On Interdisciplinarity, Collaboration, and Attribution (Or Lack Thereof): Elad Lassry’s “Untitled (Presence)”

Thoughts on what happens when dance is framed as, or used in service, of art (in the “art world”/visual art sense of the term)…

The description for Elad Lassry’s “Untitled (Presence),” an exhibition of photographs, a film, and a dance performance presented at The Kitchen, was quite vague. According to the press release, his work to this point has been concerned with “the question of when the photographic image obtains presence,” an inquiry that, with this performance, would be extended into “real space.”

The exhibition upstairs featured a number of portraits, some of which featured the dancers who would perform later. The dancers in the portraits looked directly ahead, with the same impassive gazes they would later wear in the performance. Their portraits were interspersed with a number of black and white screenprints of Hollywood types, generally looking away from the camera, as well as two of artfully arranged dishes. All of these subjects were titled generically: “Man 065,” “Women (055, 065),” or “Dishes (Strawberry).”

Heading downstairs, I was surprised, upon walking into the  theatre, to receive no program. There had been no mention of dancer or choreographer names in the press release, and apparently, no further materials were forthcoming.

We were facing a stage set with large, colored-saturated pieces, like over-sized blocks, which formed a series of frames. A mint colored block at the front of the stage would soon obstruct our view of the dancers’ bottom halves; there were two more walls behind that, with various apertures. These pieces would be moved around throughout the performance, creating different frames through which we saw the dancers.

The performance consisted of a number of sequences in which the lights came up, and different groupings of dancers either stared out at the audience, performed a repetitive sequence of simple steps or gestures, or some combination thereof. There were five men and five women, all dressed in button down shirts and high-waisted trousers, yellow for the men and blue for the women (pointe shoes included). A series of blackouts, which seemingly signaled the end of a particular scene or image, were cut short as the lights came back on while dancers were still walking off.

The choreography frequently referenced Balanchine, with jazzy inflections and mannered port de bras. However, it was never more than that: a Balanchine reference here, a classroom exercise-like series of steps there, all performed in a repetitious manner with an impassive stare. The gender divisions so endemic to classical ballet remained, unquestioned: men and women were dressed in different colors, and all of the heavy lifting (of the various set pieces) was done by the men, in the manner of glorified stage hands. There were no bows by the performers.

Perhaps the generic labeling by numbers of the dancers in the portraits upstairs was a clue here (we were supposed to see them as generic men or women?), yet, why use dancers from such elite companies–ABT & NYCB–and highlight this affiliation multiple times in promotional material, if they were to remain unidentified and to perform unremarkable choreography? If they were meant to suggest some generic image of ballet, why use potentially recognizable dancers from well-known companies?

I must admit to feeling generally annoyed by the way that dance, dancers, and choreographers are expected to become transparent—to signify nothing (other than perhaps, presence) in and of themselves—when in the service of art. While the choreography was far from inventive, it was clear that the movements in the piece were conceived of and put together by people with ballet training and knowledge and yet, no choreographer is given.

The press release suggests that the repetition of these “limited movements” suggests “a kind of historical compression.” I’m not entirely sure what is meant by this, but I don’t think it worked. Taking these movements out of their context and distilling them to this limited expression isolates them, but performs no sort of compression, historical or otherwise. These are still classical ballet steps and positions, performed by highly skilled dancers.

I’m sure some of this has to do with my lack of familiarity with art world conventions, but in dance and performance works, there is typically much more acknowledgement of collaboration, and of the other artists involved. Did Lassry design the costumes as well? The lighting design? No mention.

When one art form is juxtaposed with or framed through the conventions of another, it doesn’t necessarily lose its formal and aesthetic qualities, or become emptied it of its original significance. Rather, this juxtaposition or framing should complicate the way we view both forms, and perhaps adds unexpected dimensions as we make new connections. (This of course ignores the very desirable possibility that lines between art forms are often not so clear to begin with and become even more blurred in interdisciplinary works.)

I suppose what I’m trying to say is that you can’t just put watered-down choreography within an art piece as some sort of interesting statement on presence, because it is still watered-down choreography. Not acknowledging this, and expecting dance and dancers to signify only a generic concept of presence, inevitably undermines the project’s potential.

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Naturally Awkward Relation: Faye Driscoll’s “You’re Me” at The Kitchen

As the audience entered Faye Driscoll‘s “You’re Me,” at The Kitchen on Thursday night, we were greeted by Driscoll and Jesse Zaritt standing atop stools, covered in a hodgepodge of multicolored materials and objects, including an assortment of fruit. Driscoll looked vaguely uncomfortable, while Zaritt stared out at us with a blankly serious expression. Ever so slowly, they began to let things fall to the floor. This static mood finally broke when the pair looked at each other, frantically ripped off their layers until they were both in pants and t-shirts, and descended from their stools.

The discomfort that Driscoll displayed as we entered the space would recur throughout the piece. Her wonderfully expressive face reveled in being awkward (an affect that seems particularly contemporary). These expressions went beyond simply reminding us that this was a performance (look, I’m trying to smile!), or of highlighting the unnaturalness of mugging to an audience while dancing (although this was there too). Veering between discomfort, put-on cutesiness, and mock seriousness, her faces were continually in progress, giving the impression of being not quite there yet, or of being tried on for size. They undermined and complicated the dancerly shapes and poses that frequently punctuated phrases of movement.

The relationship between the two performers was one of the most touching and realistic I have ever seen in a dance performance. It was a dynamic of mutual respect, even when it veered into annoyance, surprise, boredom, or aggressive tension. Their glances often seemed to say “Are you ready?” in a way that suggested more than a desire for a shared sense of timing. This was a duet in the truest sense of the word. The dynamic between them was at times sexual, angry, exploratory, playful, and combative, but was continually surprising in how true it felt. Despite the clearly skillful dancing, the bizarre assortment of costumes and props, and the intermittent score, at the core of it, I was struck by how well they captured the way people in a relationship (romantic or otherwise) interact: what give-and-take, trying on roles, and attempting to exist in relation to another looks and feels like.

In one memorable scene, Zaritt approached and hugged Driscoll. She proceeded to give him notes on this performance of affection in tones inaudible to the audience. Her incredibly natural manner evoked at once a choreographer giving notes to a dancer and a lover making a request of her partner. Zaritt tried again, slightly tweaking his approach and delivery each time, until finally, appearing to be satisfied, Driscoll gazes out over his shoulder at us, with that uncomfortable, gleefully guilty smile.

In the second half of the piece, the pair began to set out in a circle a variety of arts and crafts-type supplies, from oranges, to spray paint, to balls of string, and pulled down the nondescript white cardboard sheet that had been hanging at the back of the space. Standing upon their newly floored canvas, Driscoll and Zaritt helped each other try on objects—lipstick, glasses, a bra, oranges down their pants—repeating a similar dance phrase, showing us how these accoutrements did or did not alter the performance. As they moved onto the messier elements available, including paint, powder, and spray paint, they applied them with sexualized moans, tiptoeing back and forth over the line of irony.

Driscoll and Zaritt were absolutely captivating performers, their commitment to the piece’s escalating intensity evident in their increasingly sweaty hair, faces, and clothing. In the final scene, Driscoll stood atop the two stools, while Zaritt pulled out a seemingly endless assortment of props that evoked a preschool dress-up chest: scarves, beads, wigs, hats… Driscoll tried on and discarded these items in an increasingly frenzied ecstasy, until she finally began to lose momentum. She stood before us, clearly exhausted, her ambiguous expression now laced with expectancy. Zaritt, who had faded to the back of the space, began clapping.