Jerome Bel, “Ballet (New York)” (2015) (photo by Paula Court, courtesy of Performa) (click to enlarge)

Performa 15, the New York performance biennial, in this edition looks to the Renaissance as its “historical research anchor,” as the festival’s promotional materials put it, though in practice, the historical tie is often so vague as to be meaningless.

Jérôme Bel’s commissioned Ballet (New York) builds on themes and structures that he has developed throughout his body of work. Though a choreographer by training, he has staged the personal narratives of dancers in which they speak candidly about their careers in the Hobbesian world of dance, where life is nasty, brutish, and short. These pieces feature some dance, but only as illustrative of a point in a personal, verbally expressed life narrative. The dancers are themselves, in the same way that persons with autism and other conditions appeared onstage in his Disabled Theater to respond to a question or carry out an instruction devised by Bel. Disabled Theater was deliberately artless, or trying to be, in order to serve up reality instead of artifice.

Disabled Theater raised a question about virtuosity. Bel delves further into this territory in Ballet, performed at three venues during Performa, including Marian Goodman Gallery, where I saw it. Ballet consists of a series of dance types, which the individual members of the company perform seriatim. The company is chosen for its diversity: young, old, black, white, professional dancer, non-dancer, differently abled (a woman on a motorized cart), pretty, plain, shy, and gleefully exhibitionistic.

Jerome Bel, “Ballet (New York)” (2015) (photo by Paula Court, courtesy of Performa)

These differences are not incidental but the central thrust of Ballet, in which each person performed, in rigid succession, ballet, a waltz, Michael Jackson’s moonwalk, and an improvisation, as indicated on a simple signboard placed on the stage. The ballerina in toe shoes naturally excelled at ballet but later seemed self-conscious improvising. The somewhat older woman in a desperately unflattering black-and-white unitard killed it on the moonwalk.

Most of the company came up with little to show on all outings. They were always themselves, though, identifiable in their facticity, with their varying levels of ability, training, and openness to perform. If one is not inclined to see such differences in daily life, this could be a revelation, though in general, the public dialogue on diversity has moved beyond this elementary exercise. Even still, Bel’s use of a disabled performer is exceptional, raising questions about exploitation, as with Disabled Theater. The piece had no perceptible connection to the Renaissance.

Pauline Curnier Jardin, “The Resurrection Plot” (2015), a Performa Commission (photo by Paula Court, courtesy of Performa) (click to enlarge)

Pauline Curnier Jardin’s The Resurrection Plot is another commissioned work, performed in the cathedral-like long hall of Pioneer Works in Red Hook, which seems to speak of history and industrial grandeur so well that the space almost performs itself. The Resurrection Plot took place on a lumpy, plastic-covered field, brushed with dark colors in a kind of camouflage, placed in the middle of the hall, the audience seated in the round. At the start, the performers, wearing shiny black costumes with cone hats, tossed glassine envelopes full of mock drugs to audience members. What followed, however, most often felt like children’s theater, as the performers jumped up and down, or danced in a succession of costumes. Not suitable for children in one respect was the sequence in see-through latex fetish wear. Early on, a singer in a red velvet dress paraded through the hilly structure and mounted the stairs at the far end of the hall where she posed with a large seashell-like object. At times she seemed to be singing live and at others simply posing while the music was electronically reproduced.

Jardin herself appeared in latex and again in another costume to deliver two monologues, which, because of her heavy accent and difficulty with the body mike, were inaudible and incomprehensible. Aspects of the costuming, as well as the objects which the performers pulled from beneath the plastic on the floor, were supposed to refer to Renaissance paintings and themes. For example, though some of the costumes imitated images in the paintings of Arcimboldo, they just looked goofy and kid-friendly. Similarly uninspiring, the latex and drug distribution seemed like cheap provocation.

Wyatt Kahn, “Work” (2015), a Performa Commission (photo by Paula Court, courtesy of Performa)

The setting of another Performa commission, Wyatt Kahn’s Work, in the Swedish Marionette Theater in Central Park, also evoked the feeling of children’s theater but did not recall Renaissance art or performance. The Marionette Theater itself is altogether charming; the exposed wood inside and out lends it a fun Scandinavian-rustic air. The benches for the spectators are set low to the ground to accommodate small kids. Kahn’s concept was to present talking artworks in an artist’s studio, who speak to each other only when the artist is away.

The artwork puppets are Robert Ryman-esque concoctions of foam wrapped in white fabric. Kahn uses two of the puppets to allude to the split between formalism and process in contemporary art. An incomplete artwork is the protagonist, its parts still vulnerable to disassembly at the artist’s whim. The debate over formalism and process is treated humorously, and here the talented puppeteers really put on a show, albeit one that would be more suitable to smart New York children in their first brush with high art. For adults, there wasn’t much to think about.

Performa 15 continues at venues throughout New York City through November 22.

Paul David Young is a Contributing Editor for PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art (MIT Press). His book newARTtheatre: Evolutions of the Performance Aesthetic, about visual artists appropriating theatre,...