It would not be entirely unfair to call the artist and choreographer Ryan McNamara an amateur. That’s how he first caught New York’s attention, in his 2010 piece “Make Ryan a Dancer” for MoMA PS1, in which McNamara — who had never professionally danced before — underwent a public training regimen within the museum, every day for five months, where professional dancers would school him in ballet, contact improvisation, and exotic dancing, among other styles. The culmination of “Make Ryan a Dancer” was “The Finale,” “a museum-wide choreographic score that would have been impossible for me to do on the first day,” McNamara wrote.
Since then, McNamara has emerged as an unlikely figure in the art the world. He is an artist with an earnest love of dance — his choreographies are amalgams of many dance styles — and has an intriguing naïveté of the dances he borrows from. Even with prestigious commissions from major galleries and festivals, as well as winning the Malcolm McLaren award for his work “ME3M: A Story Ballet About the Internet” from Performa 13, his status as an outsider still resonates.
McNamara’s first Guggenheim Museum commission, “Battleground,” premiered in 2016, subsequently earning him the moniker “The Artist Who Dances About the Internet,” thanks to the New Yorker. This year, the composer John Zorn, a two-time finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Music, asked McNamara to share the bill with him in a return to the Guggenheim’s Peter B. Lewis theater — a beige 1960s mod beauty which sits underneath the Guggenheim’s atrium — to choreograph Zorn’s score Commedia dell’arte.
Zorn’s composition requires 20 musicians, and is divided into five movements, one for each of the traditional Commedia dell’arte characters: Harlequin, Colombina, Scaramouche, Pulcinella, and Pierrot. Each movement requires different instrumentation, giving each a distinct character, all driven by a frenetic and blistering pace. “Harlequin” is performed by a bright and flitting quartet of flute, clarinet, bassoon, and viola. “Colombina” is all vocals, a quartet of women bringing the “Little Dove” (for which Colombina is named) to choral life. “Scaramouche” introduces a blitzing jazz trio — Steven Gosling on piano, Shanir Blumenkranz on the bass, Tyshawn Sorey on drums — who seem to be jumping through time, uniformly switching rhythmic gears within milliseconds.
McNamara’s choreography stands in distinct contrast to the technical skill and compositional rigor of the music, the cool-kid vibes of the dancers offsetting the dizzying drama of sound.
Seven dancers — men and women alike dressed in black sports bras and hyper-color Lycra tights, later donning T-shirts printed with their own faces — perform movements in that pastiche way McNamara has become known for; they form tableaux, they line up like a blasé chorus line, they move in canon, they prance, they body-roll, they make staccato angular arm gesticulations, they smack their hips with their fists like video clip backup dancers, and they take a break to drink water from water bottles in a severely formalized manner. The movement drifts between liturgy, go-go dancer, and vacuous model posing, but the dancers remain focused on simply executing the movement as they alternate between states, free of expressive embellishment.
If one of the pleasures of dance is being confounded or disoriented by choreographic structures, this is not an element of McNamara’s work. To a discerning eye, the process by which his dance was created is revealed as pretty rudimentary. That may be the intention, but even simplicity can be interrogated rigorously.
Part of McNamara’s appeal is how he undoes the dance hierarchy — an elitist model to be sure, where only a select few receive the privilege of certain trainings, and one that McNamara challenges by proposing a more egalitarian approach. Anyone can step into this role and make a dance. McNamara’s 2011 work “Dengue Dance Contest” — in which McNamara used a portion of his grant funds as the prize money for a dance competition in an Argentinian nightclub — is the perfect manifestation of his populist ideal that dance is for everyone. That said, given the powers of major institutions where he performs, like MoMA PS1 and the Guggenheim, his work is not entirely free of hierarchies.
In the case of Commedia dell’arte, within the formal space of the Guggenheim, and given McNamara’s status as art-world darling, his populism packs less punch. Set against Zorn’s playfully virtuosic music, the dancers are left looking a little like window dressing. Particularly as the performance ends, Zorn and McNamara joining the 20 musicians onstage to receive the applause and take their bow, while the dancers remain posed and inert around the theater, a purely decorative element.
McNamara’s kind of stylistic pastiche has a long and rich history, seen in the work of Twyla Tharp or Tere O’Connor. In McNamara’s version, there is a kind of kinesthetic remove, which may enrich McNamara’s interest in a perpetually plugged-in and distracted world, but ultimately leaves the work lacking.
Commedia dell’arte by Ryan McNamara and John Zorn part of Works and Process Performing-Arts Series took place at the Guggenheim Museum on October 22–23.