Theaters

The Art Fair for Contemporary Performance

by Alexis Clements on January 10, 2013

Emily Johnson’s “Niicugni.” Dancers pictured (left to right): Emily Johnson and Aretha Aoki. (photo by Ves Pitts)

Emily Johnson’s “Niicugni.” Dancers pictured (left to right): Emily Johnson and Aretha Aoki. (photo by Ves Pitts)

Many readers of Hyperallergic know about the art fairs that serve the visual arts community, which seem to expand and replicate themselves at an ever-increasing rate around the globe. But readers may not be aware of the corollary in the world of performance. Of course, a dance work or a work for the stage can’t be bought and sold in quite the same way, and certainly not for remotely the same price tag, as a Jeff Koons or an Agnes Martin. Yet, there is still a clear marketplace around contemporary performance works, even if most performers participating stand to profit very little from it. And one of the hubs of that marketplace is the annual conference in New York City of the Association of Performing Arts Presenters (APAP).

More a trade show than an art fair, the annual APAP conference takes place in mid-January and is meant to serve as an opportunity for producers and venue managers (from small indie theaters to large university arts centers with an Ivy League budgets to international festival bookers) to talk shop, network, learn about the latest trends, and, perhaps most importantly, see more shows that they can stomach. Because ultimately, part of what they’re doing is shopping for completed shows to bring to their venues or for artists who they’re interested in working with down the line.

What that means is that even though the conference itself is taking place for a few days in one of Manhattan’s large hotels, throughout the city major theaters and dance companies have pushed their schedules to open shows ahead of the official January 11 start of the conference. And the downtown community, along with smaller companies and independent performers, have been jockeying since last January to make sure that they are presenting or participating in one of the rapidly multiplying festivals that surround the APAP conference.

The Public Theater really formalized the APAP festival trend in the downtown community eight years ago with Under the Radar, featuring work by US and international artists that is grounded in theater but challenges traditional paradigms and often reaches across the disciplines of theater, dance, music, media, computerized technology, and sometimes installation or visual art performance (this, by the way, is often what’s meant when people use the term ‘downtown’ to describe performance work in New York, or the more international terms ‘contemporary performance’ or ‘live art’). There’s also PS122’s COIL Festival (which was started to highlight work grounded in dance that then draws in other disciplines, but now features a variety of styles and modes of work), and American Realness at Abrons Arts Center, which aspires to be the most artistically aggressive of the lot.

But those festivals aren’t even the half of it these days. There’s New York Live Arts’ Live Artery, and the new PROTOTYPE: Opera/Theatre/Now at HERE. Even the small indie theaters that serve less prominent and more traditional theater artists are getting in on the game, such as the Horse Trade Theater’s Encores recap of shows from 2012. One new and exciting addition to the roster this year is SQUIRTS: New Voices in Queer Performance, which started earlier this month but runs through the start of APAP at the iconic La MaMa ETC. SQUIRTS is being curated by the well-known downtown figure Dan Fishback and each night features queer performance vets like Mx. Justin Vivian Bond and Peggy Shaw paired with young and emerging queer artists.

Performers in Tea Tupajić and Petra Zanki's "The Curators' Piece (A Trial Against Art)." (photo by Monica Santos Herberg)

Performers in Tea Tupajić and Petra Zanki’s “The Curators’ Piece (A Trial Against Art).” (photo by Monica Santos Herberg)

There are also a litany of talks, debates, and panels that are part of the conference and festivals surrounding it. But the real heart of this weekend, the days leading up to it, and the week following, are the ungodly number of shows you can see. This year, for the first time, there’s actually a master calendar available to the public and in an app from Contemporary Performance.

So, if you’re in New York City, or can get here easily, this is your chance to treat performance like an art fair. You could literally see 50+ shows between Friday afternoon and Monday evening if you wanted to. The visual arts world isn’t the only one determined to treat artistic consumption like a grueling endurance sport. And if you can’t get to New York City to see the shows, know that at least some of the work you do see locally probably came through the APAP festival at one point or another.

The visual arts world isn’t the only one determined to treat artistic consumption like a grueling endurance sport.

Similar to the visual art fair, the APAP fest raises questions about the size and scope of the market for performance, and also exactly who benefits from the pots of money changing hands. With so much competition for the eyeballs of the people with the power to actually book shows there are definitely some young or less savvy artists who are being exploited — being made to pay for the opportunity to showcase their work when there is virtually no chance that the work will be seen by anyone at all with the power to book them somewhere. In addition, New York City is already a place where even great performers showing work outside of the APAP festival crush compete mightily for audiences to actually show up given the enormous competition for people’s money and attention in the city. So when you ramp up to a situation where hundreds of shows are already competing with each other in the span of a few days, it means that even amazing performances will end up with tiny audiences, begging the question, who are these festivals really serving when mounting even short performances requires months of rehearsal and serious funding. That said, having attended the APAP festivals here in New York for a few years now I do know that inevitably at least a couple of my favorite shows of the year are shows I saw at APAP. So it’s hard to deny that there is great work being given a platform, even if it is in the context of a trade show.

With that in mind, it’s worth dipping your toes in the water during January if you can, particularly if you’re not very familiar with contemporary performance work — you’ll get a crash course in a week’s time and quickly learn some of the standard downtown banter if you spend some time listening to conversations in the theater lobbies between shows.

I’ll be publishing a recap of some of the shows I’ve seen and the buzz I’ve heard and overheard around the APAP festivals next week.

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