Getting Real in January: Day 1 Dispatch (American Realness 2017 opens)

WillRawls_The Planet Eaters: Seconds_Photo By BrianRogers

Last night (Thu, 1/5/17), American Realness opened for its 8th season. Founded, Directed and Curated by Thomas Benjamin Snapp Pryor, this January festival had been sharply criticized by Culturebot founder Andy Horwitz a few years ago. However, based on last night’s opening works by Will Rawls, Meg Stuart, and Dana Michel and the roster of upcoming artists making their AR debuts this year, as well as the impending discussions curated by Ali Rosa-Salas, I’d say Pryor’s focus on the “breakdown of white-supremacist hierarchies” and on the practice of “realness as resistance,” is helping us all define which America(s) we mean to stand our ground for in the coming days. Far beyond the geographic US in scope (and residency), these artists remind us that global contexts are everything, with responsivity and responsibility as curators finding footing in the contemporary ethos too. So, yeah, things are dire, with the groundwork for some really destructive legislation and policing looming larger each day, but perhaps the less coded hate out there can help us concentrate in here on de-segregating in a genuine, un-tokenized way. In that spirit, I’m approaching the next week and a half of festival offerings as a blessed binge, a shoring up. If, as Siobhan Burke (via a quote from Laurie Uprichard) calls it, it is a meat market, then I’m going full paleo. Not quite able to match Jeremy Barker’s LiveBlog from 2015 and by avoiding the official APAP events hoping for no need to replicate Claudio LaRocco 2014 “APAP smear”), I’m hoping this will be the first of several daily dispatches from the Festival of Festivals’ front lines.

7pm Will Rawls The Planet-Eaters: Seconds Underground Theatre – This is an updated version (or in his language a “reconfigured study”) of his 2013 Chocolate Factory work. Drawing upon Balkan folklore, folkforms and folk rhythms, Will and musician Chris Kuklis generate a truly captivating world of sound, image and selves. In the summer of 2008, Will traveled through Serbia, Montenegro, Kosovo and Macedonia. The questions of nationalism, ethnicity, identity and all the ways we get caught in that have thread their way through several of his works since that influential trip.This was also the summer of Obama’s campaign for president. And now, in hindsight, the moments of Planet-Eaters: Seconds that capture that summer’s beach fling (or was it?) remind us of how dominant “Hope” once was in our belief systems. In the winter of Obama’s legacy, the rapport between Will and Chris still works a subtle healing. I’d arrived to the work thinking of “planet eaters” in a sci-fi landscape, reading Wired’s latest edition, dedicated entirely to fictional Tales from an Uncertain Future, and thinking of us as the devouring species, gutting our resources to extinction. However, the work remained staunchly humanistic despite the spirits who opened and closed the work. Adorned in Serbian-born Sasa Kovacevic‘s evocative costumes, Will and Chris at times appear as Eastern Orthodox spirit guardians, but mostly deal with one another one-on-one. Speaking in synchronous union, intoning harmonies, singing, clapping and tapping out rhythms together and apart, I found myself fancifully thinking if I were ever to have an AI companion, I’d imbue it with Will’s skills and personality. The interplay between the two men is casual challenge and cooperative action. Chris plays his Dobro-style guitar as a percussion instrument, soaking the room in a seductive ambient pulse. He is the height of deadpan sincerity while Will persists in a series of folk dance steps til breathlessly he answers Chris’s insistent “HUP!” and folk, arm flourish with a sweeter, worn, bedraggled one. Will shares a fantastical tale of a time in MonteNEGRO when, after breathing through a fraught encounter with a man who’d heard “there was a nigger at the camp,” was then invited for a drink on the shore of the Adriatic Sea. And, I’m reminded that Will had traveled with me, in a bulky, heavy copy of ArtForum, across that same sea this summer while touring from La Mama Umbria and through neighboring Croatia and Slovenia. These worlds we carry and consume are tiny and vast beyond comprehension, but in Will’s hands they’re all somehow welcoming.

8:30pm Meg Stuart An Evening of Solo Works The Playhouse – Meg Stuart is an expatriated American. Born in New Orleans, and one-time (80s-ish) downtown artist, she has lived and worked in Berlin and Brussels since the mid-90s. Her book (with her company Damaged Goods) Are We Here Yet was introduced to me by choreographer Julian Barnett several years ago when I was developing I’m not coming back for a Danspace Draftworks and has been a regular reference for me in the studio and classroom ever since. Many of her exercises have helped me clarify existing explorations (I was doing a lot of violent shaking) or in establishing the parameters for new ones. She’s rarely in the US, so seeing her perform 4 solos live was like drinking from The Source. Her opening Signs of Affection (2010) begins with Greg Fox matching her shaking arms with a pounding drum solo. Her feet planted firmly below her, teeth barred at times, occasionally growling, she snaps her head and torso back and forth. There is a summoning of strength and a kind of adamant resistance that emanates from the action. Her monologue I take it back (2007) aligns physical subtext with and sometimes in opposition to various redacted statements. The embrace of absence is formidable. XXX for Arlene and Colleagues is a 1995 solo from when Meg was teaching for Movement Research and performed a solo at Judson Church in response to Arlene Croce’s infamous (and, essentially, career-ending) Bill T. Jones dismissal Discussing the UndiscussableIn the solo, we catch glimpses of the artist in a state of bifurcated desire both yearning with one half of the body (and face) and paralyzed on the other side. There is hustle, grind and anger. Her final All songs have been exhausted (2013) gathered various references from the previous solos, most notably a hand across the nape of the neck and at the base of the spine. Despite all of her prowess and power, the artist feels in the end vulnerable.

10pm Dana Michel Mercurial George Experimental Theatre – Canadian artist, Dana Michel returned to the festival after stunning audiences with Yellow Towel in 2014. Mercurial George is a disturbing inhabitation of a human by a primate. Springing from a distressing encounter as the only black person in a room with a husband’s cousin/primate anthropologist in France while having to watch footage of African Great Apes, she has grown the benign children’s character Curious George into a study in difference. It’s a difficult work to witness, at times edging around a mimicry of mental illness, but the end result is an absolute confidence that Dana Michel is a mighty, mighty performer. She inhabits the instability with unrelenting artistry. Through cranial misalignment, constant fidgeting, mumbling, singing, and wandering focus, she travels in and out of plastic bags, a tent, behind the lighting fixtures, across the floor, and through tossed rice, kneaded blue dough, ginger, and various other detritus to effect a landscape of displacement with painful familiarity.

American Realness continues through Jan 12. 


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