new work in new york

by Hope Mohr

Every year in early January, thousands of performing arts lovers converge on New York City to attend several simultaneous festivals and conferences including American Realness, COIL, Under the Radar, and APAP (Association of Performing Arts Presenters Conference).  This year marked HMD’s debut in NYC as part of APAP.  In addition to presenting work, I also caught several performances. Herewith, some short reviews.

Rude World
Molly Lieber and Eleanor Smith
COIL Festival
The Chocolate Factory

I saw a lot of nudity on stage this week.  By far the most satisfying was Molly Lieber and Eleanor Smith’s Rude World, which is an uncompromising, gorgeous reclamation of the female body that happens entirely in silence.

The audience sits facing each other on two sides of a small space. Two naked women enter. No music.  Molly Lieber sits down in the “Reserved” seat in front of me; Eleanor Smith stands on Lieber’s thighs, also facing away from me. Lieber begins to stroke Smith’s backside, sliding her hands, palms down, along Smith’s lower back, hips, and legs.  The women are so close that I see the delicate hairs on their backs. I hear Lieber’s touch sliding along Smith’s skin.  Lieber repeats the gesture long enough for the room to become church-like.

Abruptly Smith leaves Lieber to stride into the space and begin a playful solo. She slaps her ass, does gymnastic preparations for childlike leaps, swings her leg in and out of balletic positions, carves her torso in mad loops.  Her nudity seems beside the point. Her gaze neither acknowledges nor refuses the audience.

After several minutes, Lieber leaves her seat, walks to a wall, and begins to slide slowly down it with her heels off the floor. Up and down, up and down. Smith joins her. For a long time, this is the image: two naked women, showing us their backsides, slowly sliding down a wall, their heels off the ground. They begin to slide past each other, switching sides.  Repeat, with variation. They begin to bend at the waist, nonchalantly allowing their asses to point and open to the ceiling.  They remain in releve.  They loop the action, allowing improvisation to create feathered difference over time.  An image emerges, but also texture.

The women begin to roll together on the floor in contact.  At this point in contemporary dance (at the end of a form, as Ben Lerner would say), it’s hard to find interesting ways to roll around on the floor with someone else.  But Lieber and Smith glue limbs in specifically awkward ways. Their hands go everywhere except on breasts, faces, asses and genitals.  I notice these avoidances because every other surface is fair game.

The women lay still on the floor, bellies down.  Lieber again and again arches her back, offering her ass to the ceiling.  Lieber’s execution is so sculptural and her affect so translucent that it takes me several moments for me to remember that she’s doing a cliched posture of submission.  Later Smith lifts Lieber in a series of extreme positions that open Lieber’s crotch to the audience.  This daring but nonchalant sequence flaunts sexist partnering tropes that still merit flaunting.  Lieber’s ending solo is simple: repeatedly she takes three steps to jump onto parallel releve, naked back curved, arms outstretched.

Rude World is the product of a deep improvisation practice. It’s also edited to the bone.  The result is refined, textured and deeply focused.

A (Radically Condensed and Expanded)
Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again

After David Foster Wallace
Directed by Daniel Fish
Under the Radar Festival
The Public Theater

The best part of this show is the set.  Hundreds of tennis balls are arranged in neat rows on the floor. A tennis ball machine fires balls at a photo on the back wall of tennis star Tracy Austin. As the balls bounce off he wall (as if Austin is hitting them), they disrupt the neat lines on the floor. Chaos accumulates amidst a pleasing metronomic sound.

An essay on the banality of sports memoirs, including Austin’s, is one of the David Foster Wallace (DFW) writings featured in Daniel Fish’ A (Radically Condensed and Expanded) Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again.  This production is a nice chance to mainline some DFW, whose dense, ribald poetic fugues never lose their lustre.  However, the show is a confounding directorial failure.

The young “actors”—I hate to use the term, because not much acting occurs—repeat reams of DFW text delivered to their ears, Wooster Group-style, through headphones. However, in contrast to the Wooster Group, these actors evince little skill. Their diction is awful, their inflection monotone. Inaudibility is the rule, not the exception. They often close their eyes or stare at the floor in an autistic fervor, lost in manic litanies.  So solipsistic were the performers that when they did look at each other or at the audience, I was confused. Perhaps Fish was trying to let the text be the primary focus, rather than acting. But the performers’ lack of technical capacity does a disservice to the text, which is a shame.

The burden of thought, and its disconnection from action, is a DFW theme.  Indeed the performers in this show are quite alone, separated from everyone—even the audience–by the voices in their head.

Relative Collider
Liz Santoro and Pierre Godard
American Realness Festival
Abrons Art Center

Three dancers and a man at a podium with laptop. The computer begins to generate a ticking rhythm.  The dancers begin to bend their knees in different patterns. The knee dance lasts forever. At long last the man at the podium counts the dancers in with a “5,6,7,8” and the dancers begin a minimalist gesture dance in place.  Even as they execute facial gestures, the dancers’ affect remains robotic.  After awhile, the dancers begin to move out into space. Their movements and spatial patterns become more varied. The action remains mathematical in feeling. We’re watching permutations of a formula, not expression.

The ticking becomes layered with words as the man at the laptop begins to read randomly generated language in time with the rhythm. The dancing begins to loosen up—the bodies soften a bit, the pathways through space become a bit less linear—but before the dance busts out of its formal container, it begins to settle down again.  The words die away. So too the ticking, leaving the dancers repeating the minimal patterns from the beginning of the piece (isn’t the old school end-a-piece-by-echoing-the-beginning taboo in a context as ostensibly radical as the Realness Festival?).  The machine-generated soundscape is so relentless that even when it disappears, its ghost lingers above the dancers’ heads, like the invisible cloud of thought we all drag around. In the dance’s final moments, the dancers, finally free from the machine, start to fall off the beat. Their patterns dissolve into entropy, then stillness.  It’s the most compelling moment in an otherwise airless experience.

Unlike Lieber and Smith’s Rude World, in which repetition is a nuanced response to the present moment, the repetition in Relative Collider reflects slavery to the machine. The dancing bodies never break free of the technology.  Watching, I felt the same disappointment I did at the end of Howard’s End, in which Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson fail to consummate  their submerged passion.  Lots of energy, but no release.

Kein Applaus Fur Scheisse
Florentina Holzinger & Vincent Riebeek
American Realness
Abrons Art Center

I made the mistake of sitting in the front row for this show.  Intentional barfing of blue liquid onto a prone woman’s stomach, urination into a prone woman’s mouth, using bodily fluids as a slip-n-slide, cunnilingus resulting in the ingestion of a tampon string, and a novice aerial routine. Need I say more? Unfortunately, yes.  For the record: this is not radical.  It’s silly, sloppy and retrograde.

Liz Gerring Dance
APAP Showcase
City Center

Full disclosure: I danced for Liz Gerring from 1998 to 2001.  In the early days, Gerring made slow, minimalist movement installations that often lasted hours. She makes technically demanding movement that is both athletic and formal.  She asks for not only high physicality, but also elegance.  She combines explosion and line.  A wild throw of the torso will happen on top of  intricate footwork. Her movement is deconstructed, but not casual. Her dancers are alert, committed and above all, precise.  She knows how to craft a phrase with an internal song.  And she knows how to use stillness.

Over time, Gerring’s work has become extraordinary.  Her dances still have the intentionality of her early installations, but they have become faster and dramatically kinetic. Interestingly, she joked to me that there is a relationship between her getting older and her dances getting harder to do.  As her compositions become increasingly sophisticated, the strong internal rhythms of her phrases create compelling layers of rhythm in the space.  The irregularity and complexity of her compositions echo Cunningham.  But Gerring’s combination of raw release and line is all her own.

After fifteen years of making dances, Gerring’s star is finally and deservedly on the rise.  Gerring is noteworthy not only because of her talent, but also her tenacity.  Some choreographers burst out of the gate to become immediate stars (Faye Driscoll, Kyle Abraham).  It’s encouraging to see an alternative career trajectory: the slow burn.  Notably, Gerring has three children.  Artists who are mothers, take note.

Ivo Dimchev
American Realness
Abrons Art Center

More theater than dance, Fest is a brilliant, hilarious meta meditation on the internal politics of relationships among artists, presenters, technicians and critics.  Dimchev plays himself in conversation with a festival presenter. Their negotiation over the terms of his festival appearance turns into an exchange of sexual favors.  Antics ensue (Dimchev gives a technician a blowjob, articially inseminates a critic, and does a post-show talk as a zombie).  Fest sustains these ridiculous scenarios through the performers’ assured acting and comic timing.  Along the way, Dimchev slips in poignant bits of philosophy about form and content, fear and the future.  Above all, he lets us laugh at ourselves. And what’s more satisfying than smart self-deprecation?