard, Masonite, duct tape, good friends and a hell of a lot of imagination.
Remember that when you go to the polls on November 6.