My Dinner With Andrea: “I’ll Always See What I Saw When I [Saw] It”

Photo credit: Maria Baranova

I. The Urge To Participate

I don’t often sit in the front row. Not because I’m afraid to (I actually quite like it), but because it’s such a deliberate choice, and I want to reserve it for special occasions. And as the lights went down I wondered if my front row seat was the catalyst for a particular urge I was having to participate. Specifically to walk out onto the stage (New York Live Arts has no real division between the first row and the stage) and rescue the dancer (Alison Ingelstrom) from what she had been choreographed to do: a repetitive, on-the-nose, cheerleader-esque dance to Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe.” CMM Girl, I named her in my notes. She smiled huge, and danced vigorously to the song on an endless loop, her smile fading more and more until she fell exhausted onto the ground, lights fading to a spotlight on her, evoking an interrogation room.

Or maybe I wanted to participate because of the way her performance began: in the lobby. She began after another performance by two men, one playing saxophone and one singing and keeping time with a coconut. The song was “Rawhide”—the coconut sounding like hoofbeats—and the song was repeated over and over and OVER, with a whipcrack noisemaker used in later iterations. Audience members (myself and my partner included) were confused re: etiquette—was it okay to speak over them? Was this a pre-show organized by the venue or was it the piece, already begun? My partner and I really hoped the latter, because the piece was not good, and felt awfully campy in a bad way.

When the ushers later announced that the program would be handed to us afterwards, we suspected we were right, but before that Ingelstrom took over from the Rawhiders (Michael Kammers on sax and Bobby Previte on vocals/coconut) with her routine, featuring music-video choreography complete with hand-as-phone gestures on the titular lyric, the bend-down-flash-crotch choreographic equivalent of a come-on, and lots of direct eye contact. While the Rawhiders were unobtrusive (albeit irritating), CMM Girl was very in-your-face, seeking connection, implicating us in the piece from the getgo. Was the smile and shrug as she looked at me over the lines asking me to intervene? To do something?

As she moved from the lobby where a circle had gathered around her into the theater, the house was opened and it was clear she was definitely part of Andrea Kleine’s work. Shortly thereafter or immediately (I can’t remember) Jepsen’s song blasted through the house speakers and we were subjected to a continuation. Here was the first time I really remembered the subtitle of the piece—“the piece formerly known as Torture Playlist.”

At some point during Kleine’s extended monologue a la Andre Gregory from My Dinner With Andre, she describes how this piece was initially supposed to be about the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence’s “Torture Report,” which, among other things, describes how officers play music while they send detainees off to be interrogated and/or tortured. One such song was the opener’s very same “Rawhide.” A lyric Andrea pointed out in particular: “Don’t try to understand ‘em,/Just rope, throw and brand ‘em.” In her monologue she explained to her dinner partner (performance artist Anya Liftig) that although she set out to make Torture Playlist, she soon became defeated by conflicted feelings of how to make a piece about torture without re-presenting the violence of it, without profiting from it, without exploiting the people who had been tortured for her own gain as an artist. Did I mention that during the entire restaurant scene, CMM Girl lay behind the piano stage right, covered with a white shroud identical to the fancy tablecloth?

II. But Where Is Wally Shawn?

Belated Warning: I come into this show with a very particular eye. My Dinner With Andre is perhaps my favorite movie. Like creator Andrea Kleine, I also have a name that easily lends itself to adaptation, and the knowledge that I will, at some point, make My Dinner With Audrey. It may be no more than a YouTube spoof, it may be the project I devote myself to for years, but the point is I’ve devoted some serious headspace to the film.

So during this second movement, beginning with Anya doing her version of Wallace Shawn’s voiceover at the beginning into a microphone from the back of the house (“Being a performance artist makes little money. No money, in fact…”), I was thinking quite sharply about what this film was doing in the piece, and how she got here from Torture Playlist. Two things emerged:

  1. She made a quite strong connection between Andre Gregory’s extended speech about participating in Grotowski’s paratheatricals, and her own experiences studying under Cieslak Ryszard, one of Grotowski’s quintessential actors. Like Gregory, she told an extended narrative about an exercise they did once, where her friend was the focus of an exercise designed to bring her to an apex of intensity and/or rawness as an actor, but which sounded an awful lot like something you wouldn’t even wish on your enemies. She then suggested more broadly that much of minimalist dance, thinking specifically of Lucinda Childs, can resemble torture in its exploration of tasks, quotidian movement, and specifically repetition until exhaustion. Suddenly the nauseating repetition of CMM Girl and of the Rawhide duo adopted more context.
  2. She made a less strong connection between Andre’s extended monologue about coincidences, in which he sees various unrelated things – a letter from a woman, his picking up a surrealist magazine, his own birthday – as tenuously but legitimately connected, and that all of this is the universe telling him he should go into the Sahara Desert and direct an adaptation of Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince. In Andrea’s case, these connections are things like randomly catching My Dinner With Andre on television, it being filmed in Virginia where she’s from in an abandoned building her family had a connection to, and the aforementioned Grotowski-Cieslak connection, among other things.

When, towards the very end, she describes reading the MDwA script, she shares that her copy has several things highlighted in it, and that in her own books she never highlights. Whenever she does, she explains, she cannot experience the book as new if she later returns to it: “I’ll always see what I saw when I read it.”  This point suddenly led me to confront my main bias as a viewer: I have a strong opinion about the film’s thesis, and to me she’d missed it.

Every time I watch MDwA, I see Wallace Shawn’s intervention as the crucial center around which the entire film revolves. Without his intervention—“Do you want to know my actual response to all this? I mean, do you want to hear my actual response? […] I mean, I don’t really know what you’re talking about. I mean… I mean I know what you’re talking about, but I don’t really know what you’re talking about.”—Without this, the film is meaningless. Self-indulgent in the most thoughtless way, confirmation of what everyone already thinks about “theater people” and how disconnected they are from everything but their own navels. So when Andrea drove most of the dinner scene—although there was one quite interesting and productively juxtaposed interpolation in which Anya described a past performance based on David Foster Wallace’s “Consider the Lobster”—before leading us into the last movement, I was already disappointed.  

Something I’ll say as a fan: her performance of Gregory was flawless; the famous large sweater that’s halfway to a straitjacket perfectly evoked him, her delivery was flat and slow and treated every point with equally great significance, leading you very quickly to find Andre(a) to be pretty full of it, purely in love with the sound of her/his own voice… which was confirmed when she continually ended a sentence as though she was finished, only to start back up again on the same slow, meandering as-though-it’s-connected-but-it’s-not path.

At the end of the MDwA segment, Andrea says frankly, “I’m just throwing paint at a wall here. And sometimes I think the wall isn’t even there.” I felt conflicted: I felt I perhaps agreed with her, but if she hadn’t said it, would I have seen the piece differently? Maybe I would have seen a cohesion and elegance to the piece where I instead saw an apology for its lack.

III. Sitting In It

The last movement became entirely movement, and seemed to transition pretty markedly from My Dinner With Andre into what perhaps Torture Playlist could have been on its own. I don’t have the dance specialist’s knowledge to go into too much analysis, so I’ll give you my notes to hopefully help you see it. (Also try and picture my scribblings becoming especially frantic as the music and exquisite sound design overwhelmed the space.) They are as follows:

Site Blue [I can’t remember what this means] with blue light Poland [same]
nice sound
slo mo / CMM girl moves
flautist house center??
lots of side light
total eye contact / [Andrea] removes sweater
Anya looks away
CMM gets up
table goes away [the deck crew member took all the dinner things off right]
fists, claws, static shapes in segmented movement
2001 ASO [A Space Odyssey] [but then again] I see it everywhere [another movie I love]
A[nya’s] jacket off facedown lying climbing
Andrea starts aping CMM girl
Oh she’s doing plastiques [a Grotowski warmup she learned from Cieslak]
green light back [upstage]
yoga? Anya
And[rea] & CMM in own repetitions
CMM faces upstage turns / poses / falls “deconstructed contemporary”
Anya mostly still / convulsing sometimes
Andrea still, poses
flute and xylaphone
until back whipcrack? [whipcrack noisemaker from the lobby returns]
Anya upstage…? leaves
house lights [up] … & then down
Anya “I don’t have anything memorized [for the ending because we’ve changed it so many times]”
“I’ll always see what I saw when I read it” (residue)
cacaphony [sic] … no more mic
sax, piano, inst.[rumental] CMM [song, not girl] [program revealed this was “a tetrachord derived from [the song] played backwards”]
<3 piano [pianist Neal Kirkwood had been playing a grand piano stage right the entire time, having shifted from Erik Satie’s “Gymnopédie #1” into his own original score / derivation thereof]
torture playlist in blackout?
<3 but I’m over the “maybe that’s the piece!(?)” move

With the last section’s dearth of logic—either text walking me through Andrea’s thought process or CMM Girl’s relatively straitforward trajectory, I was forced to sit in my own confusion, the sort of “Am I missing something? Am I too dumb or out of the loop to get it?” that unfortunately seems to plague dance audiences. But I was comfortable in my confusion, and thoughtful amidst the musical loops even while I noticed detachedly that they were maddening.

When the performers all left the space and the lights faded to black, they did not immediately return for a bow; instead the stage stayed black, the reverse-CMM tetrachord enduring while the rest of the sound faded also. I was forced to sit in the music, and felt my brain clawing to find a logic, a rationalization, an insight, something. Or maybe it was just there. Either way, I felt literally held hostage to the pop loop and my immersion in it, and I thought: maybe the blackness onstage is the best and even only way for Kleine to evoke the horrors of torture our country committed in its detention centers (Guantanamo and elsewhere). It did not reproduce the violence, perpetuate it, or profit from it—I was making my own interpretation, it was not made explicit that this was Kleine’s intention. The trace of what the performers had done for the past ninety minutes was still present, informing the darkness we had to sit in now. I felt a tiny sting behind my eyeballs (tear warning), and couldn’t discern if it was because I’d fully “received” the eponymous torture playlist, or because those simple tetrachords overused by pop music can be so damn moving despite one’s attempts to resist them (“resenting the goosebumps,” a friend of mine calls it).

Probably a little bit of both.

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