MIAMI BEACH — There’s the whiff of grand ambition in MEEM 4 MIAMI: A Story Ballet About the Internet, artist Ryan McNamara’s new version of his award-winning commission for the Performa 13 performance art biennial. The hourlong “ballet” is a layered sensory experience that inundates audience members with dance, music, and lights, while periodically carting seated audience members around the theater at the Castle Beach Resort (formerly The Playboy Hotel).
McNamara’s performance, which employs dozens of performers both onstage and off, is a frenzy of motion that fragments the audience into niche spaces across the theater and sometimes into adjacent hallways and rooms. No two experiences are alike, everything is personalized, but as spectators we have little control.
MEEM 4 MIAMI starts conventionally onstage, but soon audience members are carted around in their chairs by crew members who employ metal carts to lift and place each theatergoer at various points with ease. The sensation is thrilling at first, as eclectic fragments of music play on the speakers and dancers perform a mashup of moves from sources as varied as modern dance choreographer Martha Graham and hip-hop.
At the back of the main theater space, one dancer in a Hokusai-inspired leotard performs between a wall of mirrors and poles of bright lights as audience members are placed in the half-shadows like voyeurs at a peepshow. In another corner, two dancers echo one another like synchronized swimmers dressed in 1980s fashions, while angled viewers are never sure where to focus. And around the corner in a red-lit hallway, lines of people in chairs watch dancers act out a rhythmic pantomime with no discernible narrative arc.
This, we are to assume, is the internet rendered in ballet, but without the aid of screens or wifi. What starts as a unified experience quickly fragments into shards of something that is never pieced back together. Ambient moments lead from one to another without clear transitions. Slowly, the once-raptured audience eventually began to look at their smartphones — often capturing the fleeting moments — as much as the performers themselves.
There’s something unsettling in the theatrical experience that successfully captures the formless expanse of the World Wide Web and the ways it permeates everything, often without our permission or awareness. Individual characters are not very memorable, but that doesn’t stop us from constantly shifting our attention to see what we may be missing elsewhere. Performers often look at you directly, though their gaze can feel distant, even programmed.
Three-quarters of the way into the performance there was a moment when my attention dissipated, and I wondered when it would end. The YouTube-like clips of movement rendered into meatspace lost their fascination, as its point had been clearly made. In one instance, I found myself alone in a hallway unsure what would happen next. I relished the minute of solitude, which was only interrupted when I was wheeled back to the main space. As I reentered the large hall electronic music blared and performers appeared on the mezzanine.
McNamara’s understanding of the internet came across as a playlist of escapist vignettes and jarring sounds that seduce the audience’s fleeting attention and entertain their curiosity. What he didn’t do was offer much more to see than our reflection in a mirror of a world we see daily.
When the performance ended, the audience was left in the dark — like someone pulled the plug — and no one was quite sure what to do next.
MEEM 4 MIAMI: A Story Ballet About the Internet was performed December 3 and 4 at the Miami Grand Theater at Castle Beach Resort (5445 Collins Ave, Miami Beach, Florida)