The audience members for the debut performance last night of Ryan McNamara’s dance work “ME3M 4 Miami: A Story Ballet About the Internet,” a new version of his 2013 Performa piece presented by Art Basel, were warned in email after email to be on time, since the show could not begin until everyone was seated, but this being Basel—when itineraries overflow and the streets clog with traffic—it still started about 30 minutes late. That was perhaps just as well, though, since it allowed everyone to take a careful look around the venue, the gently dilapidated former Playboy Theater, in the Castle Beach residence, and for rumors to spread, like that Hugh Hefner once had a bedroom overlooking the stage and that his actual bed is still on the premises, as one woman behind me told her friends. (“It’s brown now,” she said.)
Eventually the lights blacked out, and a huge chandelier, which had loomed at an ominously low height over the crowd, retreated to the ceiling. Three men took the stage, dancing slowly to house music, with almost-slow-motion, exaggerated club moves. A woman on a raised platform above them got to work, moving at double time, every part of her body somehow tracking the beat. She’d be at it all night—completely indefatigable, completely captivating. It was exhilarating.
And then things started to get weird. Other dancers appeared in the theater; there were two men in silver pants who stood in the middle of the audience, awaiting some cue, and another in the very back, working out in front of a long row of mirrors and very hot-looking lights. Two sweatpants-clad attendants arrived with metal dollies, slipped them under the chairs of two audience members, carefully whisked them onto the stage, and gently plunked them down right next to the action. They sat there smiling awkwardly, and I started to get nervous. Who would be next?
Everyone, it turned out. A huge line of people with dollies began streaming out from behind the stage to huge bursts of laughter. They just kept coming! They arrayed people around the room—behind curtains, in corners, in rows at odd angles, facing all sorts of other dance performances that were taking place in a compendium of styles to the same thumping music—snippets of Liz Phair, the Pixies, and dance jams. People craned their necks to look around, to catch all the action, but you knew there were things you were missing out on, things you were unable, or barely able to see.
The attendants kept at it. I was relocated every few minutes, one moment watching a pair of wildly expressionist dancers, the next observing that languid man in front of the mirrors, sweating away as he examined himself. I was whisked down a hall—the dance music disappearing behind me, giving way to classical—to see more-frightening works with small groups of people: a lone man brooding in a corner, then rushing toward us in quick bursts, a Grimes lookalike dancing atop a platform (we listened in on headphones), and a young duo who seemed to be miming the body language of people slowly fleeing something and then coming back on the attack.
Snippets of music would slip through from the other room, and an unpleasant sense of isolation, and of alienation, took hold. What was happening in the main theater, and on stage? What were we missing? The commentary on the contemporary online/digital experience suggested by the title—of isolated experiences enjoyed and half-glimpsed in a communal space, of divided attentions, of audience members taking on the role of producer—was clear and clever enough, but the work went far beyond that.
Being gingerly carted about the show felt both decadent and pathetic. We were seeing the action up close and personal—with the best seats in the house—but always at the expense of seeing the whole work, of other pleasures being offered elsewhere. Our bodies and lines of sight were controlled and static, while the performers’ bodies moved freely, in all sorts of remarkable ways, though still subject to a different form of control—choreography. It was like an old-school happening—Stockhausen’s 1964 Originale, recently reconceived at the Kitchen in New York, comes to mind—but with the audience paralyzed, dominated. Power-relations shifted, with intimate audiences continually in flux (one second you were next to the Belgian collector Alain Servais, the next a fellow journalist, and then you were floating by a giddy-looking Hans Ulrich Obrist). Everything was topsy-turvy.
After about an hour, I was still being cycled through one of the small back rooms as the dancers began to wind down their routines and head out the door. Very serious-looking stage directors, who had been helping to guide the action, made their way to the exits, and most of my fellow audience members were led off. I was left with just three other people. Loud music was pouring in from the stage, down the hall. We had been forgotten. But then, suddenly, dollies arrived. We were moved back down to the where an audience would usually sit. Up above, high in the balconies, the dancers were working away, going wild. It was generous, joyous, and moving. We had all been reunited. Though almost as soon as we were plopped down, it ended. There was sustained applause.
An afterparty hosted by Interview magazine followed at the Thompson Hotel, and that invitation carried another special warning, maybe one of the best things I have ever seen in an email for a party: “Please note the performative elements you will experience at the party this evening are unique to the event and considered separate from McNamara’s performance at the Miami Grand Theater.” Thankfully, no such elements appeared, and everyone could stand around, sipping drinks and discussing the piece, uninterrupted, free to wander about.
Click an image below to see more performance stills.