- American Realness curated by Thomas Benjamin Snapp Pryor
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Among New York’s annual performance-festival cavalcade, the American Realness (AR) festival was the scrappy downtown option for dancegoers seeking experimental performance when it was founded in 2009. Four years later, AR has emerged as a leading venue for some of the most exciting work in American dance, making it an ideal site at which to consider the relationship between contemporary dance and the still incredibly powerful twentieth-century modern/postmodern dance canon.
Twentieth-century dance modernism often emphasized form (albeit to different ends), asking audiences to pay attention to the shapes that dancers made with their bodies. Much of the postmodern dance of the late twentieth century critiqued modernist choreographers’ often-virtuosic emphasis on physical form, expanding the range of physical actions that could count as interesting shapes for dancers to assume.
AR’s 2013 presentation of well-known and mid-career experimental choreographers suggested that postmodern dance’s exploration of the quotidian—in both movement vocabulary and performers’ affect—remains central. One festival standout, Jeanine Durning’s solo inging, clearly tracked in this refusal of visual spectacle, layering dance and language to make audiences question how they pay attention to bodies in motion. But postmodern dance’s refusal to engage with expressiveness, epitomized in Yvonne Rainer’s 1964 “No Manifesto,” has greatly lessened. Many AR choreographers, often performing in their own creations, toyed with engaging the audience and their fellow performers in an affective exchange; they shifted the emotional charge within the theatre by emphasizing performance qualities that could be called “energy” or “presence.” Rather than attending to the particularities of what the body does as the audience’s entry point into the work, choreographers like Miguel Gutierrez, Jennifer Monson, and Trajal Harrell brought audiences into heightened states of attention that made even the most pedestrian actions seem spiritually or even erotically charged. These artists moved through and past postmodernism’s refusal of visual spectacle, finding different possibilities for what spectacle might mean in simple gestures and on bare stages. [End Page 562]
Among the works included in the festival, Harrell’s Antigone, Sr. (L), performed at the Abrons Arts Center, and M2M (Made to Measure), presented at PS 1, most explicitly confronted the relationship between dance history and contemporary dance-making. Harrell describes the series that includes both pieces as an imagined meeting between the 1960s postmodern Judson Church dance scene and Harlem’s voguing ballroom community. Arguing that this “historical impossibility” (as Harrell calls it) would have had multiple outcomes, he created multiple works, labeling each by size: XS, S, M, L, XL, and M2M (made to measure). In each iteration, Harrell and his stunning casts of male dancers question how attention to race and communities beyond the iconic postmoderns—the Judson Dance scene—shifts what counts as postmodern dance today.
Antigone, Sr. (L) redefined what constitutes a large dance in its level of spectacle. The almost three-hour, intermission-less extravaganza had multiple elements, including a range of solo voguing performances; several slow, speaking sections; and a large-scale though surprisingly bare-boned set. The principle of DIY queer performance aesthetics—that everyday objects can be transformed into imaginative fantasy—was taken up as a choreographic compositional mantra. The work began with a series of solos featuring beautiful men who loosely borrowed from voguing’s extravagant arm gestures. Over time, the solos layered and commented rhythmically on one another. Later, Harrell and Thibault Lac sat on a mattress, drawling out a list of oddly patched-together pop-culture references: “We are Girls.” “We are Mary Kate and Ashley.” The men’s recitation became less about what they said and more about the control they exercised over the confused though engrossed audience. Harrell compelled the audience to join him in Antigone’s alchemy when, mid-work, he sent several dancers climbing through the audience carrying individual strands of...