But first: where else could you see not one, but two shows that imaginatively incorporated voguing into traditional theater?
iona rozeal brown’s exuberant, smoothly executed, Kabuki-inspired extravaganza battle of yestermore, at Skylight West, featured crazily patterned but sophisticated adaptations of kimonos by costume stylist Brent Barkhaus. Brown collaborated with hip-hop and voguing dancers who fought, posed and worked their costumes—especially the colossal platform shoes—to the max. yestermore was a logical extension of the New York-based brown’s nonperformance work, which has drawn on noh and kabuki theater and the Japanese fascination with American urban black culture.
New York choreographer Trajal Harrell’s relatively somber Antigone Jr. married ancient Greek tragedy and uptown drag with the brilliant line, “The House of Thebes is in the house!” Amidst voguing and many costume changes, Harrell’s costar Thibault Lac read the scene from Sophocles’ Antigone in which the title character wonders whether to honor family or state, accepting the risk of death by burying her brother in defiance of the king’s order. The surface of the dance and some of the other spoken text (“rich bitch,” “princess”) acquired the emotional and narrative dimension of the classical drama: Antigone, a princess and daughter of the disgraced Oedipus, is driven to perform a rite, the burial, at the cost of all else.
The Nov. 4 screening at the Walter Reade Cinema of Guy Maddin’s 1988 silent film-inspired Tales from the Gimli Hospital: Reframed added a new, wonderfully performed score of strings, percussion, singing, voiceover, and sound effects, as in a radio play. Maddin’s madcap mythologizing of the Icelandic settlement in Canada where he grew up would be enough by itself, but the score added humor, suspense and spectacle. The live orchestra played partly in costume, and sometimes enacted the film—for example, when the percussionist kept the beat with two witty fish-covered instruments as a figure onscreen clapped with two fish. Singing, contributing some sound effects and also doing almost all the dialogue, with computer help to alter the pitch of her voice for the age and sex of the characters, vocalist Kristín Anna Valtýsdóttir was particularly outstanding among a talented and amiable group of Icelandic musicians.
Another revival, Robert Ashley’s opera That Morning Thing (1967) on November 19th at the Kitchen, floated intriguingly between opera and theater. Simply staged and elegantly lit, with performers on four sides of the Kitchen’s bare black box playing space, facing the center, the mixed media composition layered the inflections and intonations of live speaking voices with recordings of a lecture on frogs and a woman’s tortured remembrance of a sexual experience, plus the hot electric piano of “Blue” Gene Tyrrany. The revival evoked the experimental atmosphere of the late sixties and was a welcome chance to see Ashley’s early work brought to life.
With Maddin and Ashley, Performa revived legends. But throughout the run, the festival also staged strong contemporary work, such as Liz Magic Laser’s I Feel Your Pain, Gerard Byrne’s In Repertory and Simon Fujiwara’s The Boy Who Cried Wolf.
Music played a big role at Performa 11, as in Shirin Neshat’s OverRuled, which featured the excellent Iranian vocalist Mohsen Namjoo and a top-notch band. Then there were the terrific ensemble at Maddin’s screening, Ashley’s opera, and Bliss, Ragnar Kjaartanson’s 12-hour rendition of two minutes from the final aria of Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro.
It was interesting to see, within days of each other, Maddin’s adapted screening and Laser’s staging of a play in the cinema at the School of Visual Arts. Laser constructed her play from transcripts of interviews or dialogues with political figures. Cameras filmed live actors planted among the audience in the cinema, and Laser mixed the video for live projection on the cinema screen. Maddin’s and Laser’s work showed the adaptability of art forms, turning cinema into music and theater (Maddin) or turning theater in a cinema into film (Laser).
The nature of performance is changing. Much of the new work presented looked a lot like literary theater (prepared texts as the center of the performance, recited by professional actors using sets and props, often on a proscenium stage and in a large auditorium) or musical theater (opera, musical pageant).
Theater, opera and dance have changed in recent years. It’s worth noting that this is the first time Performa has categorized events on its web site using traditional labels like “theater” or “literature.” The classifications raise questions of what performance is and what Performa represents, and how performance is received: In art performance, is virtuosity a virtue? Is it true that visual artists are persons of universal abilities, able to create performance without prior experience, or is there something specific about live and time-based media that requires corresponding skill, education and training? Against what literary tradition do we judge performance texts? Is performance a distinct form of art, and can it embrace a multitude of forms, subgenres and practices?
Left: iona rozeal brown, battle of yestermore, 2011. A Performa Commission. Featuring Benny Ninja. Photo: Paula Court. Courtesy of Performa; Right: Robert Ashley, That Morning Thing, 2011. A Performa Premiere. Photo: Paula Court. Courtesy of Performa.