Last night, Ryan McNamara staged a turf war at the Guggenheim. Three trios had an hour-long dance-off that took place in the museum’s basement, in a new performance called Battleground (2016), and the audience was left to pick the winner. Something about the Internet was involved, as was a lot of disco music and Lycra. It was a bewildering experience that ultimately may have been too vague of a statement about conflict in the digital sphere, but it sure was entertaining.
You must say this for McNamara: his performances are really engaging. No, Battleground didn’t literally grab hold of viewers’ attention, as McNamara previously did with ME3M 4: A Story Ballet About the Internet (2013), a performance about gestures online in which audience members were wheeled around on rolling chairs. His work tends to incorporate the body, the digital, and pop music, and Battleground did feature thumping bass and Technicolor lighting aplenty. And, as with his past work, there’s a lot going on at once. There was always something happening, whether it was one dancer pretending to drag another through an aisle or McNamara himself skulking around with a spotlight.
Battleground is the result of McNamara’s five-month residency at the Guggenheim. It feels effortless, in a way—free-form, light, and random. But it was, in fact, meticulously planned. From the very start, McNamara had sketched out every imaginable element—even the introduction by Caroline Cronson, the chair of the Guggenheim’s performance series. She began with her usual spiel: this is a performance commissioned by the Guggenheim, etc. “Now please be prepared for an unusual evening,” she said.
And then something unusual happened. The lights went out, and a spotlight focused on Cronson slowly craned over to the stage. What sounded like the score for a Hitchcock thriller began; a trio of dancers dressed in sea-blue bodysuits, with their own faces printed on their chests, began to entwine and untwine. The music stopped, the spotlight craned left toward a balcony, and the strings began again. This time, emerald-green dancers’ arms appeared. They slapped their hands against the balcony, then the light went out, and a similar thing happened on a balcony on the right side of the stage, with a bright-red trio of dancers. With that, we were introduced to our three voguing factions, who would go on to duke it out over music by Donna Summer, Brian Eno, and David Bowie.
“I really feel like Frank Lloyd Wright did a great job designing my set,” McNamara said in a Q&A with Nancy Spector in the middle of—yes, in the middle of, not after—the performance. “I really felt like we should utilize all that space of it.” And that he did. Audience members had to swivel their heads around constantly, trying to figure out where and how to see it all.
Part of McNamara’s intention was to bewilder us—to set up a space where few things were stable, and where dancers pirouetted and strutted just inches away from audience members, in the aisles and near the orchestra pit. (At one point, I accidentally got smacked in the head by a blue man.) McNamara told Spector, who is now the Brooklyn Museum’s deputy director, that he meant for there to be a lot of confusion. There had to be more than two sides because, in true wars, things can get very complex very quickly. “We love a good climax, where it’s the Jets against the Sharks, but that’s not really life,” he said, when asked to name a winner. “You have something like Syria, where there a lot of people of involved. You can’t narrow it down to a binary.”
The reference to politics wasn’t random—McNamara also said, “I think [the theater] looks like a ’60s sci-fi spaceship or a European parliamentary room. It feels very official in here, so let’s mess with that.” As the performance progressed, the trios danced across the room, occasionally kicking each other down or fighting. At another point, in a three-part sex scene, red dancers made love to blue ones. Neither of these things would happen in an official setting, nor would a speaker get interrupted by announcements of common-ratio numbers, as McNamara and Spector were during the Q&A. The performance conjured a space where systems didn’t exist and people of all kinds could collide, almost like hydrogen particles flung across a room.
But Battleground has a major problem: it’s guilty of mentioning the Internet and the digital, and doing little to build on it. Interludes in the performance feature a man’s voice saying phrases like “Can you feel it in your Ethernet?” and “My veins are actually fiberoptics.” I can’t see any reason why this needs to be here. Whereas in ME3M McNamara created a history of dance based on gestures he saw on YouTube, the connection to the Web here is tenuous at best. It almost comes off as though McNamara were crossing off a list of items. Humans as cyborgs? Check. Ultra-contemporary reference to the Internet? Check.
So Battleground is a very enjoyable experience, but it’s also too open-ended. No doubt this is sort of the point. Pressured to pick a winner by Spector, McNamara turned the question over to an audience member nearby. “Who, me?” the surprised audience member asked. “I guess the green team.” (She was totally right—the green team’s sexy pelvis-slapping and shimmying seduced me.) With this, the disco music started up again and, after a few more sequences, the green team reigned victorious, dragging out the red and blue losers.
Would anything have changed if the red or blue team won? Probably not, but I almost wish something would have been different. Everything feels too random at the end of Battleground, as though McNamara threw together one too many ideas. As audience members left the theater, green, red, and blue dancers could be seen slithering away near a column. Meanwhile, people debated whether they were bored or riveted, or if feeling bored was even intentional.