A CLOSER LOOK AT TWO PERFORMANCES THAT EXEMPLIFIED THE STRENGTHS AND WEAKNESSES IN THIS YEAR'S PERFORMA SERIES, INCLUDING THE WINNER OF THE MALCOLM MCLAREN AWARD FOR PERFORMA 13, RYAN MCNAMARA'S MEƎM: A STORY BALLET ABOUT THE INTERNET
Read Joseph Teeling's review of Rashid Johnson's Performa 13 piece
This last Thursday I returned to the Connelly theater in alphabet city to see Raqs media Collective’s The Last International. The doors were open to the public a half hour before the performance began but already there was much to be viewed, heard, and meandered through. At the edge of the proscenium a massive video projection of changing text framed a pyramid of modular white plastic lawn chairs. Surrounding this cluster was the seating for the audience, arrayed outward in four sections, two flanking the entrance, and two tucked in under the balconies. Several large citrus fruit trees, potted and back lit by green lights were woven throughout the chairs, staging a dark, makeshift orchard, the scent filling the theater. A red ladder emerged from one verdant cluster and reached the balcony.
Wandering throughout the theater, onto the stage, backstage, and up to the balconies I encountered several more projected videos. I was followed by conversational voices, emitted from a group, or maybe panel, seated at lit tables in the balcony. The dialogue I caught was prompted by notecards and accompanied by large glasses of red wine. It addressed social media and political action, loosely. This theater-wide installation was loosely associated, the hint of the political raised just enough to give me license to attach meaning and values where I chose. I continued to wander through side rooms and backstage collecting friends, wondering if and when something else would begin. When I returned to the stage the audience was taking seats as The Raqs's three members emerged. Jeebesh Bagchi and two other performers began disassembling the pyramid of chairs and rearranging them into varying formations. Meanwhile Monica Narula and Shuddhabrata Sengupta sat and began a poetic analysis of the distribution of wealth, 19th century marxist histories and natural metaphors for said concepts. The performance varied from the didactic to the ecumenical as images of vast horizons and plant minutia were presented on the stage screen in tandem with the changing chair formations, tape constructions, and this lyrical utopian dialogue.
It was hard to follow, and while this felt aligned with the history of the ideas presented, its obscurity made a clumsy performance out of what was perhaps meant to be elevating. The success of the installation overwhelmed the performance and whether or not that was a failure seems related to its own utopian content.
Raq’s performance had a predecessor in the Connelly theater. I had seen Ryan McNamara’s MEƎM a week prior. At Performa’s closing party last Sunday, McNamara was presented with the Malcolm McLaren award for his contribution in which a varied community of maybe 50 performers and dancers were employed to again redistribute the stage throughout the theater building. Described as "A Story Ballet About the Internet," the audience itself was choreographed while seated. Following an opening number with a trio of men I was moved by a sweatsuit clad stage hand through the use of a counterweight cart (fabricated for this piece) that lifted, transported, and deposited audience members and their chairs from site to site.
Solos, duets, and an entire company (the Martha Graham) moved to varying scores—mostly pop, and some orchestral—while I was repositioned regardless of the relative beginnings and endings of individual performances. I caught long segments of some and glimpses of others. And while I was conducted from side room to entrance and then back to the main stage where I was inundated with upwards of eight performances, all with their own music, I found the sensation of an infinite movement, a suspension of the default narrative through which I typically negotiate a performance. I realized I could see this many times and it would vary greatly, as each audience member travels differently throughout the Conelly. I was distracted, with bursts of focus on certain movements or performers. The sensation of the internet, of sifting through endlessly appropriated content, that appears connected, if only tangentially, didn’t seem as far away as I had at first discerned.
It's funny how many bodies it took to even approach simulating an experience that is so distinctly disembodied. More than anything, I left MEƎM with a sense of community of bodies tossing each other the spotlight and sharing with the audience the responsibility of making space through our movement.
During my later Connelly experience, I decided that Raq’s recipe was too clear, a reverse equation of history, politics and poetics, and the sum of these parts was a confusing education of how we might live better. Their somewhat pedantic description of a feeling, that I had so easily accessed a week earlier through McNamara’s ludic and inventive spatial movement just didn’t coalesce in the end. McNamara’s inclusive though dizzying community of movement was in the end a better answer to questions about performance’s future and its implications as a tool for solidarity.
all IMAGES from ryan mcnamara's MEƎM: A Story Ballet about the Internet, COURTESY of RYAN MCNAMARA