Denuded: Interrupted – Bruno Isakovic at La Mama
Last night, La Mama, officially, kicked off its 55th anniversary season with Croatian choreographer Bruno Isakovic’s Denuded. This is also the final program for the 5th Queer New York International Arts Festival which opened last week at Abrons Art Center with South African artist Mamela Nyamza (reviewed here). Tonight thru Sunday Denuded (Group) will be presented in the Downstairs Theater at La Mama. Friday night, I will moderate a post-performance talk back. Last night, however, Isakovic was performing the acclaimed solo version for one-time only during this season when it was quite queerly queered due to an (apparently) unintended interruption from an audience member.
Bruno started off the night by speaking with the audience, sharing that the work is not set in “any way that I can rely upon anything.” He noted that he had spent 48 hours in the theater, setting lights in preparation for the group version and that influenced how he was feeling, one of the strongest influences of how the work would progress. And, quite importantly, that how we felt. Or, as he clarified, how he felt that we were feeling. This last quip, delivered almost playfully, proved essential to how the evening unfolded. After disrobing, he stood downstage, center and gazed upon the audience. Seeing each of us, smiling or serene, somehow humble despite the unabashed nature of performing naked. He was warmly present and available to the nuances of the room, however once the lights dimmed to a single, overhead down pool the tone shifted to a mysterious and heightened one. Various parts of his anatomy disappeared while other parts were highlighted and the sound of his breathing filled out the space. As he contracted and released, expanding or retreating into and out of the light, he would shift from subject to object. I would fly from observing the running lines of veins across his shoulders to considering the nature of withering, altering quickly between anatomical and kinesthetic observations into metaphysical ruminations on the human condition. As he bent further and further backward, his chest rising into the light and his head falling away in surrender, I considered the idea of a soft underbelly despite his obviously firm physique. The apparent vulnerability of such an exposed shape could not be matched by the control and power required to arrive at it and sustain the breath. Later, as he bent forward the ripple of his stomach reminded me of yogic kriyas for detoxifying the organs, sublime physical action momentarily hinting at internal cleansing effort. He was expansive and voluminous, the work was both scientific and science fiction. The downlight had become a patterned, front light that would cut up the body. He would dissipate and reform, losing and then re-assembling the self. I was transfixed.
And then, moments after a collective bit of fidgeting in the audience, heard distant, odd music playing. The spell broken, my first assumption was of a ringtone, and then of an odd, intentionally queer, interjection into the work meant to interrupt or point towards the artifice of observing art. But, then Bruno still in the shifting lights asked “Who is playing the music?” No answer and then, he demanded to bring up the lights. There was a general confusion, was this a genuine disruption or a planned intervention? Soon, it was clear that it was coming from critic Randy Gener. Bruno stated that he should have simply expressed his critical disrespect for the work by leaving rather than ruining the work for the rest of the audience by continuing to allow the music to play. Audience members called him out and told him to get out. Randy stated that it was healing music from a famous filipina singer. Bruno then gathered his clothes, told Randy he owed the entire audience a refund for their tickets, and walked off stage. Randy left, apologizing and the audience sat stunned and confused. Apparently, a real thing had happened. A really queer thing.
He has since apologized and urged audiences to attend the show on Facebook.
Perhaps, in a way, this was a realization of founder Zvonimir Dobrovic’s desire for theatrical experiences that would wake us up. I had clearly been awakened from a trance. It brought to mind thoughts about complacency, should I have said something, what is the sanctity of performance, how do we respect and protect artists while allowing for critical dissent, was I too cautious?
The following is from an email exchange with them:
Zvonimir: I find it important to keep talking about queerness in (and through) art from perspectives that go beyond sexuality and gender as isolated viewpoints because our experiences are never that isolated and discussion about queer issues often disregards questions of race, background, education and many other factors that influence our social position.
Artistically, I find these questions potentially very creative and I have as a curator encountered definitions and depictions of queerness by artists from all over the world that I could not have imagined. And yet, if you asked curators (and sometimes artists) about queer visibility in art they would probably talk about the same type of traditional queer aesthetic that became iconic. Yes, it is easy to see that Taylor Mac’s shows are queer – no need to be a curating expert there, but for example the show Hatched by Mamela Nyamza from South Africa that opened Queer New York Festival or Denuded by Bruno Isakovic that is closing it presents a few more challenges to the established queer aesthetic. And that is what interests me. Not just when i curate the queer festival, but also other festivals that I run. I am always interested in challenging the norm – be it one of aesthetic, content, artistic format. I do not care about conventions on stage. And it is important to re-examine those conventions all the time and in some ways New York is often too cautious when it comes to performing arts and that is never a good thing for anyone involved. People don’t want to sleep in the theatres, they can do that at the movies (haha). We need stuff on stages that will keep us awake not only in our seats, but later at home as well thinking about what we have seen. That is what I am hoping for every time I walk into a theatre and that is what I am looking for as a curator. I want to make my audience awake and aware.
As I was traveling with my solo to culturally very different surroundings it feels like it got it’s own life. Performance is permeated with rich feedback collected trough three years of it’s own reinvention. From over 20 countries throughout the Americas, Europe and Asia, Denuded became a mirror that reflects back important questions and answers about body, breath, tensions we acquire during our lives and to which extent we understand each others bodily presence. Certain audience will have sexuality as a dominant lens trough which they observe the performance as was the case with San Francisco show, while in Peru audience perceived the body with strong spiritual notions.
Performance is not choreographed, it does not have steps on which I rely on, everything gets its life from a breath of the moment. From me as a performer it demands mindful presence but intuitive availability. For that reason the performance is always challenging, always different because it responds to my current state of body and mind and on top of that it communicates with mentality that comes with its own preconceived notions of body and nudity. What inspires me every time when i perform this solo is my own vulnerability to the presence of the audience and the feedback loop that gives fuel to the performance. And I know that I will again learn something new.
Despite the inexplicable choices that led to Randy’s interruption, it did offer a new element to the feedback loop. One that I hope will somehow become useful to artist, audience and critic.