NO SERIOUSLY! THE NEW GAY THEATER IS NOT POLITICAL!!!

"I want to have sex with you. I just don't want to do it in a way that could be construed as political." Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

From Neil Genzlinger’s review of “Yank!”:

“Yank!,” with music by Joseph Zellnik and book and lyrics by David Zellnik, his brother, of course has an added resonance because of the current debate over whether to repeal the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. But this is hardly a political show. Its subtitle, “A WWII Love Story,” encapsulates its main aspiration: to depict a same-sex couple as so many heterosexual couples have been shown over the years, struggling to capture the elusive thing called love against a backdrop of grand events.

If by “a backdrop of grand events” Genzlinger is referring to the social pathology of homophobia that unfairly punishes gay people for being gay and uses the mechanism of government to manipulate gay people’s lives, to deny their very existence, and to prevent them from even developing loving relationships with the people they want, then NO, SO MANY HETEROSEXUAL COUPLES HAVE NOT BEEN SHOWN THIS WAY OVER THE YEARS. OR EVER.

This “hardly political” love story literally cannot exist outside of politics. It takes place within a political system. And it is a condition that is enforced on gay people by heterosexuals who participate in the homophobic establishment. Am I taking crazy pills? If not, please point me to the nearest pharmacy?

OMG THE NEW GAY THEATER IS TOTALLY NOT POLITICAL

Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

So yeah, business as usual around these parts. And, of course I’m chiming in on something gay-themed, as has been the pattern of recent.

So, umm, I don’t know if y’all read Patrick Healey’s little piece on the “NEW GAY THEATER”! Look out! Apparently, it’s not political. And it’s also about how the gays are exactly the same as the straights, and also totally not.

For the sake of brevity, I’m just going to re-post a comment I made on the Facebook page of the Gay & Lesbian Review (which, btw, is a great publication you should all read; that includes you too, straights). So here goes. Have fun. And comment if you feel like it:

OMG, this article is very problematic. It argues that these new gay plays are showing us that gay love (and all which that implies) is “no different from their straight variations,” but then quotes Daryl Roth as saying he wanted to produce “The Temperamentals” because “I’ve always wanted to learn more and understand more about gay life, and think others have the same curiosity.” If there is no difference between the gay and straight experience of love, then where does this “curiousity” come from? While the experience of love may be essentially universal, the experience of love in the world is not necessarily universal. It can be different, and it is quite different for gay people. Gay love is political–whether we like it or not–because it occurs within a world that suppresses it. That’s kind of the bottom line, isn’t it? I’m “curious” to know what others think.

BTW, the title of the photo from The Times–that is, the title their photo editors gave it–is “23gay-yank-popup.” So subtle, and also sounds fun!

New Kid On The Block

Management for downtown dance-theater/performance artists (we really may need to just make up a term that covers this; suggestions? I guess Na’vi is already taken…) is not a simple thing. It’s obscure, there is very little money in it, and in a financial climate that threatens both artist funding and the capital that goes into keeping New York’s handful of downtown venues in operation, the future just doesn’t seem very bright, or steady.

But one man is about to take up the torch of what often feels as much like a social cause as it does an artistic industry. Ben Pryor (full discloser: we’re kind of BFFs…), who has been working to represent artists with Pentacle for the past two years, has decided to strike out and start up his own management endeavor, tbspMGMT. Yay!

Pryor’s first act/action as an independent rep. is AMERICAN REALNESS, a curated festival of contemporary dance artists (Gelflings?) that is being held at Abrons Arts Center (a venue that now can be counted on to present New York City’s edgiest artists), which coincides with APAP and The Public Theater’s Under the Radar (UTR) festival, a festival that has built a solid reputation for presenting excellent emerging theater work, but one that has also drawn criticism for under representing NYC’s dance community.

For AMERICAN REALNESS, Pryor has managed to assemble what The New York Times’ Claudia La Rocco might term “the cool kids” of downtown dance (Uruk Hai?), including Jeremy Wade, Miguel Gutierrez, Jack Ferver, and our very own Ann Liv Young. Specifically, though, these artists all seem to share an outlook that engages the body in performance in ways that are gritty, explicit, passionate (or its opposite, dispassionate), and generally queer.

I emailed Pryor about American Realness and his decision to go it alone as an artist representative, and these are some of the things he had to say…

Counter Critic (C.C.): What the fuck are you doing?

Ben Pryor (tbsp):

Re Defining American Contemporary Performance

trying to sell the work of these artists who are pushing, reshaping and erasing the boundaries of dance and theater.

Starting my own management entity with a bang.

Showing some amazing work, and maybe some tits and ass.

C.C.: How are you doing it?

tbsp:

By the seat of my pants.

Blood sweat and tears

C.C.: Need more info about AMERICAN REALNESS.

tbsp:

I love under the radar, which has been the best platform for contemporary work during APAP, but it doesn’t show dance.  It became a dream of mine to create an “under the radar fordance”, if you will.

I am marketing the whole thing as a festival because it is a better way to put the work out there than a showcase. The goal is selling the work, but I am also trying to reshape international perception of american work. somehow they don’t really know the contemporary stuff is happening, not in a big way. I am trying to give attention to that. I am also trying to challenge american presenters (outside the 10 that do present contemporary work) to get with it and show some good shit!

This is also sorta the launch of tbspMGMT. I haven’t clearly established relationships with everyone, but I am trying to make it an organic progression.

Why these artists?

Cause these artists give me chills when I see what they do.

I love the way they think.

That they are reshaping contemporary work and it is not being seen outside new york and that is CRAZY.

Cause who doesn’t like calling out a whole industry of your peers for being lame and old fashioned.

Cause I like making a splash and so do these artists.

American Realness begins Friday, January 8 @ Abrons Arts Center and runs through January 11. Tickets to shows and a full festival schedule can be found here.

SHAMELESS HOLIDAY SELF-PROMOTION: But what’s new around here?

Mx. Justin Bond and the Pixie Harlots, photo by Michael Hart

Sorry that the C.C. vibe has atrophied in recent to a mere drizzle of self-promotion. But I HAVE to! “It’s in my nature.” So without further apology…

First: I’ve had the immense honor (and enormous pleasure) to assemble the opening musical medley for the illustrious, lustrous, and lustful Justin Bond’s “Christmas Spells” opening tomorrow (Wed, Dec 9) at Abrons Arts Center. The show runs through Satruday and features Mx. Bond and the Pixie Harlots in a transtastic rendition of Kate Bornstein’s “Dixie Belle.” Get your tix, go,  and let the pixie dust and ferocious glam cast an Xmas spell that no stupid awful ignorant relatives will be able to undo.

Last: On Thursday, Dec 10 (I know it’s overlapping, but you’ll just have to adjust your schedules, darlings), I will be participating in a short improvisatory performance during a concert at the Mannes College of Music. The recital is the culmination of a classical improvisation class taught by composer Noam Sivan. It’s free and should be lots of fun. It’s fairly unorthodox for a conservatory to push improvisation (I don’t think Mannes offered the class when I was there). So come out and support what amounts to exercising physiological freedom within one of the most physically strict traditions of artmaking.

That’s all, I think. For now, at least. One never knows…

xoxoC.C.

UPDATE

I almost forgot! There’s also a hot new exhibition of photography–“In Conversation: MTA and DNA”–by Mathew Pokiok at Dance New Amsterdam, with an opening reception Thursday evening at 7pm (OMG, triple overlap!!!). The exhibition is of photographs from Mount Tremper Arts‘ most recent summer season, which included a little show called SCARLET FEVER (which you may have heard of). The exhibition opening will be followed by the opening of Aynsley Vandenbroucke Movement Group’s “A Number of Small Black and White Dances” (runs Dec. 10-12). Xmas just came early!

After “Aftermath”

This "character" was tortured in Abu Grahib, and members of his family were killed because of the war in Iraq.

This "character" was tortured in Abu Graib, and members of his family were killed because of the U.S. invation of Iraq.

Jessica Blank and Erick Jensen’s “Aftermath” closed this weekend at New York Theater Workshop, and I was able to attend the Sunday matinee.

This work is well-written–or, “well-assembled”, as most of the dialogue is taken from transcriptions of interviews with post-American invasion Iraqi refugees—and the cast is very gifted, each member of the company delivering performances that in turns stirred and disturbed.

I will be honest that I wasn’t sure whether or not I even wanted to see this play. I knew the subject matter would be difficult. My central reservation was tied to a personal (call it a moral) skepticism about making art out of current human atrocities; more specifically, play-acting the lives of people who are currently suffering.

I don’t really have a philosophical place of argument. It’s more a feeling I get. Like when TV shows started incorporating the current Iraq war (still not over, folks) into their plotlines. I find it uncomfortable to watch. By presenting the war as status quo, and by avoiding the war’s political precariousity (that is: a war can only exist as long as it is allowed to exist by a governing body), these shows seemed to offer a tacit endorsement of the war. The war is even necessary in order for these narratives to resonate the way they are intended. It’s topical, and all topical subjects are tied to temporal proximity.

At any rate, my reservations proved both correct and also inept while watching “Aftermath.”

The play presents six stories of real Iraqi refugees; refugees who I assume (perhaps naively, perhaps optimistically) are still alive and living under reprehensible conditions thanks to our country’s war against theirs.

The tactic of the playwrights is fair enough: get the audience to care about the characters (can we call them “characters”?) through humor and amiability, then, once they’re hooked, thread in the conflict, the carnage, the cold hard truths about life, and the reality that our tax dollars were (and still are) at work in ruining the lives of real live people in another country, on another continent, in a place where most of us will never set foot in our entire lives.

And make no mistake: the creators of this show are profiting from its success, and, therefore, these events. It is also sketchy that the dozens of people who were interviewed in order to make this work are not directly credited, nor even thanked in the program, and that Blank and Jensen are given sole credit for “text.” But then, what is it to “thank” someone for a stories such as these? [UPDATE: Please see discussion with Erik Jensen in the comments below, including a clarification of my intentions with this paragraph.]

But I resist faulting “Aftermath” for being manipulative, even though it is that to a degree. There is something in it that goes well beyond the authors’ care to execute their job well; to construct an interesting theatrical structure; to draw in the audience; to tell a story.  But this is also where that crisis comes to a fore, in that really all art must on some level entertain, and in order for performance to survive–to reach people, and therefore, touch them–it must be successful.

But what does it mean for this play to be “successful”? And what does it mean to be entertained by these stories? Continue reading

REGARDING ART, PERFORMANCE, AND THE PRINCIPLE OF CONSENT

Wednesday night, I attended Steven Cohen’s presentation of film works at CPR in Williamsburg. During one of the brief discussion breaks—led by a becostumed Cohen—one audience member prefaced his question by stating that “the audience inevitably becomes part of your work.” The assumption went unchallenged.

It struck a particularly live chord for me, as throughout that evening, I had been wrestling with this question: To what extent are the unsuspecting people in Cohen’s film documentations a part of the work? For me, it is not a closed case.

The co-existence and co-contextuality of Cohen and the people his performance reaches—generally a live, public, and incidental (if targeted) audience—is certainly integral to the constitution of his work. The two cannot be entirely separated.

But I am suspicious about just how readily Cohen and many others transmute real live autonomous human beings into works of art, which is what we do when we say that an audience “becomes part of the art”; we have circumscribed the audience within the material boundary of the art; we have taken away their autonomy and their will.

Cohen’s work, like the work of certain other artists creating work today (and also like the work of many artists over the last handful of decades), blurs the conservative separation of performer and audience. But while blurring may occur—and I’m starting to understand most definitions as blurred lines, rather than crisp lines—I don’t know that it’s actually ever possible to erase that line.

For me, performance must always be consensual. Absolutely. No question.

It is interesting that in the beginning of the first film Cohen showed, he includes documentary images of Jews in Nazi-era Vienna who were forced to scrub the streets with toothbrushes before crowds of jeering onlookers. This presents us immediately with—well, above all else, a morally reprehensible action, but also—a precise illustration of what performance cannot be. Continue reading

About The Bacchae

The Public Theater's "The Bacchae" - Photo by Damon Winter, for the New York Times

The Public Theater's "The Bacchae" -Photo by Damon Winter, for the NYT

I know it’s been a while since I threw down a bona-fide review around these parts. So I’m breaking silence with some thoughts on The Bacchae, which wraps up its run The Public Theater’s Shakespeare In The Park this week. (Warning: this may fall more under “rant”.)

It’s also been a while since I had been to one of the Delacorte shows. Getting older leaves you less zest for pulling an all-nighter at The Works (now closed (sad face)) and stumbling over to be one of the first people in line on Central Park West at 3am, just to get tickets to see Meryl Streep in “The Seagull”; although, it was totally worth it just to see her do a cartwheel on stage.

At any rate, this year’s Virtual Line made it easy for the old folks (hit “send” when the Mac strikes midnight) to get in, so I drug myself up to Central Park to check out what a friend of mine said he “wished I had seen”. He later clarified that he was just curious about my opinion, and wasn’t really recommending that I see it. Hmm…

Well, I suppose I would categorize this show under the old-artists-got-picked-to-do-a-big-gig-together-and-no-one-pushed-them-to-do-better-work category (I’ve still got my eye on you, Trish). The wafts of arrogance this production exudes is troubling. Not blatant arrogance—although, there is plenty of that in Jonathan Groff’s petulant Dionysus—but the “we’re great artists and don’t we know it, and the public won’t know any better” kind of arrogance; casual; comfortable; like a nice pair of orthopedic shoes.

But when we go to the theater, we don’t want orthopedic shoes. We want riveting ideas, and risk-taking gestures. We want to be pushed (although, not necessarily physically pushed, Ms. Young). We want to know that the artists are pushing us, and themselves, to the level beyond where we are. We want the art to be in front of us, so, by going to it, we are taken to a new place. This production fell far back and behind what we know about theater and what we know about ourselves. It eschewed the central subject of the play with demure stereotyping and philosophical meandering. (In case you’re wondering, the central subject of the play is Dionysus: The god of drinking and fucking.) And along the way, presented us with several examples of exactly how not to use drag and homosexuality in the service of constructing a heterodoxic narrative.

What director JoAnne Akalaitis was thinking when she conceived this piece is beyond me (I’ll get to details when I get to them). For help, I looked to the program notes. Sometimes, you just have to.

In the notes, Nicholas Rudall, who made the translation for this production, is quoted as saying, “The Bacchae is a play rich in themes, and one of its most disturbing is the inadequacy of rational human government in the face of the ecstatic irrationality of Dionysus…The Bacchae is, in the end, a document of human folly. Dionysus lacks mercy. And to assume that human wisdom and human rationality are forces that can resist him is a monumental mistake.”

Umm, wrong. Continue reading

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