American Realness

This January was the fourth year of American Realness, a ten-day festival of experimental dance at the Abrons Art Center in Lower Manhattan. The festival caters to artists whose work is considered too provocative or cerebral for mainstream venues, and many, if not most, of the major downtown New York City dance artists have taken part. This year Trajal Harrell presented his vogue opus Judson Church is Ringing in Harlem (Made-to-Measure)/Twenty Looks or Paris is Burning at The Judson Church (M2M). Jeanine Durning performed thirty minutes of nonstop speech in a piece called inging. There was also Neal Medlyn’s Wicked Clown Love, a dance inspired by Insane Clown Posse; Keith Hennessy’s “dance about the economy,” featuring a homemade trapeze; Tere O’Connor’s latest work, poem; and Faye Driscoll’s riveting duet You’re Me.

The festival coincides with the American Performing Arts Presenters conference, which takes place every January in New York. During APAP, thousands of industry professionals descend upon New York to shop for dances for their theaters’ coming season. The conference brings the commercial aspects of dance-making uncomfortably and unambiguously to the fore. Presenters are literally looking to purchase work, and the artists on display during the festival are—often desperately—trying to sell. The artists featured in American Realness are the ones who usually don’t get bought.

In a world as traditional as dance, it’s hard for a non-virtuosic performer to get as much mainstream traction as, say, a painter who doesn’t have technical training. It’s also true that conceptual dance work of the American Realness variety—witty, pop-inflected, anti-virtuosic, lowbrow, queer—can easily evoke a counterculturalism that feels like a familiar convention pose itself. The work of shock-artist Ann Liv Young, for example, has featured egregious karaoke and defecating onstage; this year at American Realness, Young sold pink cappuccinos and “free” therapy from a truck parked outside the theater. The collective AUNTS proposes a “model of producing dance/performance/parties” that “defies the regulation of institution, capitalism, and consumerism,” and sees little distinction between a dance performance and a dance party. Deliberately eschewing ideas of physical “skill” or rarified technical vocabulary, these are examples of work that can, from the outside, be ridiculed as stunt instead of art, a kind of “flouting of the rules” that at first glance seems to flout very little.

But American Realness is satisfying, and part of what makes it so is its undisguised acknowledgment of the sale; no one at Realness is pretending not to care that people are looking. The rawness of Realness is perhaps the perfect foil to the garish industry conference. “Realness” is a drag ball term for appearing to be something you are in fact not: one achieves “realness” by disguising oneself so well as someone of the opposite gender or social strata that the disguise becomes invisible. It is an apt metaphor for the way dance performances during APAP can feel: to sell a dance—or yourself—to out-of-town booking agents with conventional tastes in performance, choreographers must rise to the surface of an intensely anxious, financially disadvantaged artistic community by selling so hard and so well as to appear to be doing it effortlessly, appearing simply beautiful.

Instead, the first thing Trajal Harrell did before his 20 Looks piece at Realness was take the mic, stand before the audience with the house lights up, and apologize for the unvarnished nature of what we were about to see. Like an art student offering up a series of last-minute excuses before a critique, he admitted that the costumes to weren’t quite done. “This is supposed to be the ‘L’ size of my piece,” he said, referring to the fact that his multi-part opus can be “tailored” in size from XS-XL, depending on the space in which it’s performed. “This room is more . . . like . . . medium, though,” he said, smiling out at the theater. We were in the largest one the Abrons Art Center had.

When the house lights went down and spotlights came on, four men took the stage one by one to dance whirlwind, vogue-inflected solos to blaring indie pop. Each dancer took a turn sashaying across the stage in one of an assortment of upcycled garments. One wore a pair of pants slung chicly over his shoulders like a structured scarf. Another paraded forth with straightfaced aplomb, a wad of foam stuck into the crotch of his gym shorts like a high-couture strap-on. Harrell chanted, “Werk. . . werk . . . There’s an ICON in the house,” while his dancers’ fingers fumbled through costume changes in the aisles. According to the program, the piece was a mash-up of postmodern minimalism and 1980s Harlem vogue culture, with the plot of Antigone thrown in. When it came time to narrate the story, Harrell switched from drag ball emcee to a one-man chorus. From the front of the theater, he chanted “GREEK. TRAGEDY. REALNESS,” again and again into the pitch black.

American Realness differs from most showcases produced to attract tour bookings in that almost all productions are staged at full length, instead of in excerpt. Harrell’s piece was nearly two hours long. Keith Hennessy’s Turbulence (a dance about the economy) was also like a jam-band set—luxurious and patience-testing at the same time. The action was diffuse and constant: two women grappled with a large swath of gold sequined fabric covering their bodies and faces while other performers milled around, adjusting things, and watched. Hennessy climbed the trapeze dangling in the center of the room, then worked his way up from the trapeze through the maze of hanging lights in the ceiling and along the precarious ledge at the top of the ceiling to a corner where he crouched, shouting. A performer stopped to tell a story about an unpleasant incident, and others chimed in to give advice. The entire group—perhaps fifteen in all—held the corners of the giant gold cloth and let the light play over the sequins.

“Did we get through it all?” One performer asked another when the cloth had been tucked away. “Not sure,” the other performer replied. The audience waited while the group counted: yes, they had gone through every intended experience! But wait—one more song. One performer accompanied another singing a plaintive folk melody. Another took a seat in the audience and grinned at us. Then it was over.

Arguably every dance at American Realness is “a dance about the economy.” The first festival came together in response to a Huffington Post article by Kennedy Center president Michael Kaiser, called “Why I Worry About Modern Dance.” Kaiser complained that he saw no new crop of artists rising to replace the “golden age” choreographers of 20th century: Merce Cunningham, Jose Limon, Bill T. Jones, and Martha Graham. “Virtually every great modern dance company was founded over forty years ago,” he wrote. “Where are the current, not to mention next, generation of great modern dance companies to carry the torch?”

What Kaiser was mourning was, of course, the death of modern dance funding. The challenging work produced by the original Judson Church Theater collective—work by Trisha Brown, Lucinda Childs, Yvonne Rainer, Steve Paxton, dancers seen as the last in the line of great “dance boom” artists like Cunningham and Graham—had coincided, luckily, with an increase in funding for dance by the National Endowment for the Arts in the early ’60s. The NEA gave unprecedented support for American dance companies to tour the country, and it was funding structures like these that helped make Trisha Brown and Merce Cunningham American icons. By 1998, two key programs from this era, the longstanding Choreographic Fellowship program and the Dance Touring Program, had been cut or severely dented.

The result is that few choreographers—regardless of their subject material—maintain full-fledged companies anymore. It used to be that companies of dancers stuck with the same choreographer for years, touring the country, developing a cohesive identity and a large repertory of accumulated works. The traditional notion of modern dance—the one Kaiser lamented—is bound up in the intimate connection between the choreographer and the permanent, devoted corps of dancers that executed (or in a sense were) the choreographer’s artistic vision. Choreographers today work alone, or with a variety of collaborators on distinct pieces of dance—more the way we’re used to seeing visual artists work.

Looking at the American Realness line-up, it’s easy to see that “experimental” choreographers might be characterized (you could even say marginalized) as “experimental” not because of what they make, but because of how they work. American Realness is not so much a fringe festival as a demand that major funding structures everywhere to stop ignoring their impact on the field. Solo performers and choreographers without companies constitute the face, not the periphery, of contemporary dance, and to pretend otherwise is to pretend that institutional politics, economics, and aesthetics are not dependent on one another.

Tere O’Connor’s poem was danced by several longtime collaborators, among them former Cunningham dancer Silas Riener (the Merce Cunningham Dance Company recently disbanded, as per Cunningham’s wishes, when the choreographer passed in 2009).[1] O’Connor’s dances are masterpieces of deft montage. Styles of dance morph quickly from formal Cunninghamesque jumping sequences to moments of uncanny theatricality: a symmetrical, traditionally virtuosic execution of rhythmic steps might devolve into a weird little scene, the dancers standing in a clump with their limbs articulated at strange angles, their faces staring with an almost impish deadpan.

And there was Faye Driscoll’s You’re Me. She and Aaron Mattocks groped and flung themselves at each other in a series of charged interactions—they scream, they pet, they flirt, they wail, they strut, with costume pieces, paint, food, and assorted props wrapping around and flying off their bodies like so many more facial expressions. It was about “chaos,” said the program note.

Miguel Gutierrez’s 2010 work Last Meadow, a sprawling opus based on the life of James Dean, is a characteristic example of what American Realness wants to showcase and achieve. Instead of being produced once or twice in New York and then sliding out of existence, Last Meadow—partly because of the promotion it received as part of American Realness—has toured nationally, receiving the kind of funding usually reserved for the repertory of more traditional dance companies. In Last Meadow, Gutierrez’s longtime collaborator, the technically flawless dancer Michelle Boulé, played James Dean, a little brown wig framing her delicate face. Last year she told the New York Times that Gutierrez “didn’t even finish asking [her] to do something” before she “knew what he wanted.” Boulé might be Gutierrez’s muse, but she is not his dancer, as she might have been forty years ago. Instead she is a member of “Miguel Gutierrez and the Powerful People,” an ad-hoc collective of Gutierrez’s past and present collaborators, whose members work with multiple choreographers; some of them are choreographers themselves.

This year, Gutierrez’s contribution to American Realness was an understated solo with accompaniment by the musician Jaime Fennelly, also known as Mind Over Mirrors. The piece was based on the pair’s memories of “taking refuge in the top story of a rundown Bushwick, Brooklyn warehouse” in 2001. It was not audacious or wild. Instead it felt soft, vulnerable, and timeless. There was no cavorting, no spectacle. Gutierrez wore jeans, a T-shirt, and fake eyelashes on one eye. The lashes looked perched, not pasted on, like a moth or bird. While Gutierrez performed—tripping, toppling, shuffling, and swatting the air, letting his exposed flank flop satisfyingly against the floor, emitting a wordless warble into the microphone—Boulé was there in the front row, thin arms crossed, looking on.

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