January Dispatches

Culturebot dance writers Li Cata, Hannah Cullen, and Stormy Budwig catch up on January work by Jack Fervor, Raja & Tzeta, John Jasperse, and My Barbarian.

EVERYBODY WANTS TO DIE: On Fred Herko and Charlie Hebdo By Li Cata

Photo credit: Jeremy Jacob Schlange

Photo credit: Jeremy Jacob Schlange

Suicide is in the news these days.

First, the suicide bombings popping up in the headlines (or buried in the backpages) on a disturbingly regular basis—at the time of this writing, there were two in Nigeria within days of each other, one in Pakistan, and the prior week’s more widely reported Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris.

Two Hollywood actors (Philip Seymour Hoffman and Robin Williams) took their lives last year.

And a number of recent dance works in New York have had an eye turned towards suicide.

I can only briefly mention the title of one of Miguel Guiterrez’s recent works, since I missed it, premiering at the Whitney Biennial and resurfacing at American Realness this past January, Age & Beauty Part 1: Mid-Career Artist/Suicide Note or &:-/. I’m not sure if the subject of suicide really made it into the dance, but the name suggests the idea was in the air.

There was also the NYU-led symposium in October which focused on Fred Herko, a queer and charismatic founding member of the Judson Dance Theater, and commissioned a dance work by Jack Fervor reflecting on Herko. This work (Night Light Bright Light) also reappeared at American Realness in January, and featured the ballet references that Herko was known for in his work (performed by both Fervor and dancer-collaborator Reid Bartelme). Yet the text incorporated in the piece, a tool that Fervor is very adept at integrating into his works, mostly concerns Fervor’s own struggle with depressive and suicidal feelings that the assignment stirred.

Another record of the Herko symposium exists in the Herko Dialogues, a project of Movement Research’s Critical Correspondence that invited eight artists and writers to reflect on the symposium in four dialogues. Yve Cohen and Kyle Bukhari discuss the tension between representing accurately the life of a deceased historical figure and exploring the ways that person can be redeployed and effectively used to understand contemporary ideas. Bukhari pulls from Foucault “the idea of the beam of light that illuminates—I see it like shining a flashlight into the past—exposing this larger scenario, but at the same time…[calling] attention to the whole investigative production behind the act of bringing someone from the past to life.”

This is a pretty good summary of what Bukhari, Cohen, and Fervor are all doing with Herko: considering him in the context of a greater idea expounded by the artist or the scholar. For José Muñoz, whose essay on Herko in his Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity inspired the resurged interest in the Judson personage, the greater idea was the queer utopic gesture and the escape from the linearity and progressive nature of capitalist time. For Fervor, the greater idea was his relationship with artistic burnout, loneliness, economic instability, and falling into a New York artist stasis.

The appearance of suicide in these recent months’ dance events struck me as the stories of suicide bombings grew more and more present in the news.  Why do queer American dancers, disaffected French Arab youth, Hollywood actors, and religious extremists want to kill themselves, and why does this act have such resonance to audiences and news-consumers? Why does this act cross cultural borders from Nigeria to Pakistan to France to the U.S.?

Towards the goal of understanding these connections, I flipped through Al-Qaeda’s English language propagandist magazine, Inspire. There were the interviews with Al-Qaeda leaders and now-deceased jihadists that I expected, but surprisingly also quotes about American imperialism and popular disillusionment from American and European journalists and scholars, including Noam Chomsky, Amy Goodman, and Jeremy Scahill. Also surprising were a couple of ads strikingly similar to those of the social-activist-aligned Adbuster’s magazine, spoofs of normal ads that appeal to the ennui of modern Western life and the complicity of global consumers in global problems. One reads, “Ready to purchase your favorite shoes? First spend on those who deserve a share of your wealth.” Another, against an image of a subway car: “For how long will you live in tension? Instead of just sitting, having no solution, simply stand up, pack your tools of destruction. Assemble your bomb, ready for detonation.” Not exactly Adbusters’ message, but the appropriation of advertising strategies is the same; the spread looks like the “If you see something, say something” sign.

More important are the common appeals to the sickness of the participants in the global consumerist culture. The tense life mentioned in Inspire is not so far from the bipolarity of Fervor’s performance: maniacally acting out a childhood torture fantasy on himself, faux-crying into the microphone that bored presenters can leave if they want to, and repeating a joke to death in a several-minutes-long video that ended the performance. Fervor asks Bartelme, “Remember the party where you took me aside and said, ‘These are our friends whether you like it or not?’”. A few lines later, they joke about being trapped in New York.

The performance implied that things haven’t changed much. The same loneliness and destructive escapes of decades ago are present today, no matter how many It Get Better Projects (a LGBT-focused anti-suicide campaign that Fervor slights) or therapists one sees. It also reminded me that the self-destructive feelings and outward-directed aggression apparent in the newspapers’ suicide attacks are not so remote. I can see the same emotions on display at Abrons Art Center on a Sunday night.

Raja Kelly in conversation with Hannah Cullen

Photo credit: Ani Collier

Photo credit: Ani Collier

After seeing Raja Feather Kelly and Tzveta Kassabova’s Super WE I had a chance to sit down with Raja to discuss his and Tzveta’s collaboration on forming this show as well as the unfolding and development of his Warhol project leading up to the premiere of his newest work, Color Me, Warhol.

In Super WE Kelly and Kassabova each showed solos followed by two duets, one choreographed by Sara Pearson called Be Still, My Heart, and one choreographed collaboratively by the duo called Super WE after which the show was named. Speaking with Raja about the structuring of this show, I asked about what it was like to do a split bill performance to which he firmly responded, “we never thought of it as a split bill, that’s something that is being thrown out that is not what we thought we were doing.” He continued to say that he and Kassabova “wanted to create an experience for these four works to live in the same place. We went with our gut and trusted that they all had something in common and we didn’t have to do anything except put them in the same place for people to see that.”

Watching the performance, it was evident that a through line existed in all of these works, and both Kelly and Kassabova had the opportunity to develop as people and characters as they moved from one piece to another. For Raja, as he begun with his solo 25 Cats Name SAM and one Blue Pussy, Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth, or How Can You Dance When Every 7 Minutes Human Conversation Lapses Into Silence, he entered the evening as this character of Sam. “I felt like I had my own path, from having a mask on and revealing myself and putting myself into a situation and commenting on that situation” he reflects.  “Our goal was to have a cohesive evening. We had these four separate things but they were all holding hands.” As they moved through the four pieces, the audience moved as well; rather than ending each piece with a blackout, a bow, and a moment for us to clap, Kelly and Kassabova chose to have us guided from one piece to the next. Music by Aleksei Stevens and lighting by Tuce Yasak transported us, with the intention that “those two elements would walk you from one piece to another. There was a bit of inception in our minds – to see what they were each taking from one piece sonically and visually and pulling to another, and maybe the audience wouldn’t even know that they were subconsciously recognizing those connections, and that was our goal.”

To build something in parts that successfully coheres is a challenge that I feel Kelly and Kassabova met with the structuring of their show. As I discussed Raja’s solo with him we delved into his concepts behind the Warhol project more specifically, how the project came to fruition and where he sees it going. A follow up interview addressing his career and upcoming show is forthcoming!

Ripples that go out: John Jasperse’ “Within between” and the world of 2015 By Li Cata

Photo credit: Lauren Burke -  photo courtesy of American Dance Institute (ADI)

Photo credit: Lauren Burke – photo courtesy of American Dance Institute (ADI)

The night before I saw John Jasperse’ Within between, I watched a documentary about an oil company that spurred a renewal of conflict and instability in Congo. Two nights before, I saw a documentary about Edward Snowden and mass surveillance in the US. If it seems unfair to juxtapose these, let me begin by saying that Within between does not fall flat next to such heavy material.

After the show, my roommate lamented artists’ tendency to pass judgement; the all-too-common eye roll or pat on the back as expressions of the cynical, apathetic cliquishness of the dance world. I countered with my genuine ambivalence about most works, my reaction to a dance quickly changing from adulation to disdain and back again over time.

Jasperse’ work is no exception, though it did present a strong complement to the prior days’ films. It offered, in one portion, a direct intervention into traditional forms with its explicit warping of ballet poses, painting the scene with an eerie freakshow mood. Among dissonant sounds and magenta lighting, the dancers offered their versions of the right shapes and then did them wrong, even mocking the awkwardness of a ballet class’s sideways glances and tense jaws.

Even in my engagement with scenes like this, I couldn’t help but remember the glum reality of the documentaries; was I right to feel such impotence as a dance artist in a corrupted world? The potential impact of dances seemed so stupid compared to the fear, hope, disempowerment, anger, and other emotional extremes I experienced while watching the films. It is perhaps unfair to single out a show for not matching the urgency of a film about war in the Congo, but I don’t believe it is a coincidence that film can take on such topics as war exposé while even a major dance event is more likely to deal with personal reverie or investigation of traditional dance forms. This is certainly a consequence of form. Dance can bring viewers in touch with the proximate and the present while film is best for presenting the distant. The conjunction of the two, the active proximity of Jasperse’s work with the passive education of documentary-watching, gave each the strength that the other lacked.

Jasperse himself mentions considerations of relevance in an interview with Gia Kourlas for Time Out:

“I don’t think the people who deal with world hunger wake up in the morning wondering, Is there a real point to what I’m doing? I think in dance it’s harder to hold onto that what we’re doing matters, not just to a small circle but that somehow there are ripples that go out…. But at the same time it’s a vocation. It comes down to that. You have to keep trying to reinvent how you can do that in the most impactful way.”

There is a clear self-awareness permeating the work, from the dancers’ cheeky frontal orientation as they begin a series of ballet sequences (which they eventually distort) to the introduction of other dance modalities like step-dancing and contact. There linger hints that Jasperse was researching themes other than the usual abstractions of time, embodiment, and space—such as the historicity of Western dance, including at least one form outside of the normal modern dance canon (the stepping was the only one I noticed, but perhaps other references went over my head). Jasperse mentions these contextual considerations in the interview  as well when discussing the contributions of his dramaturg, Ariel Osterweis, who, according to Jasperse, usually employs a critical lens of race in her cultural research.

Another cultural item that landed on my plate earlier in the week—Susan Sontag’s collection of essays “Against Interpretation and Other Essays”—offers further insight on this conflict of relevance.  Sontag’s essay “Michel Leiris’ Manhood” comments in depth on Lieris’ prefatory essay, “Literature Considered as a Bullfight.” Leiris thought of writing as too safe and sheltered an activity to give its author any urgency in his practice and the products too palatable to have any meaningful effect on an audience. Thus he proffered grotesque, self-exposing humiliations in his writing as his only way of achieving this dangerous immediacy. He says, in a quote included in Sontag’s essay, “…I have just realized that all I need in order to save myself is a certain fervor but that this world lacks anything for which I would give my life.” Sontag interprets this to mean that an act must implicate death to have any real value, or else it risks meaninglessness.

While such impulses of gravity hued my experience of the evening’s show, I don’t desire to extrapolate Leiris’ convictions about literature’s value to Jasperse’ work, but rather to raise Leiris’ ideas in light of the context that surrounded my own (and likely many others’) viewing of the dance. I like to draw all these moments—violence in Congo, Snowden’s secret Hong Kong hotel room, Sontag’s essays—on a single map to consider how they might relate as they overlap in the chronology of my experiencing them. The Snowden movie I watched because my friend works at MoMA and scored free tickets to the sold-out showing; the Congo documentary I found on Netflix; the dance I attended because of my affiliation with Movement Research where Jasperse teaches; the book I picked up after an HBO documentary about Sontag renewed her popularity. Even if contemporaneity is a product of chance, I like to imagine Jasperse’ “ripples that go out” emanating from each of these separate spheres and trying to reinvent ways to impact one another.

I think Jasperse might agree. He tells Kourlas:

“People feel like they don’t really have anything to do with Bangladesh, even though half of what they wear was made by somebody in Bangladesh; they’re tied in this nuts-and-bolts way. So it’s not that it’s not already happening. I see teenage girls in the subway. How are we connected? It’s that kind of thing that I’m trying to deal with in relationship to aesthetics, because that’s what I do.”

A sample of My Barbarian’s performative toolbox: intersectional class position + historical referents + PowerPoint presentation + human beings By Stormy Budwig

My Barbarian’s performance The Mother and Other Plays consists of exactly that: Malik Gaines, Jade Gordon, and Alexandro Segade precede their version of Bertolt Brecht’s The Mother with scenes from some of their other plays (including Counterpublicity). Long past the point at which this “introduction” could be considered an introduction at all, Gordon pauses the action and tells us: “We’re going to not procrastinate anymore.” They change clothes, and with that, a total performative shift occurs and The Mother begins.

Photo credit: Stephanie Berger

Photo credit: Stephanie Berger

My Barbarian retains the Brechtian concept of the Lehrstück, or “learning-play”, extending and commenting on it to a ludicrous, engaging extent. Not only do they design a performance that educates their audience on working class grievances, the corruption of our contemporary economy, and the wrongful behavior of those who hold positions of power, they do so using simplistic-seeming means. The PowerPoints, drawings, masks, recognizable gestures, and song lyrics that rhyme with each other—sung while the three performers link arms or strike a sassy pose and wink at us—create a kind of simplicity that at first seems suited for the eyes and ears of a class of Kindergartners, but that ultimately might be more complicated to devise than if they were attempting to present a performance with more surface-level complications and signs of craft. It is similar to the adage that ballet masters have been drilling into ballerinas’ brains for centuries: technique is not just the one-hundred-and-eighty degree leg extension, it’s making that extension seem effortless.

My Barbarian’s The Mother and Other Plays is based on Brecht’s play The Mother (1932), which itself is based on Maxim Gorky’s novel The Mother (1906). This chain of influence makes me curious about whether a performance group or artists in the future will adapt and reconstruct My Barbarian’s version of this material yet again. Because the performance trio relies on transparency between them and us—they discuss and exaggerate the formal devices and conceptual considerations they have developed, and why—The Mother and Other Plays is almost like an instruction manual for itself. Decades from now, someone looking to adapt and rework this piece would be able to identify My Barbarian’s…

  1. use of popular culture as source material

The performance begins with Gaines, Gordon, and Segade reciting quotes from MTV’s The Real World: San Francisco (1994). One person plays the character of Pedro, the other is Puck. They switch roles. Someone else plays Pedro, a third plays Rachel. They switch. The audience then recites from scripts the performers have placed on our seats. After a declaration of individuality—I am not a statistic. I am a human being!—there begins a choreographed dance sequence reminiscent of a nineties rap music video. They clench their fists, they raise the roof.

  1. focus on marginalized communities through shifts in perspective and voice

The performers take turns playing the role of the Mother. This interchangeability draws into focus both the potentially unnecessary division of who says what in theatre, and the assumptions we make as to who can say, speak to, or represent what. At one point they discuss “fake powerlessness for social invisibility,” which is one of several lasting insights into the role of “the mother” in our (contemporary) society. The mother is called “elderly babushka” and “old lady.” No one suspects her to have revolutionary intent. To think of the myriad ways these assumptions allow for/induce social invisibility is mind-boggling. The next questions are inevitable: Is social invisibility a disadvantage or a power? What might one do with their invisibility once its been assigned to them?

  1. insertion of realism, humor, and/or complication of narrative via personal anecdote

As they change clothes, the performers engage in casual conversation. Gordon asks Gaines: “How’s your mother doing?” Segade steers the conversation into a realm that could still be conversational, but feels slightly more performative: “That reminds me…” He goes on to discuss the aesthetic and historical implications of staging a performance in a white box: a white box’s “historical referent is modernism, which is weird” because that space has now become “contentless and depoliticized.” The play continues.

  1. code of ethics rooted in common sense, conveyed through performative decisions

As the performers link arms and face the audience in single-file formation, they sing of the harsh realities of labor, government, and, maybe, life in general: “Nothing you do does anything.” Later, during a song called “In Praise of Communism,” the lyrics go: “They call it crazy, but it cures craziness.” In this way, the lessons of the play are so simple that they seem not just humorous but irrefutable.

  1. physical rigor

When they choose an audience member to wave a large flag back and forth as the rest of us recite a text projected on the wall, the performers caution him: “It’s a slightly demanding part physically.”

  1. audience participation as both conduit for and manifestation of thematic intent

Gordon interrupts a “teach-in” narrative to give Segade a critique of his teacher character. A question evolves from their dialogue: “How can we use our intersectional class position” (as artists) to enact change in this bankrupt world? They ask the audience to give them a show of hands in answer to several questions about our occupations, then finish with a song called “Before we destroy them all (and that will be soon)”, effectively unifying performers and audience alike on the side of revolution.

It is hard to imagine a more “of the times” performance collective than My Barbarian, but then, just as the times keep changing so does the nature of the performance art that processes, challenges, and informs them. And yet: just as ideals of revolution and liberation were at the fore in the thirties, they are leading exponents in our conversations today. It’s hard not to assume that, decades from now, our conversations will still be those concerned with a more simple, human-centric, equitable freedom.

ben gabbe

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