Even for those well-versed in contemporary dance, Maria Hassabi’s work can sometimes test the very applicability of the term. Sure, postmodernism has expanded dance’s vocabulary to include all sorts of things well outside the limitations of formal technique, from pedestrian movement to text and so on, but at some level, most people still expect to see performers actually move around on stage at a dance piece.
Hassabi and her four collaborator/performers in PREMIERE, which opened November 6 at the Kitchen as part of Performa 13, do move. Just very, very slowly. In fits and starts. In fact, the entire hour-and-some-long performance is nothing more than a single 180-degree turn, with various detours both vertical and horizontal. At the end, the performers may be in same tableau they were when you entered, but they’re facing the opposite direction.
Hassabi has been engaged in a nearly decade-long project to dissect contemporary dance, isolating its formal elements and then developing evening-length minimalist works based on only one or two core principles. The structure of each is often built around a simple form — the solo, the duet — or an element of the theater-going experience, like PREMIERE or Intermission, which was presented as part of the Cyprus pavilion at the 2012 Venice Biennale. As a choreographer, she’s reduced her movement to a series of static moments, tableaux that the performers arrive at not through polished, fluid technique, but through a limitation or “task,” as she calls it. In her duet with Robert Steijn, Robert and Maria (2010), the task was for the two of them to not break eye contact at close quarters for an hour; for Show (2011), a duet with Hristoula Harakas, it was to perform in close proximity without ever touching.
PREMIERE is something of a return to theater for Hassabi. Several of her last pieces have been designed for different types of spaces: Intermission was a site-specific performance in a school gymnasium, danced on the bleachers, and Show, although it premiered at the Kitchen, was staged without seating, allowing the performers to move through the audience. But here, as Hassabi told me in a meeting several weeks ago at her Chelsea studio, her concern was with the formal conventions of a theatrical premiere.
When the doors to the theater open, the audience finds itself entering upstage, with the seating facing them across the space. Hassabi and her four collaborators — Biba Bell and Andros Zins-Browne in addition to Harakas and Steijn — are variously arranged standing, sitting, and lying on the floor, facing the audience as people file past to take their seats. Horizontal lighting, so stereotypical in dance, serves as the main scenographic element. To the left and right are ceiling-high grids with about as many stage lights on them as possible, pointing at haphazard angles with the brightness turned up to the near max so that theater is flooded with light.
This isn’t to say that Hassabi’s work is sterile. Her performers aren’t objects moving through an empty exercise; they’re artists with distinct personalities. Steijn has a relaxed, casual bearing, whereas Harakas is tense, oriented toward stressful contortions and extensions. And the show earns its laughs. Once the lights go down on the final tableau (which is, of course, the same as the first one) and the applause has died down in the dark theater, the lights come back up on the performers, still in the exact same poses, still blocking the still-shut doors. There’s an awkward moment of silence, as people anxiously wonder just how much longer the piece intends to go on, before nervous laughter overtakes them, and the doors finally open.
Maria Hassabi: PREMIERE runs through November 9 at the Kitchen (512 Wets 19th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan).
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