Remake The World: La MaMa Moves!

Stefanie Batten Bland’s “Bienvenue” in The Ellen Stewart Theater, La MaMa Moves 2017 – photo from companySBB instagram

In these perilous, challenging and unpredictable times in our country and in the world, we can look to the performing arts for some clues as to how we might respond and continue to live our lives with vigilance, and hopefully a modicum of wisdom, to keep asking even more vital and bold questions. I believe this to be one of the essential missions of art and art-making, to hold a mirror up to the world and its ever-present and changing dilemmas. – Nicky Paraiso, curator of La MaMa Moves!

In 1961, Ellen Stewart, a middle-aged, African American, fashion designer of disputable origins, without any theater experience started a movement. La MaMa is the only theatre of the 1960s off-off Broadway’s 4 core theatres that continues today. According to legend, her mentor “Papa Abraham Diamonds,” a fabric shop owner on the LES, told her that everyone needs a “pushcart to serve others,” so she opened a boutique that also served as a theatre for playwrights who couldn’t get produced, paying the $55 rent on an East 9th street tenement basement. During the 9 months the previously all white building was being fixed up by a Black woman and her bevy of young artists, neighbors “accused Stewart of running a bordello—fifteen men in one hour—and asked the health department to issue a summons for prostitution.” Over the years, Ellen was repeatedly arrested and Cafe La MaMa moved 3 more times and changed names, finally landing as La MaMa Experimental Theater Club in April 1969 at 74A East 4th Street. Since then, La MaMa has presented more than 5,000 productions. 5,000. By over 150,000 artists from more than 70 nations. 150,000 artists. Over 150,000 artists produced in the past 55 years. You could populate a small city in New England with that many artists. Add performers to the mix and you would easily overpopulate a small country… Luxembourge, anyone?

Ellen’s legacy of inclusivity and experimentation remains alive (6 years after her passing) under Mia Yoo’s Artistic Directorship and the La MaMa Moves! Dance Festival has expanded (in its tween years) through Nicky Paraiso’s unceasing curatorial appetite, and festival production coordinator Gian Marco Lo Forte’s relentless attention to detail, into a fantastic beast of mythic proportions. Without a full demographic breakdown, I can recall that this year’s fest included artists hailing from New Zealand to NYU, originating from the outer boroughs to Brazil, from Israel to Illinois, South Asia to East Asia to SouthEast Asia, from South America to the Caribbean to Kentucky, and, of course, a handful of European descenders. For a brief, 3 week moment, the world was rebuilt in our image, with vocabularies and biographies that reached into global differences instead of erasing them into a homogenous contemporary. At the beginning of this season, I asked what Cultural Equity might actually look like, and in a mini-residency at La MaMa Moves! this year as a presented artist, a guest curator, and a discussion organizer/co-facilitator, I glimpsed its possibility. Artists honored traditions and fucked with boundaries, threw ideas up against the beautiful brick wall of The Club and shred categorical inhibitions along with layers of clothing. Artists of color created, curated and/or performed for every program on every stage of the festival. As La MaMa prepares to close its oldest venue for a top to bottom renovation this January dubbed RESTORE A BUILDING, REMAKE A WORLD, I am reminded that Ellen remade the world with very little – that the legendary old woman sweeping in front of the theater, the Empress impresario mistaken for cleaning lady, the mama of La MaMa remains a vital model for all of us, artists and advocates alike, to stay Off Off and to look at the possibilities, not the faults, the possibilities” as we continue remaking this world.

#heretodance with Ladder Co 9

This year La MaMa Moves! “crowdsourced choreography” with #Here to Dance, an invitation to dancers from throughout the world to choreograph one minute dance videos in response to the abuse and/or as a celebration of human rights. The dances were created and interpreted according to directives from Annie-B Parson and Raja Feather Kelly and were shown during the “Dancing in the Street Block Party.” My offering was a serendipitous encounter between my recent 2-year process of shooting rapid, pop-up style, wrapped-in-plastic-bags videos in urban and natural environments for my ongoing #tidesproject and La MaMa Moves! “Drowning Planet” installation, Ryan Leach (La MaMa’s Social Media maestro), Theo Cote (La MaMa’s ubiquitous photographer/videographer) and the beloved Ladder Company 9 (Engine Company 33). Based in the Firehouse on Great Jones St. across from La MaMa’s rehearsal studios, they happened to be responding to a call on East 4th that particular afternoon. A few minutes after shooting, as they were parking the trucks back on Great Jones, they asked if we’d all be famous. So…if you’re passing by 42 Great Jones St., in addition to thanking them for their service, as well as the loss of most of their company at the World Trade Center on 9/11, let them know they’re legendary and FF Gough made the cut, which means, according to my former California FF bro-in-law Peter Yung, I believe he owes the house a round of beers.

The season opened with the world premiere of Young Soon Kim ‘s “iyouuswe,” Jeremy Nelson and Luis Lara Malvacias’s 3rd Class Citizen’s return to the festival with the world premiere of “A” and “D,” and the Block Party. During the second week, Jerome Robbins Awardee Stefanie Batten Bland‘s “Bienvenue (Welcome),” looked at the various symbols of walls in the Ellen Stewart Theater. Her mix of community engagement, together with lush visual landscapes and a cast of elegant dancers served a delicious tonic for our times. In collaboration with visual artist Benjamin Heller, murals of paintings by Pre K children, their parents and other local participants, became part of a wall built together that could separate or unite us. As the company revealed delicate embrace and shared space, the walls became a canvas of possibility rather than a method of exclusion. The multi-award winning Indian choreographer/dancer Astad Deboo presented the New York premiere of “Eternal Embrace,” a 60-minute solo inspired by “Maati,” a Punjabi poem by Sufi poet Hazrat Bulleh Shah. Performed to an original percussion score played live by Yukio Tsuji, the dance combined Kathakali, Kathak, and modern dance. Polish-born choreographer Patricia Noworol presented her emotionally-charged “TREMENDOUS,” a world premiere featuring an all-woman cast of dancers and live music performed by noted Australian bassist, composer and vocalist Lisa Dowling. Malini Srinivasan presented “Remembering Pandit Ramesh Misra,” Beth Graczyk and Mariana Valencia split an evening, with Graczyk performing her solo “One of You is Fake,” a world premiere, and Mariana Valencia presenting an excerpt from her solo “Album.” Brendan Drake’s trio “The Big Finish,” was on a shared the program with Jasmine Hearn’s solo “blue, sable and burning.” In Jasmin’s work, in part a choreographic response to Robin Coste Lewis’s poem, “The Voyage of the Sable Venus,” she reclaimed painful images with grace and dignity while bringing joy into the space, at one point walking some of us up from the audience to dance with her while she facetimed with her mom.

Rady Nget, The Block Party, Photo by Carolina Restrepo

On a shared program Cambodian dance artist Rady Nget, an Asian Cultural Council Fellow, presented the New York premiere of “My Memory” – a compelling depiction of the journeys his body has traversed in his years training since a young child in the monkey role of Lakhaon Kaol and studying at the Royal University of Fine Arts in Phnom Penh. Watching the stretch of his sinewy frame and listening to the tones of his chanting and speaking incited a yearning for home. The agility and strength that dancing such roles requires, not to mention the joint bending insistence, hints at his lifetime of dedicated practice. Having taken a workshop with Rady and seeing him play with traditional and popular contemporary forms at The Block Party, I am reminded of how the near decimation of the arts in Cambodia, during the Khmer Rouge’s reign has, in time, resultantly created a generation of globally-minded but rigorously-trained artist ambassadors. That such classical forms can thrive after a targeted genocide and young artists can now also explore, embrace, and expand their physical training and creative practices is testimony to the enduring value art holds in places where tyranny does not come as a shock. Yoshiko Chuma, ever the passionate converger of global conflicts and instantaneous compositions, premiered her “PI=3.14…Dead End, Hey! All Women!” which has been in constant rotation with a changing cast of downtown dance stars at previous La MaMa events and elsewhere.  The evening also included an excerpt of Brother(hood) Dance!’s “how to survive a plague.” Orlando Zane Hunger, Jr and Ricarrdo Valentine reduced their consideration of the AIDS epidemic, written previously about by me during the Danspace Project “Lost and Found” Platform, to a shorter collection and offered healing teas which I have lovingly and gratefully imbibed. The previous version had carried a dense collection of ideas and within the context of the Platform had benefited from the buffer of a specific audience consciousness, situated on this evening in a packed house in The Club, they still performed with zeal but the gut punch of their source material struggled to manifest. As I worry about how many lives may yet be lost – if this regime gets their way with restricting health care access – I do want these young bucks to make it hurt. There may still be plagues to survive.

“Odeon”, work-in-progress, Photo by Carolina Restrepo

2016 Bessie Award-winning choreographer and dancer Ephrat “Bounce” Asherie, lived up to all knowable hype that surrounds her. The Israeli-born artist is collaborating with her brother, Ehud Asherie, on “Odeon,” a work-in-progress set to premiere next summer at Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival. Performing alongside Manon Bal, Linda “LaNaija” Madueme and Mathew “Megawatt” West, Bounce was a tight and fast ball of energy. Drawing upon composer Ernesto Nazareth, sometimes called the Brazilian Scott Joplin, the musical confluence of European composers with mashishi (early Samba) offered the kind of musical hybridity that is Ephrat’s choreographic calling card. His European melodic structures mashed into African-based rhythms were a perfect compliment to her exquisite collection of rapid fire house footwork, breaking floorwork and an old school hoofers vibe. The dancers were all hitting the boards hard and even the effervescence of her personal style wasn’t enough to hide the complex, painstaking craft she applies to moving bodies through space. Intricate partnering, silky smooth threading, and luscious musculature abound and bounded in a contemporary floor show. For a moment The First Floor Theater was The Savoy and this incredible team of artists were as indefatigable and astounding as Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers must have been LIVE. Stock up on bug spray and head to the hills of MA next summer for the full evening, complete with live music. The program was shared with Brazilian choreographer Regina Nejman whose New York premiere of “Beautiful Figure,” considered how the male gaze has altered what its ideal object might be, the most glaring shift would be related to time, with the late Renaissance cloth draped models indulging in extended observation versus the attention-deficit “swipe culture” experience of a Tinderized army of nubile, white girls.

Photo by Paula Lobo

On the mainstage, Patricia Hoffbauer’s world premiere, “Getting Away with Murder” featured the iconic Yvonne Ranier in a “special encounter” with Pat, as well as Peter Richards in a fantastic performative turn that harkens back to a time before his pre-video artist incarnation. Patrick Gallagher, twins Ananda Naima Seijas Gonzalez & India Lena Saijas Gonzalez, Gordon Landenberger (also the set designer), Mor Mendel, Peggy Gould, Jennifer Way-Rawe, Tom Rawe, and Alyssa Alpine round out the cast. It chomped through a feast of ideas about the ways in which women have been historically accused and abused. With a range of text dating back to Plato in juxtaposition to the dancing, the work primarily tackles the complex nationalistic, economic and gender politics and violence surrounding the work of Cuban American visual, sculptural, performance and video artist Ana Mendieta. Her arrival into America as a Latina refugee and the way history, until recently, erased much of her work was compelling to Hoffbauer, who noted Mendieta’s exclusion from the economic engine of visual art during a recent interview. Known for works that placed her body into the Earth as well as recreating a rape scene, the feminist artist who took on violence, life, death and belonging died a notably violent and suspicious death after falling out the 34th-floor window of her Greenwich Village apartment in 1985 during a loud argument with her husband, sculptor Carl Andre. Andre was indicted, tried and eventually acquitted due to reasonable doubt. However, the manner of trial (no jury, for fear of a group of women being swayed by the feminist issues) and the details surrounding Mendieta’s death leave the Andre as a primary suspect to many. In “Getting Away with Murder,” Pat Hoffbauer is pointing at the battle for recognition, as well as the battle for survival, against the continued dismissal from culpability by arts institutions who champion male artists at great cost to their female partners. Andre’s 911 call directly addressed that as the final point of contention in their marriage: ”My wife is an artist, and I’m an artist, and we had a quarrel about the fact that I was more, eh, exposed to the public than she was. And she went to the bedroom, and I went after her, and she went out the window.’

An opening dialogue between Pat and Yvonne merges an on-going conversation (both in person and via email) that the two had been having into a postmodern performance practice onstage battle of wits. They read from pages of exchange between them and Yvonne’s awkward honest self is the epitome of a naturalism that none of us studied, authentic performers of ‘realness’ will ever ever achieve. She is still the epitome of “no.” It was so wholly and entirely a non-virtuosic performance that it was clear no one else will ever approach a modicum of achievement in her realm. Her “is” is what it is and that’s what it is. But, listening to the language of their negotiation through whether Pat could lure, provoke or entice Yvonne to participating in the performances of her work was a fascinating treatise on postmodernism, minimalism, gendered experiences, and two very different hemispheric approaches to the world. So much about the “about-ness” of the work was laid out in the opening act, unlike previous works that wove lecture and demonstration together into something only slightly richer than eavesdropping on her classes when she was my colleague at Hunter College. The whole dialogue is too long to include but the final page reveals the two (Pat is a founding member of Yvonne’s Raindears) in a way that blends their intellectual heft with their humanity, it’s a deft dance of art history, friendship, and socio-political forces:

PH: OK, suppose we set up the situation in this way: You cannot take my yakking anymore: ..you have been annoyed with me over the years, with my disjointed manner and language, with my assumptions about “white dance” and have commented on how I talk too much.  You are a skeptic by nature and have challenged me in so many ways, as in “you are not a person of color”, a charge you unpack now and then. You don’t buy a lot of the things I have done, like when you were watching Para-Dice and yelled from the audience “BORING!”

YR:  WHAT?!!

PH: I was making fun of the audience, which was perfect. It gave me the opportunity to respond “She doesn’t like anything” etc.

YR: I have absolutely no memory of that…

PH: At this point in your life you are an “authority” figure. You know about this and that, the Greeks included, and you even played in that poet’s version of “Antigone”… Those bits of information will set you up in a “tongue and cheek” way and show that I am recognizing you as an “expert” of some kind. All of this is super interesting to me, never hurtful or difficult. I love you and I think every single question you have brought to me has made me crazy but also made me reconsider. I never met anybody like you. Only my mother is like that. And not as a mother, I mean as an intellectual she has always challenged me in every position I have taken in my life…so I count on your skepticism…This dialogue is not a literal representation of our discussions throughout the years but a rendition of differences…and they get resolved by us dancing together. That activity will show us to be in the same boat in some way.  So we differ, we disagree. And yes, I think Andre killed her because he could not understand her. He was either jealous, angry if she was indeed going to leave him, or competitive with her, so he killed her…like Althusser…like many others who then say “I blacked out…” Would Duchamp have killed her?  Was he, as a conceptualist and a cross dresser, more open to women? Was his final “joke” an empathetic view of women? Or was it simply a joke on perspective and the vanishing point You are challenging me about my proposition: what does Duchamp have to do with Mendieta? How does a visual representation, created years before her death, impinge on that tragedy?

YR: Well, Patricia, there will be no easy answers, but much food for thought. Yeh, why do you give the impression of being so scattered when you are really very lucid? But enough said. I continue to admire and value your spunk and intelligence.

PH: I think it’s a cultural thing. Brazilians — or should I say “my Dad, Clemente?” — have a sense of humor that borders on the eschatological and grotesque.  You North Americans are puritanical and more repressed; you don’t say what you think…I say too much and it gets me in trouble. So I camouflage myself by pretending to be scattered. Who wants to be hated? But in reality it’s the difference between being and others’ perception of that being, which is loaded with biases, like too loud, too much, too angry, too volatile. (pause). I actually think that Mendieta was perceived in that way too…

[YR exits] 

Getting Away with Murder Photo by Paula Lobo

Among the many things Pat Hoffbauer is accomplished at, she gathers an excellent cohort of co-conspirators. While distracted amidst frolic and fantastic visuals supported by Liz Prince’s costumes and Gordon Landenberger’s set, we are repeatedly stung by the painful legacies of colonialism and murder. At one point, Peggy Gould, Tom Rawe and Jennifer Way-Rawe emerge in inflated pink suits, so full of air they are the voices of authorities standing in judgement of Mor Mendel, the dancer.  Pat tells me a friend celebrated the big fat people as “the greatest signifier of whiteness” and that she got the idea “from going to a conference on dance studies, where everyone is puffing themselves up, the thinker bodies, grandiose and full of it. Talking about the studio practice, but obviously without spending time in the studio. They have the power of words. I wanted them to get so full of themselves that they floated up and exploded. But, I didn’t have that kind of money.” During another sequence Ananda Naima Seijas Gonzalez & India Lena Saijas Gonzalez are stuck and feathered and the final image recreates Duchamp’s final joke (his secret final work) “Etant Donnes” that one lucky viewer, pulled from the audience (after a raffle drawing) by a cigarette girl clad Alyssa Alpine gets to see from the front. As we glimpse someone gazing through the wreckage of destroyed walls/peephole at Peter Richards strewn upon the grass, we are left still asking Pat’s initial proposition to Yvonne: “If Ana Mendieta had Married Marcel Duchamp would she have ended up on the floor”?

April Amparo and Camilla Davis in Rina Espiritu’s “Leveling”

Also, new this year were programs featuring emerging artists selected by outside curators, me and The Current Sessions founder Alexis Convento. For two sold-out nights, former Hunter College Dance Program students – all now active in the field as performers and makers – revealed the plurality of their visions of the artistic practice and choreographic impulses. Over the years Nicky has been up to adjudicate student choreographic works and taught in our inaugural year for the Arnhold Dance Education Program, even hosting a final MA student showcase in The Club, so some of the artists were not entirely new to him nor to the venue, but outside of the educational construct Rina Espiritu, Alexandra Amirov, Kirsten Flores-Davis, Janice Rosario, Kareem Alexander, and Camilla Davis each revealed aspects of the newest generation of native New Yorkers or first generation immigrants who will be defining this next America with their varied voices. I knew them when… and wait with eager anticipation and patient abiding both as they begin to remake this world for us all.

Slow Cook This

During the festival I also conceived and convened artists, alongside Alexis, Nicky and guest moderator Ali Rosa-Salas for “Slow Cook This,” a long form 3.5 hour discussion about surviving in what choreographer Jessica Pretty deemed The Thunderdome World. Rina and Kirsten were also in the midst of performances in my “Tides Project: Drowning Planet/Disposable Bodies” installation (guest reviewed for Culturebot by George Emilio Sanchez) and had been major contributing voices in words spoken and sung for that. So arriving on Sat afternoon after techs for me, techs for them, shows for me and awaiting their late night program felt like it could have been a survivalist exercise, but as Jessica, Camilla, Kareem, as well as Yoshiko, Rady, Malini, Jasmine, and public attendees flowed in and out and a few beers and bites where had we got a flow on. “Slow Cook This” was a mashed up version of Lois Weaver’s Long Table and Porch Sitting formats (complete with my chili slow cooking in “The Kitchen” area), braided plastic bags in homage to Emily Johnson’s Durational Sewing Bees and began with a reading of Elizabeth Alexander’s inaugural poem “Praise Song for the Day.” We used two basic framing questions: “If you were to sing a praise song for the people who have helped you who would those people be and why?’ AND “If you had to sing a song of struggle, what would that be,” and let the conversation through tears, laughter, and beautifully awkward silences. In Alexander’s poem, she praises the “figuring it out at kitchen tables.” I am a member of a very large family and my mother’s offerings of bun Hue or pork butt or cha gio are the means to hours of eating and drinking and discussing with brothers and sisters but, as a New Yorker without a kitchen table am so grateful that in the basement of MaMa’s house, (a couple floors below the theater where I first saw my babies’s daddy who also, incidentally, lived a couple floors above that in the legendary artist dorms at the time), Nicky and I welcomed our siblings home to reflect and recharge.

Alexis’ The Current Sessions is in its 7th season. Honing her curatorial voice to support artists “demonstrating bold decision making and a honed sense of creative intuition” has offered us a vision for the way forward. Her first program SUPER-CEREMONY introduced the work of three artists (of Bosnian, Trinidadian, and Puerto Rican descent) developing their own diasporic reality as performative artifacts of survival and soft power. Mersiha Mesihovic’s “BOSNIANBORN *SHE IS A REFUGEE STAR* examined the “struggle for self-determination as a refugee and immigrant within the context of western society and culture.” Fana Fraser’s “A Coronation” was a “psychedelic quest for survival, power and pageantry.” Veraalba Santa’s “Ya no es cancion (es grito)” explored the legacy of Puerto Rican independence advocate and poet, Julia de Burgos). The Sunday program, the final show on the final day of the entire Festival, included Leslie Cuyjet, Maree ReMalia, and Jessica Pretty in DOUBLE-AGENCY, folding “through itself into something new. A space inside a dance, outside the now we’re stuck with.”

MaRee ReMalia and Lillian Cho “Back Issue IV” Photo by Scott Shaw

Jessica Pretty’s “V,” according to the program was “rooted in desire, for more spaces, for more work, for more of less…” By tickling us with the briefest offering of Prince’s “Beautiful Ones” opening groove, she effectively aroused my desire for more. The pressure built each time the music hinted at all the joys awaiting, if only we could move on to that chord, to his “Baby, baby, baby.” But…she kept us in that sonic landscape while pressed up against the side and back walls of The Club, slicing into the air and retreating. It was lush and frustrating, like desire. And, she was full and alluring in all of her want. We sat in the dark while she sang about needing “someone to love me” and after the lights returned, mid gesture walked out on us, right through the door into The Club, leaving us wanting and waiting and wishing for more. MaRee ReMalia’s duet with Lillian Cho, “Back Issue IV” collected sources and synthesized material from four previous dance works from the past four years, in four different cities, with four different sets of collaborators. As the two worked through the reworking, the game structure rose to the surface. Along with occasional outbursts of pocket-monster style silliness, the relay of information, the shift between leader, follower, or unified doubles would spark or they’d simply slide into a repeated pattern. Their jumpers hinted at child’s play, but they had clearly sourced fertile compositional histories with sophisticated skill. Leslie Cuyjet’s duet (with Jessica)“A Salient Theme” started with a high energy “duh-dun-dun-bap-bap” hit it, get it, work the corner, work the hip, all smiles, Dave Brubeck tracked, sh-bang. And, I know I’ve written this elsewhere about Leslie, but still happy to watch her stand there and watch us. Add Jessica to the mix and I’m good. Hand me a beer, seriously, I’m good here. But, ahh, there’s more to this. There are so many subtle, interpersonal encounters to dismantle. A voiceover reads text from a cut-up series of letters to her father and I am distracted from the physical tasks as I try to decode the full sentences while only hearing, is it, every other word? or only key words? We wander into the world of a Chicago, middle-class rumination on whiteness as equating success, of the discomfort at not fitting a stereotype, I note “for a long time it bothered me until I realized it was their issue not mine.” Over time, the themes that have followed, unnoticed, through aspects of her life, begin to take shape and the halves and the fractions of a whole self where “blackness is really brown” or one is “kind of Black today” converge and shift beyond Leslie and her letters with Dad into the larger and larger spheres of society. Perhaps the days beyond bifurcated, opposing selves will manifest if all of our “kind of” people can expand the entire spectrum of our worlds beyond the binary.

Jessica Pretty & Leslie Cuyjet Photo by Scott Shaw

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