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Archive for October, 2007

Go Team

Sports and Art are often described as having an antagonistic relationship. Fans of one supposedly hate aficionados of the other and vice-versa, but is that really so? Heading to a Mets game after work from my non-profit arts job, I raised more than a few eyebrows, probably the same number that my friend who works for the NFL receives when he heads off to a post-work rehearsal. Still, are those authentic reactions, or are we just responding the way in which we have been taught by a lifetime of beer commercials?

David Neumann’s feedforward currently running at Dance Theater Workshop explores this seeming odd couple, and watching, one quickly finds that they aren’t such strange bedfellows after all. Both involve a performer/audience relationship, and each creates its own specific super-humans who trade on their single-minded, goal-oriented focus.

Interestingly, sports and art are also each endeavors in which we are generally much more involved as children than adults. As children, many of us are encouraged in both, only to find heartbreakingly at some point in adolescence that we’ll probably never be a professional pitcher or a principal ballet dancer. I think this heartbreak contributes to our view as a culture that neither is a “serious” profession, and one could argue that the arts suffer more from this, as they have less commercial value, and strive harder to be taken seriously than sports, which are offered as entertainment, (at least, for those of us whose careers don’t hang on an Ace-serve percentage.)

Therein of course, sits the prickliness of the relationship between sports and art. One makes millions, even billions per year, and asks only to entertain, while the other struggles year after year to justify itself, challenging its audiences along the way. Still, the two have a lot to say to each other, and (hard swallow of pride) in particular sports have a lot to say to art.

Sports achieve that kind of active witnessing that (as I explored a bit in an earlier post), seems to be less and less a part of the performative arts. I’m certainly not advocating that the arts become formally competitive, or that we institute some sort of ranking system for aesthetics, (figure skating already, well, skates that line), but I don’t think it would hurt if we explored some ways to communicate a similar kind of collective joy to that which was experienced in Boston last night, or some ways to share in a collective sense of loss similar to that felt on the same evening in Denver.

Feedforward is a wonderful riff on this subject: smart, funny, and best of all genuine, with a roster of extremely talented performers. If my rambling about the subject contained within the work isn’t enough to convince you to spend $25 of your hard-earned bucks on the show before it closes on November 3rd, I highly recommend reading Claudia La Rocco’s brilliant, succinct review of this “meditation on sports” in the NY Times.

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Performance, once removed

Cool Op-ed article in the NY Times today.  It goes along with Sarah’s chorus idea that the arts more moving when the audience can feel they are participating– not necessarily as a put-on-the-spot individual*, nor in a forced structure**, but as a spontaneous individual part of a whole.

*Anyone who knows me knows the hyperventilations and palm sweats I go through when performers start dragging audience members on stage.

** As much as I love the Flaming Lips, the only time I ever saw them live was perhaps one of my least favorite concert moments ever: Wayne Coyne berating the audience for not singing along more and pleading with them that “if you’ve ever wanted to sing along before in your life, now is the time. You’ve got the sing guys!” The result was the audience singing the way one would sing so as not to be beaten; it was kind of pathetic. I’ve been assured not all Flaming Lips shows are like that.

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Last week I went to see Lucia di Lammermoor at the Metropolitan Opera. Despite my college minor in voice, (which included several classes in Italian diction) I’ve never been much of an opera buff. Still, the controversial Peter Gelb has done much to put the cool back (is it really back, or completely new?) into the Met, and their striking posters featuring a mascara-streaked Natalie Dessay (described as an “actor’s opera singer” by many) intrigued me, and I forked over the $65.

The singing was impressive, the staging was deft, and the design gorgeous, but more than anything the experience had me thinking about the form of opera itself. No matter how many hipster posters the Met produces, no matter how updated the mise-en-scene (this production brought us as far as Edwardian Scotland), there is something inherently backward-looking about opera, and I actually found that refreshing. In a culture fixated on new, it’s nice to be in the midst of something that’s a bit of a time capsule.

In particular I was fascinated by the use of a chorus, something which used to dominate performative form, and has almost entirely disappeared. It used to be par for the course to represent the audience on stage as a group of townspeople, onlookers, saints, gremlins, you-name-it. This mob of almost-always-identical individuals behaves as a foil for the action, setting tone, and steering the reaction of the real audience. Does our gradually-increasing focus as a culture on the importance of individuality have something to do with the disappearance of the chorus in performance, or is it simply related to shrinking budget sizes?

Or, was the chorus a transitional function of the transformation from the participatory performance of ancient times into the contemporary witnessed form?
I’m in the process of planning a wedding, and I’ve been thinking a lot about the act of witnessing. It’s a fascinating paradox of being actively passive. It’s related to larger (human?) social ceremony, yet performance gives us a unique opportunity to investigate it, and our need for witnesses to our actions. You know, if no one hears the tree, its lonely fall means nothing … or something like that.

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A couple of years ago, I took Dance Theater Workshop’s Writing on Dance Class taught by Wendy Perron. As an exercise, we were asked to sit still somewhere and write our observations of the movements around us in the place we had chosen. I recently came across the bit I wrote while sitting in my landlord’s backyard. Reading it, I was again struck by how much it resembles a description of a dance. Performance and inspiration is constantly around us, if we just take the time to linger in the present tense and watch.

The leaves flutter. A bird alights, pecking for a moment, then off again. Another dives toward a branch, checking his speed with his tiny wings as he approaches. Branches bend and shuffle. The iron post creaks in the wind straining to balance its cargo of wooden wind chimes. The leaves of the ivy shiver, and each blade of grass trembles as it reaches toward the sky. A trinket-sized bird balances on a wire, bouncing as his quick tail counterbalances up and down. Another sits atop a tree branch, feathers fluttering furiously as he calls to his kin. As if stung, one drops mid-flight from the sky, only at the last minute flipping to land lightly in the grass. The flowers are still. Listening.

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I curate a works-in-progress series at the Chocolate Factory Theater called THROW. While there are other series in NYC which focus on works-in-progress, (Draftwork and Danspace Project, Movement Research’s Open Performane and Judson Church series, The Field’s Fieldwork program, and supposedly everything at Dixon Place), nearly all of them have been transformed (by those who program them, those who participate, or both) into pre-performance programs, rather than true places for experimentation and exploration.

I used to be on a bit of a high horse about this issue: “Why doesn’t anyone get it? Why are all of these alleged w-i-p series just performance opportunities for the young artists who can’t yet get a gig anywhere else, or funder-showcases for the more established artists?” As I’ve developed the THROW series, however, I’ve begun to see how it happens. Artists are so starved for an opportunity that might lead to their big break, that they’ll seize anything as a “showcase.” Call it whatever you want, someone is going to swear that his/her project is a work-in-progress, just to put another line on their resume and hope some big curator is in the audience.

Over time, even those artists who are interested in testing something risky start to realize that no one else on the w-i-p bill looks as vulnerable as they do, and they stop sticking their necks out. It’s a bummer. While we absolutely need multiple arenas for performance (including platforms for young artists and funder showcases), we also need places where we as artists can simply throw some ideas against the wall, and see what sticks. Mind you, I’m not talking about wasting an audience’s time. There is a large part of the artistic process that can (and perhaps should) be tackled without an audience, but there comes a point where one needs to bounce the work off other folks – a practice audience, and not one comprised of your best friends.

Waiting until the very end of a project’s development to think about the audience is like putting yeast in your bread after you bake it. I’m not saying that one should focus one’s work to cater to an audience, but an artist should absolutley consider the audience and make some decisions about what s/he wants the audience to experience. That’s what THROW is about. It’s about encouraging artists to think about their goals for the piece in terms of audience, and use this practice-audience, this focus group to help them assess whether or not they are meeting those goals. It’s also about encouraging an audience to experience a piece that is in development and comment on it without directing the piece, or feeling like their tongues are tied by some intense set of rules about how to phrase everything they say.

This is difficult to achieve, but the structure of the discussion portion is set up to move towards that goal. By having the artist pose the questions to the audience, each participant (artist and audience) gets to do the thing each does best: artist puts forth ideas, audience responds. This way, the artist is in control of his/her ideas and work, and the audience doesn’t feel pressured to come up with some brilliant question (and isn’t encouraged to direct the work.)

So far, it’s been extremely interesting, and I’m sure the series will continue to develop and take shape from those who participate, but I hope, with careful attention, those of us interested in sticking our necks out can keep it from becoming just another low-tech performance series.

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Try to Remember…

Performance by definition is temporal. Practitioners and critics alike frequently bemoan its fleeting, even fragile nature. While it can be frustrating to stand with nothing but memory and nostalgia after closing night, our current performance-making/performance-critiquing culture has developed an attitude much more dangerous – one that renders performance not only temporal, but disposable.

In the post-modern era, artists’ rejection of the “object” as focus in favor of a focus on “action” led to a rise in performance art and lots of intermingling among visual art, dance, theater, music, film, etc. Initially an anti-capitalist trend, the market snuck in and started packaging the artist as celebrity, making the artist him/herself the object.

In the post-post-modern era, (which will someday earn a shorter name, I hope), where celebrity culture grows like a weed, this concept of artist as object plants even deeper roots. We as artists and audiences alike spend less and less time looking at the work that is made, and more and more time packaging and perfecting our own status as “Artist.”

Our work is defined in glib sound-bytes that communicate very little, but sound super-slick, and the question most often asked is “what are you working on next?” This question pops up almost before the last performance of whatever it is we’re working on now. The present is so over, man. What’s next? What’s next? A curator wants what’s new, and if you’re not giving it to them, how will you ever get the gig that’s going to get you the next gig, that’s going to get you the NY Times review, that’s going to get you the grant, that’s going to get you the… wait a minute. Weren’t we just trying to make something interesting?

Performance will always disappear quickly, but the more we look closely at what we’re making, what others are making, and why, the longer our memory of a work has to settle and the more we can learn from our explorations, which will make us less vulnerable to the buffeting winds of the market.

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