Salesmanship doesn’t quite describe the action of the diva. She emerges onstage as though the audience is already sold; her opening number is performed like an encore.
The American Realness festival arrived this way, too, in 2010, with eight productions of contemporary dance and performance art at the Abrons Art Center in Lower Manhattan. An annual fringe series of dance and performance art, now in its fifth year, Realness is staged during the annual performing arts presenters’ conference in New York, the world’s largest expo for professional dance. But it treats experimental acts as though they’re destined for the center, not the periphery: for two weeks in January, Realness stages full-scale productions with excellent lighting design and slick PR.
Although the festival doesn’t describe itself this way, American Realness is an attempt to address the value of performance art in fiscal terms: its organizers see more benefit in emphasizing artists’ work as work than as a passion done “for love.” Desperate and decadent in equal measure, the festival clings to the ethos of the drag ball from which ‘Realness’ takes its name, angling all the while for a kind of “coming out” to the world of mainstream American dance.
The festival’s artists and organizers don’t get paid as well as they should, though; the festival barely covers its own bills. The position is ideological.1 Despite, or perhaps especially because of, its unselfconsciously idealistic bid for more money, more time—this festival matters.
It also matters that the work shown here is some of the best in the city.
Neal Medlyn, King
Medlyn is a real curiosity. In this performance, he takes us on a droning, rather unenthusiastic tour of past performances in his seven-part series. Each orbits a celebrity: Lionel Richie, Miley Cyrus, Britney Spears, and the Insane Clown Posse are a few. At the end of the line is Michael Jackson, who is the centerpiece of this performance. But Medlyn doesn’t explore any of Jackson’s pathos, despite the inherent strangeness of a grown man in a tight white T-shirt performing love songs with a bunch of kids. The angst is Medlyn’s, not Jackson’s. The adulator obscures the star.
A just-OK singer, Medlyn spends much of the show barking interpretations of Jackson’s songs over a pared-down backbeat, while four young children in colorful capes stand like woeful troubadours behind him, providing chorus and call-and-response. (“The way you make me feel / you really turn me on . . .”) The stage is decked with evocative props: a pile of stuffed animals, an easel, a few guitars. Medlyn puts the cabash on our curiosity, though, intoning that these are remnants of past performances—just stuff we’ve seen before—and that “there’s not really anyone hiding in those stuffed animals.” Even in a fine Jackson-style leather jacket and gloves, Medlyn manages to undercut his punch.
Medlyn clings to the perversity and arbitrariness of celebrity, not its universality. He’s cult. Naiveties mar his showmanship: a few fake pearls hanging from his shoulder pad knocked loudly—accidentally—on his amplified acoustic guitar as he strummed. Is he trying to bore us? Enrage us? His narration is flarfy, meandering, peppered with clip-art slide shows. He weaves the presentation of drawings and photographs into his delivery like a substitute teacher unaccustomed to visuals: “This is . . . uh . . .” he says, clicking through the slides. As aimless as it sounds, all this is not unproductive. In his immersive, underwhelming display of pop iconography, Medlyn channels pop culture as recitation or mantra. Watching him is like looking at all 646 million Google results of “Michael Jackson” at the same time. Medlyn’s deadpan delivery sometimes resembles the kind of dull, unpracticed babble of a teenage girl giving a Youtube tutorial for applying the right lipstick—delivered from a place of passion, sure, but you can barely tell.
Jillian Peña, Polly Pocket
A curtain covers the upper and lower third of the proscenium in Jillian Peña’s Polly Pocket, through which we peer like medical students in an operating room. There are many choreographers working today who plumb ballet’s clear lines for the uncanny, and Peña is one of them: she says her approach stems from “Freudian psychoanalysis and pop culture.”
Through the opening, two dancers rotate arm and arm. They count, starting not at “one” but somewhere in the hundreds. The counting feels like pinning moths to corkboard; a form of classification, not keeping time. The numbers have an almost physical form, demarcating space, identity, category, rather than motion, passage, rhythm. A tinkling music-box soundtrack plays.
The two dancers do a series of ballet steps in unison; the woman then announces that she’s gotten the male dancer a “present.” It’s a video of the male dancer in multiple, projected on the back wall of the theater. He loves it. What a coincidence: he announces he’s gotten her a “present” too, which turns out to be a third dancer dressed identically to the first—her “mirror image.” Rolling out from under the white cloth bordering the stage, the third dancer stands perkily and begins dancing (and speaking) with her likeness. “This is cool,” they chant together, smiling. The fun grows sinister: “Why do we keep doing this? I’m ready for this to end! You’re making me crazy!”
The heightened dialogue, the “mirror” gag, and even at the primness of the ballet steps, drew titters from the audience. Peña’s work is a wink, but it’s not an insiders-only dance. Anyone can see how she’s playing with how alike two ballerinas can look and act.
Jillian Peña is also one of the few contemporary choreographers working in a ballet vocabulary who is not dancing in Sarah Michelson’s shadow. Sarah Michelson has dominated the downtown scene for over a decade: it’s hard to imagine what formalism after modern dance (specifically post-Cunningham modern dance) would be without her vocabulary, which takes simple balletic units—the three-step “triplet,” for example—and turns them into longer-than-evening-length endurance contests for her dancers.
If Peña is doing something different, perhaps it’s because her clearest dance ancestor is not Cunningham or Michelson, but Martha Graham. Graham is the grand dame of modern dance, who sought to externalize her inner struggle through sob-like contractions and allegorical Greek dances. She was also a fan of the unconscious—it’s been discovered that she constructed some of her great works while in analysis. Of course, Peña need not address a modern dance lineage; ballet is its own repressive regime of control. Peña shows that it is still productive to rebel.
Peña’s combination of pop culture, Freud, and classical dance vernacular is especially astute since ballet, from a modern dance perspective, is itself a mirror for sexual repression. Martha Graham and Merce Cunningham each developed new dance techniques in the early and mid-20th century that took shape around in-class exercises for their dancers. These exercises constituted an unlearning of what had been drummed into the body since childhood. Graham and Cunningham presupposed that past training constituted a strategic mutilation: their modern techniques were a re-education, a coming out.
Emily Wexler and Ishmael Houston-Jones, 13 Love Songs: dot dot dot
Emily Wexler, a wry-looking strawberry blonde, pairs with Ishmael Houston-Jones, an African American man is his mid-sixties who moves buoyantly, as if on tiptoe. They litter the stage with clichéd romantic offerings: a pile of letters, a box of chocolates, grandma’s lace slip. As the audience enters doorways flanked by underwear-clad ushers holding dishes of candy, Houston-Jones pitter-patters across the stage with a bundle of sage.
One by one, Wexler and Houston-Jones cycle through a playlist of early-2000s pop, performing brief dance vignettes to each. Each audience member has the track list printed on a paper handout. Wexler and Houston-Jones mostly take turns. (One gets the sense that each had a few personal favorite songs.) While one dances, the other watches lovingly from the sidelines.
At the end of the piece, Wexler invites audience members to lie on stage. She instructs them to turn their heads, make eye contact with a neighbor, and proceed to “fall in love with every bit of them.” Because they haven’t been arranged in any sort of order, the reclining volunteers angle their heads awkwardly to gaze into one another’s eyes. They right themselves as the clapping begins, a bit dazed.
In a program note, Wexler and Jones mention “the corrosive power of the love song.” But damage and destruction are not really featured in this dance. Wexler presses two halves of a raw onion against her face, but what’s emphasized here is the artificiality of her tears.
Wexler and Houston-Jones’s commitment to the pop song as a vehicle for real heartbreak is surprising. Those who think, “This is love” of a pop song are usually younger and more impressionable than Wexler and Houston-Jones: children who don’t have anything better to do than fall in unrealistic love. A song like Ja Rule’s “Always On Time” is meant to enthrall the teenage girl for as long as she’ll listen, but for the rest of us, and eventually even for these performers, too, the diversion should be temporary. These songs are “drive time.” They posit that the listener has a job and commutes to the suburbs, and leads a normal life when they’re not listening to this. Pop music is for when you’re “on the way”—on the way to being a productive member of society, on the way to being a serious person.
Giving up adulthood and maybe even real love for squealing fandom, and for serious study—and for an evening-length, years-in-the-making piece of dance—is, in some sidelong sense, a socially corrosive act. Houston-Jones suffered a heart attack during the making of 13 Love Songs (Wexler became his primary caretaker), but they kept going. And at points, there’s something striking in their tenacity. Pop music makes all kinds of presumptions of its listener, but it’s also bland, and the flexibility of the genre makes blandness potent. In their sugariness, pop songs are intentionally vague on the specifics of love, and their meanings can slip into unintended territory. During a break in the music, Houston-Jones read a letter to a male ex-lover called “Why Your Asshole Is Not Like a Volcano.” Later, Wexler read entries from her diary of a straight preteen crush. Sandwiched by Ja Rule and Ashanti, the song spoke easily to both.
Michelle Boulé, WONDER
Divas (like queers, like dancers) must be smart, or at least smarter than their abusers. They must suffer shame and ridicule and emerge triumphant, strong as steel and wholly themselves. Let alone being a queer performer, being a dancer is already pretty queer. It’s a bizarre, strict, bound life—at least in childhood, when time is eaten up by training. The young dancer-in-training is not unlike her closeted peers; both are isolated, dedicated to unnatural rules, trying to learn to live inside them, to obey. The dancer-in-training might love the rigor, or she might not; regardless, she goes to class every afternoon.
But shame itself purifies and molds the dancer; her training changes her body, makes her a virtuoso—she is arguably better for it. When performers look back on their training, they wonder: how was it that the punitive become who they are, a mark of what they excel at?
In WONDER, Michelle Boulé examines what it is to be a choreographer if one is first and foremost identified as a dancer. Boulé is known primarily for her work as a dancer in others’ works—perhaps most notably Miguel Gutierrez’s, in which Boulé has appeared for over a decade. Boulé enters WONDER nude, with a practiced, maniacal grin pasted on her face. She step-touches in place, waving her arms over her head in a labored rhythm. She’s uncomfortable but guileless while on display.
When the music stops, she dresses carefully. Her gestures feel cinematic, or as though they reference a filmic code: we have the feeling often encountered on camera, but less frequently in dance, of watching a woman think. While she expertly closes her bra, the viewer’s eye passes over her downcast lids. Cue an audio track of Boulé’s voice: not an inner monologue but a voice-over. She was a driven child, she tells us, who always wanted to be the best. As the voice-over rises in intensity, Boulé performs tricks inside a hula-hoop. She executes a perfect leap while the hoop keeps spinning around her middle; we clap. Increasingly ambitious in her tricks, Boulé misses a landing. As though we’re watching an Olympic star fail, we let out a sympathetic “Aw!”
It was a dance about the expectation of perfection, but also about a set of bodily habits imposed upon young children who are not yet artists. Later, the recorded voice becomes insistent. It addresses Boulé directly: “Do you want kids?” the voice demands, to which Boulé shouts, “Yeah!” When choreographers look back on the traditions that made them, sometimes we find that personality hovers inside the shell of technical virtuosity. The opposite impulse is to reject training outright and proceed down another path. Boulé took neither approach; perhaps for this reason, the work contained some really innovative movement. A strong image: donning a floor-length blue gown over her dancer’s tights, Boulé inched along the floor on her back, knees bent and splayed, stuffing the gown’s puffy skirt into the top of her pantyhose. When she stood, panting, she’d achieved a bulging hump for a silhouette.
Correction: this phrase originally read, “The artists aren’t actually getting paid, though.” It has been pointed out that the artists do get a fee. Still, the festival can’t afford to be an example of just how much artists should be getting paid for their works. —LF ↩