The American Realness festival, which ended on Sunday, was in many ways not just a demonstration but also a celebration of the alternative and unorthodox. Of the 15 performances I attended (almost all at the Abrons Arts Center on the Lower East Side), 4 featured drag, 5 featured nudity or striking degrees of physical exposure, and 8 featured players both talking and dancing.
But many also demonstrated various views of a thoroughly traditional aspect of dancing: matching movement to music. And three were primarily about the connection of new movement to new music. One of these, the dancer-choreographer Miguel Gutierrez’s 50-minute “Storing the Winter,” which I saw on Friday, proved to be my best discovery of the festival. This solo was danced to the live music of Mind Over Mirrors, also known as Jaime Fennelly, a one-man composer-player whose sound combines the harmonium with electronics.
Mind Over Mirrors sat in the center of the front row of the Abrons Underground Theater, adjusting knobs and buttons on his equipment. The space in front was occupied by Mr. Gutierrez. He doesn’t look like anyone’s usual idea of a professional dancer; his build is burly. Barefoot, he simply wore jeans and a T-shirt. One of his eyes had pale green eye shadow, with a strange, featherlike attachment on the eyelid, but this ocular adornment was the only artifice; Mr. Gutierrez’s performing was remarkably natural.
Its vocabulary was varied, ranging from the softly fluid to the crashingly violent. At first Mr. Gutierrez moved as if lyrically practicing release technique, sending wavelike impulses through his body and down his limbs while he traveled gradually across the space, responding to progressions in the sound. But that sound later acquired layers of throbbing tremolo; one of Mr. Gutierrez’s most startling effects came when he stood on one leg and vibrated the other, quivering it with the kind of rapidity you don’t expect to see from so powerfully built a man.
When Mr. Gutierrez dances like this, a large part of his effectiveness comes from the way his torso is seldom motionless. Almost always it tipped or arched to some degree off center; remarkably often it plunged forward, beneath waist level. Sometimes he balanced on the ball of his foot; sometimes he knelt, rolled on the floor, did a slow somersault. In one phrase he ambled with a dragging gait, as if one foot were less able than the other; occasionally he extended either leg in a straight line.
I’m grateful when dance leads me into music that I might otherwise have resisted; “Storing the Winter” was a case in point. At one stage Mr. Gutierrez sang, quietly picking out a melodic series of notes, and moving from this into his solo’s next phase.
When the music built to higher levels of force and volume (loud but not deafening), Mr. Gutierrez repeatedly threw himself with terrific velocity across the stage, landing chest first on the floor, again and again, with seeming recklessness. So I wasn’t expecting to see him later present a straight-legged, turned-out ballet fourth position or a double pirouette; he did both, but as part of larger phrases.
Of the performers who spoke as well as danced at American Realness, it was striking how many of them kept dropping names. Jeanine Durning, in her hourlong “inging” — the title expresses the piece’s emphasis on process rather than completion — scarcely danced at all. (I have seen her do so well in other circumstances.) Her speech, largely nonstop and unscripted, was deliberately full of interrupted-stream-of-consciousness repetitions. (She uttered the word “down” 12 times in succession, and “falling” 18 times, but still managed to include Shakespeare, Descartes, Beckett, Kubrick, Cage and Dylan.)
Tony Rizzi, a performance artist, spoke a lot, danced a little, and at one point conducted a split-personality dialogue between two drag personae, Pina Bausch (in a point shoe) and Penny Arcade (in a five-inch-high heel); even his wig and his frock were Bausch on one side, Arcade on the other. He, too, peppered his spiel with names (from Joseph Beuys to Susan Boyle).
Trajal Harrell’s “Antigone Sr.” featured litanies of names for minutes on end. All these shows were desperately self-conscious and desperately anxious to establish their intellectual credentials, as if supposing that a plethora of knowing references to various aspects of culture must demonstrate artistic merit.
“You’re Me,” Faye Driscoll’s duet with Aaron Mattocks, was at the opposite end of the spectrum. An exercise in childlike naïveté, it recurrently tipped over into childishness. I found it devoid of interest.
I’ve said too little of one performer I saw earlier in this festival, Jack Ferver. He’s the joker in the pack. In “Mon Ma Mes” he begins rather than ends with a question-and-answer session (“because that’s so often the most interesting part of the evening, and I don’t want to do it at the end when I’m tired”). He has prewritten questions handed out to chosen members of the audience, and then in his answers he plays at being taken off guard. He singles out a known dancer in the audience, with whom he conducts an improvised position-by-position duet; he also conscripts Reid Bartelme, who both sings and dances.
Even when Mr. Ferver’s two co-performers are just sketching movement, you know they’re real dancers. When he moves, though, you feel something different: he seems to be mimicking dance, giving us a reproduction rather than the genuine article. What’s real here? I wanted a show far more fully developed than the sometimes flimsy “Mon Ma Mes,” but at every point it entertained and surprised me.
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