Prelude.12: The Manifesto Recap

Miguel Gutierrez and Andrew Champlin

Apologies for failing to get my reaction to Wednesday night’s program of manifestos which opened Prelude.12 together in a more timely manner, but in some ways it seems appropriate. Not to be shady, but failure was on my mind after Wednesday’s Manifesto onslaught, where a grab-bag of writers, directors, choreographers, and performers came together to deliver various states of various address (and for some, in various states of undress). Which is hardly to say that the participants failed to inspire, invigorate, or provoke–instead, in an evening which happily had incongruity in its blood (a mix of lectures and performances, commissions and presentations of previously existing pieces), the theme of failure was invoked with intriguing consistency.

Leah Nanako Winkler gave a calmly delivered, but in many ways scathing in content, account of her transition from the undergraduate bubble of a theatre department to the harsh realities (and harsher silences) of self-producing in the downtown scene with her manifesto, “WORK HARD PLAY HARDER.” Although her tale began with her receiving a scholarship to allow her to attend theatre college (which her father described as “like someone giving you two, brand new cars every year for the next four years”), far from an uplifting boot-straps fable, Nanako Winklers’s chronicle quickly became an incisive interrogation into the invisible privilege which undergirds many downtown success stories. This included recounting when a theatre collective she had created with her friends fell apart “emotionally and financially,” but far from that being some kind of disquieting coda to shrug off, it was really only a jumping-off point for Nanako Winkler to think on failure: “I have failed countlessly. I was born into failure, and I chose to pursue a profession that was kind of failing as a whole.”

Here, failure wasn’t a regrettable aberration, but an integral part of the ecology of performance and performing. This was echoed even in Maria Striar’s own warmly scrappy take on the Manifesto, “Leave Me to My Own Devices and I Come Up With Names Like Clubbed Thumb,” as her own performed hesitance (“Yeah, sure. I have beliefs. Strong beliefs! …about theatre.”) wasn’t left to its own devices for long as a chorus leapt from the crowd to accompany Striar’s increasingly confident decrees. And yet, even as Striar qualified her outlook as “slightly delusional” (albeit “no more than individual recycling”), her chorus (only somewhat) tongue-in-cheekily droned, “This is how ideals die.” Striar herself even beguilingly (though hardly in defeat) admitted, “Theatre always fails, somehow.”

Tina Satter’s (accompanied by the terrifyingly talented Half Straddle ensemble) heartfelt riff on Aristotle, “Schmoetics,” seemed to in part answer how theatre could always seem to fail “somehow” in recounting when an artistic director asked what she was trying to do with her work: “I’m trying to stage the impossible.” Satter stood by the possibly cringe-inducing earnestness of this lofty goal, which has built into it the acceptance that in never quite capturing the impossible, all her performances could be understood as variations on a failed theme.

Miguel Gutierrez and the Powerful People closed out the evening with a piece for two performers, “The Problem With Dancing,” here rendered trans-coastally as Gutierrez Skyped in from San Francisco to accompany performer Andrew Champlin at the Martin Segal Center. Delivered in breathless synchronized rushes, Gutierrez and Champlin listed all of the “problems,” with dancing, among them:

It doesn’t sell
It doesn’t last
It doesn’t mean anything”

“It doesn’t cure cancer
It doesn’t cure AIDS”

“It doesn’t stop riots
It doesn’t start riots”

And on and on, as each deep breathe prefaced another litany of ultimately what could be understood as a catalogue of dance as a medium’s failures.

In his 2011 work The Queer Art of Failure, theorist J. Jack Halberstam turns a sharp but generous gaze on failure, as an affect, as an enterprise, and on a way of life, particularly for those subjects for whom “success” (in all of its heteronormative, middle class, wealth-accumulating valences) has never been particularly desirable, or more importantly, attainable. Halberstam writes that failing is something that queers (which in his definition extends to “nonnormative logics and organizations of community, sexual identity, embodiment, and activity in space and time,” In a Queer Time and Place) do and “have always done exceptionally well.” Here, Halberstam embraces failure as a queer condition not to be avoided at all costs, but embraced, and perhaps even celebrated asking, “What kind of rewards can failure offer us?”

The performances in which the recurring invocations of failure were couched on Wednesday night seemed to in part answer this question. Just as Gutierrez and Champlin, out of breath from their ever-mounting list of charges against dance’s inefficacy, seemed to have built an insurmountable archive of reasons to never dance again, the slick, descending synths of Robyn’s “With Every Heartbeat” pumped through the speakers, and both performers stripped down to skimpy canvas aprons (which were quickly rendered superfluous) as they literally leapt into a joyously balls-out (again, literally) staggered pas de deux. At one point, in light of their physical separation, each performer grabbed a partner (Gutierrez’s conveniently waiting off-screen, Champlin going for Gutierrez’s manager) to take a break from the choreography for a sloppy, make-out session. In spire of being inundated with all of dancing’s failures, the dance nonetheless offered its own incredibly compelling rewards.

Leah Nanako Winkler’s conclusion actually in many ways illuminated this, proclaiming (as members of the Everywhere Theatre Company joined her from the audience, inhaling and exhaling in unison), “What we have is a chance within this failure–a chance to be fearless”–to write, speak, create, and dance not only courageously, but also unceasingly. Halberstam writes (with great sympathy and resonance to those working in the arts ) “We are all used to having our dreams crushed, our hopes smashed, our illusions shattered, but what comes after hope?” With a queerly practiced (or performed) failure comes with it a new kind of optimism, one that does not rely on “positive thinking as an explanatory engine for social order, nor one that insists upon the bright side at all costs.” Instead, we are left with the sense of an outlook which, “produces shade and light in equal measure, and knows that the meaning of one always depends on the meaning of the other.”

Referencing her father’s explanation of her scholarship, Nanako Winkler advised those present to “Crash the new car. Crash it, and burn it, and make it explode.” One of the senses I took away from Manifestos 2012 is that perhaps contemporary performance, and the new forms it will take, will not move forward in spite of failure, of dying ideals, or of attempting to stage the impossible, but more accurately, because of it. Or, in Beckett’s words, “Fail again. Fail better.”

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