TheatersWeekend

Queer Bodies, Obedience, and Aging in Crossing the Line Festival

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Ezra Azrieli Holzman in “Age and Beauty (Part 3) (photo by Ian Douglas)

The ninth edition of the French Institute Alliance Française’s Crossing the Line festival concluded on October 4 after presenting over three weeks of interdisciplinary performances at various venues across New York City.

Miguel Gutierrez is nominally a dancer and choreographer, though his three-part epic, Age and Beauty, which was presented at New York Live Arts, frequently looks and sounds like theater. It is avowedly “queer,” as the promotional literature emphasizes: “a three-part suite of queer performance” addressing, among other things, “queer time” and showing how “queer theory meets an artist confronting middle age.”

Gutierrez is forty-four, so the kind of aging he is talking about is not the time of life in which disease and dementia descend upon the defenseless elderly. Gutierrez is pointing to the fact that he is no longer the adorable young dancer whom, as a line in one of the pieces goes, audiences contemplate “fucking.” He still sports a face as handsome as one could want, but his body is grown thick and his movements likewise. The performing lifespan of dancers is traditionally short; they are like tennis players, sent out to pasture usually by his age, as a new crop of young things takes the stage and tempts the audience with their agility and fresh faces. Gutierrez is shorter than dancers are usually expected to be; his body has thus always been somewhat “other” than what is permitted, which must have raised questions for him all along about how he fits in.

The cast of “Age and Beauty (Part 3)” (photo by Ian Douglas) (click to enlarge)

Age and Beauty elegantly allows the spectator to see the effects of aging on dancers. Part 1 pairs Gutierrez with 25-year-old Mickey Mahar, who looks like a skinny adolescent, waiting for his flesh to catch up with his bones. Their pas de deux compels the viewer to compare their bodies and movements. Gutierrez brings a highly developed focus and certainty that draw the eye naturally toward him. Mahar, however, is less earth-bound, his movements more angular and swift, his energy more palpably delightful, his freedom and relative innocence ineluctably on display. Part 3 expands the age range, including the eight-year-old Ezra Azriele Holzman and the 64-year-old Ishmael Houston-Jones. Holzman’s presence here is transformative. She is an astonishingly good dancer for her age, with the lingering aura of the playground in her movements. She can outrun the adults, while they are left to convey the subtle complexities of emotion. With her, Gutierrez carries his theme home.

Gutierrez never lets his audience forget that he’s putting on a show. He uses direct address and often keeps the house lights up during the performance. The spectators sit on the stage, on three or all four sides of the dance floor, not in the raked house seats. He generally leaves the dancers onstage too, even when they are not performing. In one segment, he operates a sound system in plain view. We are all in the room together: no mysteries here. This self-consciousness is the focus of Part 2, which largely consists of a scripted dialogue, purportedly secretly recorded, between Gutierrez and his manager, Ben Pryor, with a stand-in performing Gutierrez’s role and Pryor playing himself.

While the theme in Part 2 is the struggle of the artist in a hateful world, which includes the denial of financial security, it is hard not to notice that Gutierrez is extraordinarily successful in manipulating the money machine. The dialogue reveals that Gutierrez has so many shows to do and grants to spend and guest appearances to make at various institutions that he can’t keep track of them at all without his manager. The burden of being an artist is supposedly so great that at one point the Gutierrez character declares that he wants to quit making work, though he later contradicts himself and says he wants to continue.

Ezra Azrieli Holzman, Miguel Gutierrez, and Alex Rodabaugh in “Age and Beauty (Part 3)” (photo by Ian Douglas)

While I am a European-style socialist and believe that everybody has a human right to a roof over his or her head, food, clothing, and good healthcare, Gutierrez is difficult to pity. Age and Beauty got financing from New York Live Arts, National Endowment for the Arts, New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, New England Foundation for the Arts, the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and French Institute Alliance Française, and Gutierrez has been privileged to receive funding internationally from dance institutions, museums, governments, and private foundations, as he teaches here and there and tours the globe with his work. This year Crossing the Line might even have been retitled the Miguel Gutierrez Festival, as his work occupies so much of the programming. Gutierrez is not an outsider. He is the establishment, and as such, he makes an iffy protagonist in this drama.

The vagaries of making a career as a choreographer/performer were given voice in another Crossing the Line offering, Jack Ferver and Marc Swanson’s Chambre, inspired by Jean Genet’s The Maids. Genet grew up an orphan and became a thief before being embraced by the French cultural establishment and whisked off to fame. He remained a genuine voice for the oppressed, taking up the causes of prisoners’ rights, the Palestinians, gays, and the underclasses. The Maids is a slippery, brilliant play that continues to shine light on class differences and gender, as it is given over to role-play by two servants who imitate their mistress and their own humiliated selves.

The cast of “Suite No. 2” (photo by Ian Douglas)

Swanson’s set for the performance at the New Museum nicely evoked a fractured Rococo. Several separate structures painted white and gold and some draped with gold chains circled the stage, pieces of a fragmented house, as each contained a doorway, window or mirror. Additional mirrors were placed upstage, along with a large mirror hanging at an angle above the audience. The spectators were given a generous amount of time to contemplate the design before being seated after Ferver’s opening monologue, taken from a deposition of Lady Gaga in a case brought by a former assistant. Gaga imperiously denies owing overtime to the assistant, asserting that the high-life parties and private jet voyages that the assistant enjoyed more than compensated for lack of pay.

Ferver’s rewrite of Genet parrots the basic idea of the original, though there’s much less text and precious little dancing. There is, however, a lot of posing — long stretches in which Ferver and his co-performers (Jacob Slominski and Michelle Mola) stand in place while robotic music plays. Through this dead time, the spectators have plenty of opportunity to admire Reid Bartelme’s very fine costumes, which, like the set, are gold and white. At the opening and in an extended sequence, Ferver displays his ass to the audience. Most of the dancing occurs almost invisibly upstage, behind the set, though seen partially through the mirrors.

While surely no one would argue that Ferver’s imitation has bested Genet, on one point he may have succeeded. Ferver enhances the gruesomeness of the imagined killing of the mistress by incorporating a recitation of the vivid facts of the murder trial on which Genet based his play. Unfortunately, in the end Ferver turns to a Gutierrez-esque, whiny monologue about his lack of financial security. Again, I am sympathetic to the general plea that we should all live with dignity, but Ferver doesn’t break my heart. Funding and support came from the New Museum, various entities at Bard College, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, American Dance Institute, Baryshnikov Arts Center, Watermill Center, and the Institute of Contemporary Art at Maine College.

(photo by Ian Douglas) (click to enlarge)

Joris Lacoste’s Suite No. 2, presented at FIAF’s Florence Gould Hall, consists of appropriated texts in various languages from a wide range of sources and in every conceivable tone. The use of appropriated texts,is a hallmark of art performance, and hardly new. In our current cultural technological soup, every man, woman, and child is appropriating and passing on bits of texts and visuals. Pop cultural references drew satisfied sighs from the audience, and the mention of George W. Bush brought laughter, even though the text was the announcement of the disastrous invasion of Iraq by the U.S. in 2003. The juxtapositions of the text fragments are sometimes interesting but not groundbreaking. I had seen an earlier version of the piece at Performa ’13, performed by amateurs, which was less than exciting.

The current version benefits greatly from the very gifted performers: Vladmimir Kudryavtsev, Emmanuelle Lafon, Nuno Lucas, Barbara Matijevic, and Olivier Normand. They seem to be assisted by onstage electronic prompters, but their delivery is smooth and lyrical. In fact, they are essentially singing, and that’s where Lacoste’s piece lifts itself up into a higher realm. The language, or rather the languages, become streams of sound with pitch and rhythm. As the piece progressed, this conversion happened subtly and very pleasingly in my ear and mind.

Ant Hampton’s The Extra People, also at Florence Gould Hall, was billed as an “immersive performance.” Translation: the spectators must wear headphones and obey the instructions of a mechanized child voice. After 15 minutes waiting outside the theater past the start time, the audience is ushered into a room where they spend the next ten minutes being outfitted with safety vests and the earphones. Another ten minutes or so are spent in a room being introduced to “the voice” and receiving an mp4 player. The next portion has the spectators sitting in the theater and occasionally being instructed to do basic movements: stand, sit, raise your arm. One person shines a flashlight around. Meanwhile, on stage, another group follows instructions to walk about and hide under some blankets. Later, the seated audience members will take their turn to follow the same instructions.

The cast of “The Extra People” (photo © Britt_Hatzius) (click to enlarge)

The piece is supposed to provide insight into the plight of anonymous workers. That seems like a big stretch. It is quite similar to many so-called participatory performances in that what the spectators are asked to do is unimaginative and unenlightening. The movements here resemble a recreational activity in a home for the aged, nothing so strenuous that the event’s insurers might be concerned. It does not instigate “critical thinking,” the expressed purpose of Crossing the Line. Rather, it demonstrates how even presumably educated, socially liberated people are ready to be told what to do and how they obey uncritically. I kept thinking: this is how fascism takes over.

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