To Alastair, from Ben

Below is a lightly edited-for-the-web version of an open letter curator & producer Ben Pryor wrote to Alastair Macaulay in response to an email exchange Q&A about the American Realness Festival. The full version appears in the festival ‘zine.

Dear Alastair,

Thanks for the questions.

The title “American Realness” was created for the 2010 festival. Its intention was to call attention to the proliferation of choreographic practices being employed in contemporary work that transcended the traditions of “lights and tights,” which has in some ways been the main identification of American work from many international perspectives. The title was also a reaction to an article Michael Kaiser from the Kennedy Center wrote for The Huffington Post titled “Why I Worry About Modern Dance“.

When his piece was published I was working as Director of Operations at CPR – Center for Performance Research. I read the article while John Jasperse was finishing his work Truth, Revisited Histories, Wishful Thinking and Flat Out Lies in the back studio, and Miguel Gutierrez was on his way in for a meeting with me about touring his forthcoming Last Meadow. Where is the future of Modern Dance!?!?!? I was living it and this esteemed performing arts professional is publicly admitting his cluelessness?! In my opinion a professional in a role such as his shouldn’t be confused about where the future is coming from. They should be cultivating it!!

The fact that he is even still using “Modern Dance” to describe work being made today is evidence of his disconnect with the contemporary moment. I felt an urgent need to call attention to the rigorous experimental work I was experiencing in NYC that was somehow being overlooked by performing arts professionals around the world. My desire was to show this work in a context that would help inform the nature of its construction and intentions. Putting the festival container around the work, keeping it all in the same building and showing it in such a condensed time frame all help do that.

Speaking to your American question… The festival features work by American choreographers based in the US or internationally. This year Tony Rizzi is the only internationally based American artist, but this has been a through line in the festival’s curation since 2010 with artists including Jeremy Wade, Daniel Linehan, Tarek Halaby, Eleanor Bauer and Jennifer Lacey. There has also been work made by foreign-born choreographers who have been making work in the US for the past ten to twenty years – Maria Hassabi and Yvonne Meier for example. So the work is informed by its creation via an American context and US systems of support – meaning different American institutions have invested in the work and American dollars have enabled the works creation. Not necessarily exclusively, but primarily.

Realness, for me, means a few different things

1. The term “Realness” comes from the Drag Ball context and has to do with passing as something that you are not. For your reference:

 With the festival, I consider Realness in relationship to the performativity of personhood and identity and how these ideas are played with in contemporary work. How are performers representing themselves on stage and WHAT are they presenting of “themselves”? For example many people have trouble separating Ann Liv’s characters and actions on stage or in performance from who she is as a person off the stage. I am really interested in that slippery space.  It creates a heightened state of attention for the audience. They are forced to work through their own sense of confusion about what is happening.

2. There is also a level of “realness” that relates to the underfunded nature of American work in relationship to international work. It is about acknowledging that there is more frequently a DIY, raw aesthetic employed in this American work versus its international counterparts. With that however, we are acknowledging that this is the case and making a conscious decision to work with it and call attention to it. We may not have everything that we wanted to do this, but we are making it work with what we have and not apologizing for it. Artists keeping it real.

3. There is the level of marketplace that is somewhat transparent, perhaps less so for the public, but very much so for the programmers coming to the festival. Many of these curators and programmers are literally shopping for work. In the traditional American entrepreneurial spirit we have set up shop and we are for sale.

There are a few other curatorial threads running through the program over the past four years:

Keith Hennessy, Miguel Gutierrez, Jeremy Wade, Jeanine Durning and Meg Stuart (not that she has been in AR, though I would love to show the work if I can ever come up with a REAL programming budget…) present bodies in heightened energetic states on stage in their work. These ecstatic bodies are working with movement that comes from an internal place of feeling and experience versus a place of external construction exclusively concerned with line or shape. These states are magnified manifestations of emotional experience – the body responding to the sensory overload of daily life in our mediated age or the body responding to specific experiences of emotional turmoil. The 2013 program reflects these ideas in Hennessy’s Turbulence (a dance about the economy), Gutierrez and Fennelly’sStoring the Winter, BodyCartography’s Super Nature in which they are pursuing the experience of shared empathy and Jeanine Durning’s inging through which her non-stop speaking generates a state of emotional exhaustion manifests in her physicality throughout the work.

Self-reflexivity or “the self-reflexive voice” is another curatorial through-line of the festival. We find this in the early more obviously constructed works of Ann Liv Young (Michael, Snow White) or in many of Jack Ferver’s works including Mon Ma Mes presented in this year’s program. Ferver begins the performance with a scripted post show talkback in which the audience is presented with cue cards containing the questions they will ask. This constructed situation allows Ferver a space of reflexivity; a moment in the performance when he as the performer can refer to himself from inside the performance, provide commentary on it. Big Art Group is another company presented through AR that employs this tactic in their work.

A third through-line has been desperate and/or celebratory pop-spectacle. Many works in the festival over the past four years have used the overwhelming desperation in pop music as a point of emotional reference or to set a tone in the work. The familiarity of the pop music employed allows multiple entry point for audiences. We see this in the “parade” section of Gutierrez’s Last Meadow (AR 2010) in which the three performers strip off their costumes and dance around the theater (on stage and in the house) to a blasting Madonna track while fog fills the space and colored lights suggest debaucherous night life. We see this in all the stage works of Ann Liv Young (ALY Does Sherry at AR in 2010, Mermaid Solo at AR in 2011 and Sleeping Beauty Part 1 at AR in 2012). For AR 2013 we see this in Trajal Harrell’s Antigone Sr./Twenty Looks or Paris is Burning at the Judson Church (L) and Judson Church is Ringing in Harlem (Made-to-Measure)/Twenty Looks or Paris is Burning at The Judson Church (M2M). He uses pop music throughout the works to set an emotional tone and build referential connotations for the audience. The use of Zebra Katz’s Ima read in Antigone Sr. is evocative of the buzz created when Rick Owens used the track as soundtrack for his Fall / Winter 2012 Paris Fashion week runway show:

also, refer to Eric Wilson’s article in the NY Times “You Have To Know The Context“.

The track is based on the performativity found in the ball culture exemplified by Paris is Burning. The explosion of popularity as a result of its use in the Owen’s show works perfectly in relationship to the ideas Harrell is presenting in his work. We also find this in Neal Medlyn’s Wicked Clown Love, which focuses on the Juggalo men’s movement born around the Wicked Clown Posse. Medlyn has recomposed the music of the Insane Clown Posse and presents, in the work, a version of the cult-like culture that has cropped up around the band.

It is unfortunate that in the DIY underfunded nature of American Realness I haven’t really had the time to get all of these ideas out in the most visible public forum. I am extremely grateful for your prompt to write some of it down, and I hope it provides further insights to the works you are seeing in the program.

Let me know if there are any more questions. I will try to practice brevity if so.

All best and see you again tomorrow,


“Dear Alastair” also is available in READING – a zine produced by AMERICAN REALNESS 2013. The zine contains critical content relating to every artist presented in the festival, and its authors have diverse relationships to the artists they address. This project aims to make clear the value of as well as the need for this kind of work—supporting artistic production through developing thoughtful commentary.

Select articles from READING will be hosted here on Culturebot, released throughout the festival. Find the complete printed version over at American Realness, available for sale on a sliding scale—true zine/DIY style.

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