In general, it’s very difficult to assume the mantle of a Warholian legacy. You can either do it interestingly, with great skill, such as Deborah Kass’s work, or do it in a confused, immature style that either randomly invokes Warhol’s name/aesthetic or just simply misses the point. Raja Feather Kelly’s new performance piece Andy Warhol’s 15 (Color Me, Warhol) falls somewhere in between.
The piece begins in a laid-back, fourth-wall-breaking manner that will more or less continue throughout the performance. One performer repeats a monologue about death as someone dresses him like a toddler, and another is on the phone ordering pizza for the audience, all against an aesthetic of multi-colored lights and black-and-white checkerboard projection. This mixture of haphazard thesis and performance quality coupled with brash histrionics and elementary art direction aren’t necessarily detriments, but they drag the piece down to a sophomoric level. Yes, it was nice that they ordered a pizza for us and the campy, recurring fights between one of the dancers and the choreographer were maybe amusing (albeit for the wrong reasons), but they drew away from the stronger facets of the two-hour piece.
Kelly’s strengths lie in manipulating and contorting the body — the blocking of “readymade” choreography (by borrowing a dance from one of his other pieces) and new moves alike are beautiful in their own right. And more so, they’re an interesting interpretation of Warhol’s signature repetition and mass imagery.
Punctuated with book report-style monologues of Merce Cunningham and Warhol’s diary entries, choreography, video pieces (such as of performers reading fan letters to the idols), and pop music samplings, Kelly’s piece has its highs and lows, but it’s ultimately a haughtily strung together and misleading piece. As its description reads,
COLOR ME, WARHOL is a provocative interpretation of Warhol’s vision of the iconic musical A Chorus Line as he would have imagined it. Fifteen dancers bring to life Warhol’s ideas, philosophy & iconic visuals through Kelly’s compelling dance-theater style, simultaneously radical & accessible.
It is really none of those things, as you should surmise. The bait and switch would be cheekily appreciated if there was more substance — some focus and paring down would have likely improved the evening’s performance.
The core concept is a restaging of Andy Warhol’s unrealized revival of A Chorus Line, which never happens, and that could be a superb Warholian backhand to the audience, though we saw it coming at about the actors’ second mention that they would perform it soon. The backsplash video montages of Miley Cyrus, Ariana Grande, OJ Simpson’s White Bronco, and SMPTE color bars are an interesting, updated Warholian vision. The dance interpretations of Disney’s version of the Three Little Pigs, complete with day-glo body paint and a well-built, big, bad wolf (who’d be better described by gay men as a bear), skewer nostalgic pop culture in a way that puts us on the same level while making us realize something new. There are shades of the Warhol vision, but they’re few and far between to warrant a holistic Warholian performance.
I was reminded of two past pieces upon viewing Kelly’s Andy Warhol’s 15 (Color Me, Warhol): Gob Squad’s Kitchen, a play/performance piece that recreates Andy Warhol’s film “Kitchen” with some surprising changes, and Drella, a vogue ballet conceived by Kelly and staged this past summer in Brooklyn. Upon seeing Drella, I was left confused and bereft, quite honestly offended that an incoherent ballet advertised heavily as an interpretation of Warhol’s drag personas would deign to have little relevance to his work aside from the costuming.
Gob Squad’s Kitchen, on the other hand, was a unique performative experience that referenced and reinterpreted Warhol’s oeuvre skillfully. Utilizing screen tests, Warholian vernacular, and updated aesthetics, Gob Squad brought Warhol into the 21st century. The audience participation here was not derogatory or used to illustrate subjugation as it was in Andy Warhol’s 15 (Color Me, Warhol); instead, audience members were part of a “factory made” search for new superstars, if only for one night.
Kelly’s piece misses those nuances and well-handled interpretations of Warhol’s work. And I only make the comparison because, when a piece is entitled and ostensibly about Andy Warhol, it has to live up to the legacy. It shouldn’t be a haphazard melange of dance, video, and music that shoves Warhol into somebody else’s unrelated vision.
Having intently witnessed two performance pieces staged by Kelly under the shadow of Warhol, I can say he’s finding his footing. His own skill in dance and ideas on contemporary pop culture and reality television seem promising in the small flashings he’s allowed them to manifest. It may behoove the artist to drop the Warhol mask and refine his individual vision to eradicate the more cringe-worthy aspects of his work, like false confrontations (in addition to the aforementioned backstage drama shown onstage here, there was an odd smackdown in Drella) and histrionic displays to allow for a more sophisticated, meaningful work to surface.
Andy Warhol’s 15 (Color Me, Warhol) by Raja Feather Kelly continues at Dixon Place (161 Chyrstie Street, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through April 25.
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