The biennial Performa’s opening-night gala for its tenth-anniversary edition happened to fall on All Saints’ Day, and so it’s appropriate that the chosen setting was a church. On Sunday, a small group of guests were led into the nave of St. Bart’s on Park Avenue, the aisle lined with green neon, and took seats on a square of mini-bleachers erected in the center of the transept. Each person seated was watching the ballet master David Hallberg—the first American to become a principal dancer in the Bolshoi Ballet—standing in his skivvies, his body painted with ancient anatomy diagrams, a dulcimer Renaissance ditty echoing off the buttresses.
This was the start of Fortuna Desperata, a Performa commission by Francesco Vezzoli in collaboration with Hallberg. It seems Vezzoli, the Italian artist who in recent years has focused on making short films stuffed with bold-faced names, has grown tired of working with extremely famous actors, singers, academics and models, and now wants to work with extremely famous ballet dancers (though some flashes of star power remain; the costumes in the performance were all custom Prada).
After the principal stood still for a few minutes, the set piece was fleshed out by five other dancers. Led by Hallberg, they engaged in a series of 15th-century Italian mating two-steps, as interpreted from the original sources by historian Deda Cristina Colonna, communicating not by words but by touches of the hand and flicks of an ankle—and, in the case of Hallberg, a big shit-eating grin that he broke out judiciously.
This synced up nicely with Performa’s stated Renaissance theme this year, and unlike many other of the events in the Performa slate, this would not be repeated throughout the month: there were two performances Sunday night, and that was it.
After the final performance, there was a reception at Inside Park—which is probably the only bar in a church in New York. Performa’s founding director and curator, RoseLee Goldberg, remarked that she “couldn’t be happier” with how this year’s show had started.
“What I say about Performa is that it’s 100 percent risk and 100 percent trust,” she said. “100 percent risk means you don’t really know what you’re getting. It’s not like we take this out to the suburbs and do a tryout—tonight’s the night, and it’s a one-time performance. 100 percent trust is, there are artists that I just 100 percent believe in and I know they would deliver. Tonight they did exactly that.”
The collaboration may have been an interesting choice, then, as Vezzoli has rankled critics in the past. And, speaking of risk, we’ve yet to mention Hallberg’s foot injury that’s kept him on the sidelines all year.
Still, the duo appealed to Goldberg, and that’s what she went with for Performa’s opening act.
“I’ve been wanting to talk about the Renaissance for years,” Goldberg said. “It was the artist’s job in the 1450s to create the events that went with the marriage, the victory, the march. Francesco, the moment he heard I was doing the Renaissance he said, ‘That’s mine, that’s mine!’ And I said, ‘You’re absolutely right.’ And David Hallberg is an impeccable presence beyond anything. There’s such an understanding of the body and what the body’s capable of—of projecting elegance and grace and integrity.”
The Performa Hub, the biennial’s headquarters and site of many of its events, is now open as of noon today, and programming will run until November 22.