Foucault Dancing and Future Tragedy: The APAP Performance Festivals in New York

“Panopticon” (photo by Ian Douglas)

APAP/NYC, the annual conference of the Association of Performing Arts Presenters, has hit town. PS122’s COIL, the Public Theater’s Under the Radar, HERE’s Prototype, Abrons Arts Center’s American Realness and other festivals all over the city aim to lure bookings for shows by presenting work around the time of the conference. Though naturally perilous, as the good is mixed with the bad, this concentration of festivals is a great opportunity to sample current offerings and get a feel for trends in multidisciplinary performance.

Jillian Peña’s Panopticon, a co-commission of Lower Manhattan Cultural Council and PS122, was co-presented at Abrons Arts Center by PS122’s COIL and the Abrons’ American Realness. The performance is named after the prison structure, in which prisoners could be constantly observed, that Michel Foucault made famous in his Discipline and Punish. The program note for this two-person dance cites Foucault, a tie that in practice was difficult to make. Foucault theorized about the way in which penology and medical science remove privacy and freedom from daily life.

Peña’s work takes the mirror as its central organizing principal. In Panopticon, her two dancers, Alexandra Albrecht and Andrew Champlin, reflect each other across a central line bisecting the space, performing the same movement in sync, while they speak over music that for the most part remains in the background. The recited text at times sounds like a monologue spoken by two people who share a single identity and at other times like a conversation between two people very familiar with each other.

Much of the earlier portion of the show involves a lot of difficult elevated work, which the dancers perform effortlessly. From time to time, they make a series of moves and after each step say, “Done” — “Done. Done. Done. Done.” — as if they weren’t in a public performance at all but still in the studio, practicing, unafraid to be overheard by the audience, whom they steadfastly ignore. The mirror dancing then changes into some intimate floor work, which plays very well in the x-shaped seating arrangement.

While spectators are present for Peña’s quite enjoyable and engaging dance, it does not immediately bring to mind the surveillance state and Foucault. Still, Peña’s nonstop dancers, as they mirror each other and morph into a single being, offer much to see and consider. Alexandra Albrecht is somewhat larger than the petit Andrew Champlin, which brings into question gender difference and expression as they are often presented in dance, especially when the two partnered toward the end, Albrecht leading or lifting, or the two sharing equally.

Marnie Breckenridge and James Bobick in “Dog Days” (photo by Ellen Appel)

Dog Days, presented at NYU’s Skirball Center by HERE’s Prototype festival of opera-theatre and music-theatre, was originally produced by Peak Performances at Montclair State University in association with Beth Morrison Projects. With music by David T. Little and a libretto by Royce Vavrek, it is a stunning tragedy. Set in a war-torn future, Dog Days tells the story of a family’s decline, as it lives completely isolated, hoping for airdrops of food and water from the army, which also sometimes stops by neighboring houses to clear out the dead. A deranged man in a dog costume (performance artist John Kelly) visits the family, looking for scraps, and makes friends with the daughter, superbly acted and sung by Lauren Worsham. The girl-dog thing sounds all too cute, but Kelly’s nuanced embodiment of this voiceless character, moving with the skittishness of an abused stray, avoids any trace of cheap pathos and instead significantly shapes the bleak portrait of this starving, futureless family.

Dog Days jumps right into its story with the arrival of the dog/man and the father’s attempt to shoot it/him. The libretto moves along economically, emphatically using colloquial speech (“He’s for real this time.” “Stupid shit for brains . . .”). The orchestra consists largely of strings and percussion with woodwinds and computer-generated sounds (some very menacing buzzing). They play upstage, backlit, at the center of the outlines of a house. Various rooms are simply represented by their furniture. In Robert Woodruff’s assured direction, lighting focuses attention on the principal action, and, combatting the often static feel of much operatic staging, the presence and actions of the other actors, even while not the focus, lend to the feeling that these hopeless figures are trapped mercilessly together, waiting for extinction. Michael Marcotte and Peter Tantsits, as the wayward, demoralized sons, lounge downstage left in an overturned, ratty sofa, bare-chested and smoking pot. James Bobick, the stubborn, domineering father of this religious family, sits silently brooding at the dining table.

Overhead, an angled projection screen shows a flat, Oklahoman landscape for most of the first act, but it is put to smart dramatic use in the second and third acts. The pseudo-aerial shots of the family during the airdrops are frighteningly familiar from the surveillance footage of America’s recent wars. In one wonderful scene, Worsham holds a mirror with an embedded video camera to her face, which is projected in close-up on the screen. The intimacy of the camera is perfect for her aria, “Hello there, beautiful,” a lament for her youthful beauty: though it has finally arrived, there will never be anyone to appreciate it. Others have ventured into this post-apocalyptic theater of catastrophe, such as Howard Barker, Caryl Churchill and Samuel Beckett. Sadly, the theme is not new or untimely. Today the prospect of social disintegration and devastating warfare in the U.S., which is the premise of this work, is not altogether farfetched or futuristic. Consider the Bundy brothers who are occupying federal land in Oregon, or Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik of San Bernardino.

“Song” (photo by Jorge Lizalde) (click to enlarge)

Ranters Theatre’s Song, presented at the Ohio Theatre as part of PS122’s COIL festival, is billed as an “immersive sound installation” that “reinvents the song cycle form.” The raked seating at the Ohio had been removed, and across the floor lay black pillows and red blankets. When the house opened, the audience immediately bedded down, lovers canoodling, others settling in for naptime, or (the other image that snapped into focus) camping like refugees at a train station in Eastern Europe. But these refugees were fleeing, at worst, bad performances at the various festivals, and Song did its best to make its attendees comfortable. In the nicely heated room, the lighting was already dim when the house opened, gradually slipping to darkness along with the sun-like disk on one wall. Apart from the lighting change, the performance was entirely dependent on recorded audio, without any live element. The lighting and soundtrack of low-decibel music, twittering birds and chirping insects recalled a health spa. Although the masseurs sadly never materialized, many of the audience members completely relaxed nonetheless, nodding off until the lights startled them awake at the end. The song cycle sounded like earnest folk-style music, mostly accompanied by acoustic guitar, sometimes piano. The lyrics spoke of desolation and isolation, feelings that were difficult to connect to when surrounded by a congenial community of sleeping humans in the cozy warmth of a small downtown theater.

comments (0)