A common harrumph can be heard across the room in any performance art gallery when that dreaded word, c-h-o-r-e-o-g-r-a-p-h-y, is said about someone’s work. The room will gossip with a tone of immorality, and you’ll become the center of unwanted attention. Talk to any performance artist, from Finland to Germany to Japan to the United States, and they’ll say “planned not practiced” — astonishingly in the same voice — and then they’ll turn their eyes the other way towards their notes.
Stuck in between the two camps of keeping it present and keeping it choreographed is Sherry Aliberti‘s performance art piece the Cocoon Project, which has received mixed reactions in both the performance art and dance communities of New York in the last eight or so months. Performance artists see her work as too dance oriented, containing symptoms of profane choreography, while dancers see it as too much of a performance.
“The whole project was developed all together,” said Sherry Aliberti of the Cocoon Project, a work that she’s been developing since 2010. “I didn’t really see it as performance art until other people started calling it that, and now I think it’s interesting that other people, performance artists are saying it’s kind of more dance, and I kind of want it to be performance art because I don’t want to get stuck in dance, because I do want it to become sculptural and with installations, because I want to work on developing it as a structure.”
After seeing Aliberti perform you do initially get the sense you’re watching contemporary dance, or even post-dance, a new term chattering around. The Cocoon moves in unison, stretches at the edge, and creeps together much in the same relative form of dance. But that’s the mere façade of her work — there are dancers (or at least, performers who come from dance) testing the grey areas of performance art inside the green or purple fabric. Her performance art work is hypnotic, and delightful; there is a spectacle of movement, and experiencing it always brings up more surprising questions than dull answers.
The performers stretch and crawl inside the “cocoon,” whose fabric is made of spandex, and create shapes and movements, enacting something like a living sculpture. Sherry, when performing in galleries, often includes visuals, projection, and music in her performances to tell “very simple stories.” In a specific performance titled “Inside the Future,” she collaborates with cellist Jacob Cohen, and includes video that she has projected on the Cocoon. Because spandex is so thin, at moments you can see the projection create silhouettes of the motionless performers. She says that these images are of land and urban scenes that are supposed to tell a story of “the beginning of time through civilization and then the apocalypse, and whatever happens next, and then we start over and rebirth.”
Aliberti calls the project collaborative when working with others, though it remains her vision, and she said she wants to see the project become more collaborative as it progresses. Depending on the size of the Cocoon, she is often accompanied by other performers, usually four at a time and usually dancers, who she said she found mostly through Craigslist. She said that many dancers have come and gone, but she’s found some who have stayed with the project; among others, these dancers include Shipra Saraogi, Judith Barnes, Arianna Furfaro. It’s this use of dancers in her work that incidentally gives the Cocoon a very dance feel, and so creates a confusion between what we see as dance movements and what we expect to see as performance: dancers commonly know how to respond to and interpret movement to music, so it’s only natural that the performances gives off this feel.
Aliberti has said that the dancers she performs with come from all backgrounds, though she said she prefers more contemporary dancers. “They [the dancers] kind of come from all kinds of backgrounds, because they kind of understand what the Cocoon is inherently, and I don’t really have to teach them,” she said. “And I think the best dancers are the ones who are very contemporary dancers, and they’re not that interested in ballet or traditional dance, because the movement I like in the Cocoon is very creaturely, very yoga, it’s kind of like weird, creepy.”
The project, though now a performance, originally came out of concepts from yoga and her work as an architecture student at Pratt Institute. “The concept of it came out of my architecture thesis,” said Aliberti. “So I kind of had been thinking awhile about using the body as a structure, and how it should work. It has forces, it has a way of interacting with gravity, and especially when I was practicing yoga, I felt that way.”
“I don’t think I started calling it performance art even a while later, because it was like, I just wanted to kind of get cool shapes, and get good pictures, and I was doing a lot of it on the beach where there was no background stuff, because I wanted to make larger installations,” she said. “I took a class at 3rd Ward, and they all were like ‘This is performance art, and you need to try to do performance art shows and build your resume so you can build installations if that’s what you really want to do. You just need an artist resume, so just do performance art.’ Ok.”
Though visually, the Cocoon Project can be seen and enjoyed for its aesthetics from the outside, Aliberti maintains she thinks about her performance in terms of inside and outside the Cocoon. “Well, think of it as architecture,” she said. “If the Cocoon is a building, what’s the outside if you’re in the building? It’s outside. “The main performance, she said, is to be experienced and understood from inside the Cocoon, moving and shaping the object and creating the art. She said that she is looking for better ways of introducing this concept and getting people to participate in her work.”
She recently curated a show called “It Self-Destructs At Midnight” during BIPAF at The Silent Barn; there she had a performance where viewers were allowed to get in the Cocoon if they wanted. After taking off our shoes, several of us crawled inside the Cocoon through a concealed zipper. The performance inside the Cocoon is almost like a spontaneous play, where you stretch, play, and interact with others creating unique forms and shapes. Occasionally Aliberti told everyone to sit down, or do a kick in the air, or do some simple action as a group. In essence, Sherry’s work is to some degree choreographed, and to some degree spontaneous. While she will tell people to do certain actions, the number of people involved, their individual quirks, and even the involvement of people outside the Cocoon create imagery both inside and outside that’s variable.
Choreography is such a controversial topic in performance art because, in performance, the art happens here and now with the performer reacting to live events rather than controlling all the outcomes. If something planned fails to go as planned then that too becomes a part of the art. In theatre or dance, if a performer forgets a line or misses a cue, then it’s a failure; in performance art, it just becomes part of the performance. For example, Shakespeare’s Othello can be performed in an infinite variety of spaces with an infinite variety of actors, with an infinite variety of directing styles, yet the one constant that is required is the text of the play Othello. Unlike this stipulation of traditional theatre or dance, performance art is more concerned and more dependent on the process of doing, the space or environment, and the entirety of the involvement and experience of both viewer and artist; it is independent of the need to bind itself to a fixed script or planned choreography, instead using these as conditions and tools to create its art.