New York Live Arts Context Notes
The Historical Taylor Mac
by Paul David Young
12 Jan 2015 - Context Notes: Taylor Mac
One thing you can say for certain about Taylor Mac: he doesn’t think small. His breakthrough marathon was the five-hour The Lily’s Revenge. His work-in-progress A 24-Decade History of Popular Music, six hours of which are being presented at New York Live Arts as part of a first-time-ever marathon show, will, when completed, traverse American history, from the Declaration of Independence to 2016 in a 24-hour extravaganza of song, history, costumes, and commentary.
For Mac, there seem to be two important aspects to the duration of his shows. He believes that the unusually lengthy performances make the audience members into stronger collaborators. “The audience is my collaborator. Everybody says that, but what the audience brings to it is what creates the show.” He cited the preparation the audience has to do in order to make it through the many hours. It becomes “more than just another piece of culture they’re consuming.” He noted that for his run at Live Arts the first show to sell out was the marathon performance. “People want that durational experience.”
The other important aspect that we discussed was the effect on him as the hours take their toll. Like the audience, he experiences deterioration. His voice cracks. He gets tired. His memory falters. The progressive failure is part of the experience for both audience and performer.
I was interested to note that he embraces the word “theater,” a term that many involved in “performance” or “art performance” and even theater run away from, as if it were Ebola. “I always liked the theater because it’s dorky. The art world so often seems to be about cool kid culture, separate form of society and elitist, and I find that disturbing.” He admits, though, that “the theater in general is really far behind everybody else on gender parity, the ideas—it’s so far behind progressive culture. I’m working at being one of the artists who are trying to get theater caught up..” He attributed part of the problem to the subscriber orientation of many producing companies which have adopted the philosophy of giving the subscribers what they want. “But of course the job of the artist is to give the public what they need, not what they want. You don’t tell the plumber how to fix the plumbing. You let them do their job, because they know what to do.”
I had watched Taylor Mac’s meteoric career with awe. He has been invited to play in any number of important venues and received torrents of adulatory press. His reviews read like hagiography. I wondered how that felt. He demurred lightly, “I’m famous below 14th Street. Maybe in the past couple of years I’ve been moving up the blocks a little bit.” He said that he had matured about seeking approval. “Praise and blame are really exhausting, rather than fulfilling, or filling that hole in your soul that can never be filled.” Having detailed the unsanitary conditions in his dressing rooms even at prestigious venues, the modest pay, the cockroaches, and the struggle, he said he also found himself skipping down the street recently when he found out his play would be published in American Theatre magazine. While sometimes he feels, “Wow! It’s amazing that I’m doing this,” at other times, he’s singing along with Peggy Lee: “Is that all there is?”
The broad historical scope of the Live Arts production and the American focus made me ask whether Mac was doing a bit of flag-waving. “I was raised in a world in which we were supposed to be patriotic. I don’t understand that. I understand wanting to make things better, which doesn’t mean it’s not good. I’m interested in the joy of improvement.” He said that he wasn’t putting himself out there as an historian. “It’s my subjective historical account. I’m using the material to get to how imperfection fosters community.” He explained that he wanted to address the visibility of homosexuals in the historical records. “I went to one of the worst school districts in the nation but even in that school district we learned about civil rights, women’s rights, immigration, lots of things they often censor out of the history. But there wasn’t one single mention ever of homosexuals.” He continued, “Of course, we are all over history. There’s very little acknowledgement of that. The show is a lot about trying to find the queers in American history.”
In terms of his own place in history, Mac won the Ethyl Eichelberger award in 2005, the first time the honor was bestowed by PS122. I recalled being deeply impressed by Eichelberger’s strangely serious drag performances at PS122 and elsewhere. She sometimes accompanied herself on the accordion and, while also comic, interpreted major works of classic tragedy. She worked with Charles Ludlam, another of my theater idols, whose Ridiculous Theatre Company produced delightful send-ups of the theater canon and was graced by the talents of many now legendary downtown figures, such as Black-Eyed Susan, Lola Pashalinski, and Everett Quinton. Though Mac never saw Eichelberger perform, “What I’ve learned is that she influenced a lot of people that influenced me.” Mac noted that, like himself, Eichelberger was a playwright, performance artist, drag queen and a musician, and they even attended the same acting school. “She’s the big one for me. I feel like she was my drag mother even though I never met her.”
With the promise of Taylor Mac’s performance still two months away, I visited the Park Avenue Armory studio he shares with Machine Dazzle, who was trained as a visual artist and designs Mac’s costumes. The Park Avenue Armory is itself steeped in history and art. Its ornate, dark wood interiors designed by Louis Comfort Tiffany and Stanford White are dotted with paintings of military commanders, and the drill hall has been turned into a performance venue. It’s hard to imagine a grander setting in which to work or a more regal studio, though its functionality as an atelier is limited by the crepuscular lighting. Beneath its coffered ceiling and under the cheerful gaze emanating from the oil portrait of a nineteenth-century officer outfitted in a jolly decorative uniform, Machine’s costumes for Mac were taking shape out of the mounds of fabric, spangles, and eccentric objects heaped on the tables. The ancient clock in the studio had stopped, and the remnants of time expressed themselves in the periods of Machine’s costumes. It would be unfair to give away the surprises they concealed or to detail how they managed to allude to the tragedies and traumas of the American Century, while also leaving plenty of room to giggle. Seeing the dresses waiting limply on their hangers made me look forward to the moment when Taylor Mac would slip them on and let it roar.
PAUL DAVID YOUNG HAS BEEN SELECTED AS A CONTEXT NOTES WRITER FOR NEW YORK LIVE ARTS' 2014/2015 SEASON
Jess Barbagallo and Paul David Young are New York Live Arts' 2014-2015 commissioned writers, contributing 'Context Notes' for each season artist and for the New York Live Arts Blog. Knowledgeable about the practice of art making, they both work as performance makers and writers. We've invited them to write, less because they know every artist's work intimately – in some cases they don't – but because they like to frame questions, spark discussion, and find meaning for themselves and others within the experience of seeing live work. Like our audience members, each writer is deeply curious about what contemporary artists are trying to say. Their writings–commissioned works in their own right–aim to spur a deeper dialogue with our artists, the content of their work, and each work's relationship to a larger cultural environment.
Paul David Young, a Contributing Editor at PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art (MIT Press), writes for Art in America and Hyperallergic. His book newARTtheatre: Evolutions of the Performance Aesthetic, about visual artists appropriating theatre, was issued by PAJ in 2014. His Kentucky Cantata, a play with music composed by Ashlee Miller, will premiere in January 2015 at HERE. His play In the Summer Pavilion was produced to critical acclaim in FringeNYC 2011 and at 59e59 Theaters in New York in 2012. His Clown Play in FringeNYC 2013 was hailed by The Village Voice as "intelligently bizarre." He won the Kennedy Center's Paula Vogel Playwriting Award and was a finalist for the Kendeda Fellowship. His work has been performed at MoMA PS1, Marlborough Gallery, Living Theatre, apexart, The Brick, LMAK Projects, Lion Theatre, C.O.W. Theater, Kraine Theater, Chain Theatre, Emerging Artists Theatre, Red Room, and Kaffileikhusid in Reykjavik. His translations, with Carl Weber, of Heiner Müller's Anatomy Titus Fall of Rome and Macbeth were published in 2012 as Heiner Müller: After Shakespeare. pauldavidyoung.com
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The Meaning of “Meaning”: Neil Greenberg
by Paul David Young
25 Nov 2014 - Context Notes: Neil Greenberg
When I met Neil Greenberg in the auditorium of New York Live Arts, he was munching on a salad. Barefoot and in track pants, he was from the start quite affable and welcomed my presence at his first time to try out This in the space in which it would be performed. He had unexpectedly been given an early opportunity to explore the piece in the theater at Live Arts for one day and generously invited me to join them.
I was immediately impressed by the openness and warmth of the rehearsal. In conversation with his lighting designer, Joe Levasseur, who was proposing to install a slew of lights across a wall, Greenberg embraced the experiment on the spot. “Try it. Let’s see,” he said. Later, when choreographer Juliette Mapp arrived to observe, it was hugs all around and murmurs of appreciation.
For this day, the lighting was left to the imagination. Two pairs of chairs represented the locations of clusters of lights that would occupy the stage and illuminate it. For the rehearsal, plain white lights shone uniformly over the entire space. Theatrical lighting gives form and color to the shapes and movements of dancers’ bodies; without it, I could not know what would eventually be seen and how we would see it. The dancers wore their own clothes, depriving me of an understanding of how the costumes would affect my understanding of This. It was like looking inside a machine as it is being built, in order to guess how it will function.
As I watched the run-through, my mind kept wandering back to Greenberg’s Artist Statement, in which he talked about “potencies, the ‘meanings’ (quotation marks original) of the dancing itself.” At times the dancers seemed to be operating in separate worlds, performing their own sequences, and yet my eye and my mind wanted to put them together. Perhaps that’s what he meant by “meaning.” I found myself becoming so involved in watching the particulars of the individual dancers and the uniqueness of their movements, that I often missed the entrances and exits. Likewise, I somehow neglected to mark the presence and absence of music or sound. What I saw at first appeared to me more strange than facilely beautiful, and then it seemed to become more beautiful the longer I looked. I distrusted myself and questioned whether I was seeing the inner harmonies of the choreography, or my mind was imposing a structure on a set of phenomena that were occurring simultaneously. Which was the “meaning”?
I talked with Greenberg on the phone the next morning. He explained that in This, he was “allowing things to grow. I have a tendency to build continuities in certain ways. Things reappearing, connective tissue. In this dance I’ve been daring to not do that as much, to accept the materials as they are, in and of themselves. This is not to say I don’t experience continuity in this dance – I do. I don’t experience it as haphazard. Part of the challenge is how that’s going to play out for viewers.”
I couldn’t resist wading into deep waters. What did he mean by “meaning”? “I’m really talking about experience,” he said, and added, “The meaning of it is the sensuous surfaces, to quote Susan Sontag.” He was referring to Sontag’s famous essay, “Against Interpretation,” in which she argues against the assumption that art needs to be interpreted or decoded for the public to have an experience of it. Like Sontag, Greenberg was steering away from interpretation and instead saying to himself, “let’s really get into ‘this.’ Hence the title.”
Some of the “this” in This is the process that Greenberg used to arrive at the choreography. He and the other dancers improvised on camera according to rules and ideas that he established, including for the first time duet improvisations. After a meticulous editing and ordering process, selected parts of the filmed improvisations were learned for performance. In a later studio rehearsal I attended, though they already knew the movements and sequences, the dancers returned to reviewing the video under Greenberg’s direction and sought to mine it for as yet undiscovered details, a practice Greenberg somewhat jokingly referred to as “forensic movement science.” He is after the “facts.” He wants to show “this, this person, this constructed performance moment.” The individual parts of This “resist interpretation, but also interpretation plays through them.” Greenberg said he had come to acknowledge recently that “part of any ‘this’ includes its referents, and the associations each viewer will bring to it. I think I previously was trying to be too ‘black and white’ about it, looking for things without referents, which is nearly impossible, maybe completely impossible.”
As I watched the rehearsal, I was reminded of how Merce Cunningham had constructed his dances, the independence of movements, dancers, sound, light, and stage design. Indeed, Greenberg spent his formative years dancing with Cunningham. “In this piece I’m daring to get a little closer to Cunningham-like for me.” He made plain, though, that his methods differ significantly. “Chance mechanisms are not a device I’m using here. There’s a different kind of choosing and placing going on.”
Having already waded into the deep waters of the meaning of “meaning,” I recklessly forged ahead and asked him what made his work special. His answer was consistent with what we had talked about with respect to This. It was specific, peculiar to him and his history. “I’m very interested in looking at the thing itself. Why? From growing up gay in the ’60s in Minnesota and not at first having a strong awareness of how wrong that was in the world, and then coming to see that painfully clearly. Somehow I think this part of my personal history figures in my investment in how to experience myself and other people in a way that doesn’t fit with the label that’s been given the thing. I want the experience to be of the thing in its specificity and its label-resistant complexity. What is this thing? Not just how it’s being translated or interpreted by the world.”
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Inside the Archive with Jennifer Monson
by Paul David Young
09 Oct 2014 - Context Notes: Jennifer Monson
LINK to New York Live Arts
“Dancing is my tool to generate research on the landscape,” Jennifer Monson told me. It is an “embodied relationship with the world and how we understand it.” We spoke as she was beginning to rehearse for her restaging of Live Dancing Archive at New York Live Arts and her thoughts about what she would present were evolving.
What Monson means by research involves investigation into hard science as well as spending time at swamps and beaches, filming, watching, and dancing. Her BIRDBRAIN project, which provides part of the background for Live Dancing Archive, entailed this kind of multipronged approach, in this case specifically with respect to the migration of the osprey, a coastal raptor. Hundreds of volunteers and a morphing assemblage of collaborators engaged in direct observation and documentation in the outdoors. By reviewing the films and improvising, Monson transformed these observations into dance, which itself evolved in form as it moved from the wilderness to the stage. Robin Vachal’s video installation, now on view at Live Arts, documents this process, as does the online archive by Youngjae Josephine Bae. Monson stressed that whatever happens on the stage is only one component of the total piece.
Though she has danced outdoors, she has returned to presenting her work in conventional performance spaces. “Dancing outside, the flow of energy is really vast. The impact is in relation to other movement going on. There is a way that the energy continues and disperses. Dancing outside is always destabilizing you,” she said. She was “very moved” by the way the dances that she staged outdoors disappeared into the landscape in which they were created, like “white on white.” Inside the theater, she explained, there is “a tighter border, a concentration. I am able to negotiate and communicate in a more focused way. The dancing can be quite different.”
The AIDS crisis and queer activism motivated her early career. Since 2000, her work has drawn from migratory behavior in the wilderness, even as her understanding of the wild has itself shifted. She said she started out with a simple view of untouched nature, but her experience showed her that it was a more complex thing, sometimes disturbed by human intervention and sometimes restored. She discovered the border spaces of compromised ecologies and saw that they could be productive environments where rebirth and reinvention are possible. In our dialogue, though she occasionally uses such terms herself, she was dismissive of any specific terminology, such as “the wild” or “nature,” that might be used to approximate her nuanced understanding of the subject matter of her work, saying that she wants to “de-naturalize” such words.
Live Dancing Archive has been presented several times in different venues and forms, including just last year in New York at The Kitchen. The addition of two new dancers, Niall Jones and Tatyana Tenenbaum, is Monson’s focus for this new iteration at Live Arts. For her, the vital question is how and/or whether she will be able to convey the embodied knowledge of the dances that evolved out of the BIRDBRAIN project to these new dancers who have not had the same years of experience, observing and improvising. It has historically always been true for dance that someone teaches someone else how to do it. In this re-presentation, it is uncertain what Monson can transmit to others, how much is lost in the transmission, and what has to change or might fruitfully or accidentally change as that body of knowledge is transferred to and re-performed by Jones and Tenenbaum. The model of the “archive” might here be understood as a process that manifests itself in time-based work, through the always imperfect replicators of human bodies, dancing, moving and vocalizing. Inevitably the archive reveals itself to be porous, faulty, and unstable, and therefore interesting to investigate, as both a dancer and a spectator. The similarity of biological and ecological processes springs readily to mind. In evolution, the variances in DNA transmission create biological diversity and change the species and the world around it. Ecologies, the collective repositories of life forms and their systems of interactions, are constantly morphing, whether as a result of human intervention or otherwise.
Jeff Kolar contributes a score for Live Dancing Archive that is site-responsive: he controls a handmade chain of radio transmitters responding to electromagnetic frequencies as they are affected by wireless systems surrounding New York Live Arts. Monson’s creative process involves an analogous sensorial response to the elements in the wilderness. In her dance she seeks to reveal the agency and materiality of the phenomena that her research has discovered.
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Banner photo credit: Neil Greenberg's "This" at New York Live Arts. Photo by Ian Douglas.