NEW YORK CITY: In a basement in the West Village, I was in a theatre with no seats. This was niv Acosta’s trenchant and explosive dance performance piece, Discotropic, where the audience moved freely around the room, with the dancers nudging them out of the way when necessary. In this relaxed atmosphere, an audience member took out her phone and started taking pictures of the performers.
And in this literal underground performance, I wondered if my shock at this brazen act was actually the out-of-place behavior; maybe I should have been as relaxed as the space was. After all, our rules for engagement at art installations, music gigs, and theatres are often miles apart.
This show was part of Performance Space 122’s COIL Festival, one of the many theatre festivals that pepper Lower Manhattan (and now Brooklyn) in January; that part of the year that used to be vacation time is now abuzz with all kinds of activity that defies categorization. It’s also convenient (and not coincidental) that the Association of Performing Arts Presenters holds its annual conference during this busy time, allowing its members not only to mingle but shop for new work to bring home.
In the spirit of experimentation, I sampled 19 shows in 6 festivals: COIL, Under the Radar at the Public Theater, Special Effects from the Wild Project, American Realness at Abrons Arts Center, Prototype from HERE Arts Center, and the Exponential Festival in Brooklyn. I saw more dance in two weeks than I’ve probably seen in the past two years. Frankly, I’m not sure you’d even call it strictly “dance.” With experimental, form-breaking work dominating the programming of these festivals, the usual rules do not apply. There is a sense of freedom in making space for interdisciplinary work that colors well outside of traditional theatre lines. I struggled to find hybrid terms for some of what I saw: performance installations, dance performances, opera/theatre, visual haikus, tone poems, and sound paintings.
I also managed a particularly badly organized five-show day, which I started in Manhattan at 11 a.m. and ended in Brooklyn well after midnight. I’m grateful to the Public Theater’s wifi and mezzanine seating area (configured as a reading room for the run of the festivals), which functioned as a central way station on long festival days. It was also a nice spot to run into others binging on experimental theatre.Also, they served wine, a key component to festival survival.
Often the featured artists were new to me, so every show was an adventure, brimming with the hope that I’d love it and only the slightest fear that it would be a disaster. Since shows tend to sell out quickly, buzz during the festival means you need to jump on a ticket. When my theatre pals from the Maxamoo podcast were universally praising The Holler Sessions (from COIL) mid-festival, I squeezed in a last-minute ticket. I’m glad I did.
For the shows I selected, a number of themes emerged. Several artists devoted their work to looking to the past and investigating difficult memories in unusual ways. Others kept a fixed eye on the future and imagining our world as it might be. Some dedicated their work to the observation of our bodies and our humanity, whereas others focused on our obsession with devices and computers. Many shows embraced comedy and laughter (especially the work at the artist-driven Exponential, which kicked off in Brooklyn for the first time this year). Overall I felt a joviality permeate many of the shows in 2016. Even those dealing in serious topics managed to inject a little levity.
One thing’s for sure: losing your footing and regaining it is a unique pleasure that only experimental theatre can provide.
Below is my subjective list of some of the highlights at the festivals this year.
Discotropic (COIL): Niv Acosta’s dance performance about race and gender with a sci-fi Afrofuturist beat took its core inspiration from Diahann Carroll’s strange turn as an erotic hologram in the 1978 Star Wars Holiday Special. The piece is broken into segments where the four dancers move from individual spaces around the basement of Labyrinth Theater to a central runaway where they all come together. With diverse musical and dance references (from Afro-Cuban rhythms to hip-hop), the performers, sometimes united and sometimes intentionally out of sync, explore both group dynamics and the voice of the individual. For queer and black bodies, this is not an intellectual endeavor but a fiercely personal one, as Acosta’s moving and energetic show proves.
The Holler Sessions (COIL): Frank Boyd’s show is an enthusiast’s paean to jazz, bursting with music trivia, famous tracks, and the messy ecstasy of someone who can’t wait to share all the passion he has inside. But when he stops the show with literal moments of dead air, you find yourself following his instruction to really listen. There’s a depth to the silence that can only be appreciated when it’s bumping up against this rich, melodic subject. You needn’t be a jazz fan (and frankly, it’s charming even if you are a jazz resistor like myself); Boyd’s endearing latenight DJ brings enough excitement for the whole audience.
The Institute of Memory (Under the Radar): Combining photography, recordings, and memory with archival and medical evidence, writer/director Lars Jan tries to paint a portrait of his paranoid and enigmatic father, a Polish emigre tortured by the Nazis who was possibly a spy. The show not only upends expectations with its subject matter but approaches the story in a dynamically nonlinear manner. The show is performed by Andrew Schneider (a breakout star from last year’s COIL festival) and Sonny Valicenti, playing Jan, his father, his mother, and various other characters. The Institute of Memory is dominated by tech-heavy design which evokes ways we try to capture and freeze moments, which in turn tend to obscure as much as reveal what the truth is. Despite a heavy subject matter, there is humor and a playful energy that keeps the show from drifting too far into melancholy.
A Ride on the Irish Cream (American Realness): Erin Markey’s new musical is the rare show that captures an authentic young woman’s point of view, as she navigates love, lust, dance, and relationships. A musical adventure between a preteen girl named Reagan (Markey) and her beloved pontoon boat with hooves (just go with it), Irish Cream (Becca Blackwell), is structured as a series of short vignettes and musical numbers. At times you may wonder if these are adults pretending to be children or children imagining an adult life they don’t fully grasp. With pop-culture references from Dirty Dancing to Phantom of the Opera, the whole endeavor feels like it was drawn from teenage girl’s spiral-bound notebook circa 1988. Written and created by Markey, with music by Markey, Emily Bate, and Kenny Mellman, A Ride on the Irish Cream depends on its creator’s trademark bubbly ridiculousness. She’s a winsome performer, and it’s hard not to go full lemming and follow her anywhere. Blackwell, Markey’s real-life partner and a downtown performer in their own right, has a charming seriousness that creates tension with Markey’s hyperactive cheer.
Samedi Détente (UTR): Written, directed, choreographed, and performed by Dorothée Munyaneza, Samedi Détente looks at the Rwandan genocide, French colonialism, protest, survival, and racial tensions between Africa and France. Performing alongside dancer Nadia Beugré and musician Alain Mahé, Munyaneza tells the story of her family’s experience of the genocide. But rather than just straight storytelling, she layers the show with emotive dance, gripping sound design, and songs that help express the unimaginable horror in situations where words fail. When Mahé strikes a piece of wood with a large knife to symbolize the machete massacres in Rwanda, nothing need be said at all.
Steve of Tomorrow (Special Effects): Using video puppets attached to Barbie dolls, David Commander and Rob Ramirez present a satirical show about consumerism, news content, climate change, the future, and our infinite capacity for hope—with a decidedly VHS-tape aesthetic. Questioning our dependence on devices, our trust in corporations, and our comfortable ease with news as entertainment, Steve of Tomorrow manages to be both high-tech and lo-fi at the same time. The parody of the nightly news using dolls (with names like Storm Truthhammer and Blast Lionheart) may be over the top, while giving new meaning to the term “talking heads.” It all looks like it’s held together with bubble gum and electrical tape, but dynamic voice performances by Lisa Clair, Commander, and Ramirez, the sophisticated puppet design, and the show’s cerebral core make this a solid, smart, and very funny look at our present and our potential future.
Toilet Fire (Exponential): Celebrating the high holiday of “Keester” at the “Blerch of Our Blight” church, Eliza Bent’s irreverent Toilet Fire embraces poop pride with a flourish. Or is that a flush? With the solemnity of a Catholic mass (and hymns for the audience to sing along with) and the sparkle of a circus sideshow, Bent’s bizarro ode to the movement that dare not speak its name was by far the wackiest show I saw at the festivals. Bent portrays a number of members of the “blerch” congregation offering their embarrassing poop confessions. That she ties the work together with her personal admission that it comes from her own digestive experiences, and brings in the notion of shame (borne of a Catholic upbringing), makes this more than just a scatological joke dump.
They Are Gone But Here I Must Remain (UTR): Although Sister Sylvester’s newest devised show was a work-in-progress and not open to reviews, I’d be remiss if I didn’t at least give it a shout-out. This always intriguing company continues to create unexpected, challenging work that approaches story and ideas from multiple angles and generates a thrill with unusual juxtapositions. Here they address Peter Whitehead’s 1969 film The Fall, about the student occupation at Columbia University, and dig into protest, action, artists, and change, with some exploration of misogyny, global politics, and cinema as well. Oh, and there is a real live chicken.
Yesterday Tomorrow (COIL): Annie Dorsen presented the third show in her so-called “algorithm trilogy” at COIL this year. The algorithm part comes in in the form of a computer program, as a trio of remarkable singers (Hai-Ting Chinn, Jeffrey Gavett, and Natalie Raybould) sight-read live from computer sheet music projected for all to see. They start by singing “Yesterday” by the Beatles; then the computer adjusts the music and lyrics incrementally, until the song becomes “Tomorrow” from the musical Annie. The experience between the two songs serves as both a deconstruction of language, meaning, and sound and a reconstruction of expectations. We can sense the patterns of the songs we know in the slow melting into nonsense. Humorous phrases emerge. Call-and-response develops between the lines given to the singers to sing. And then eventually it all comes back together. No performance is the same and the computer is the one leading the charge. But the work feels anything but automated. It’s full of human joy.