No amount of postmodern theory can paper over the fact that a half-baked cake, even one made with tasty ingredients, fails to satisfy.
PERFORMANCE, Choreography by Rashaun Mitchell, music by Stephin Merrit, installation and materials by Ali Naschke-Messing, lighting by Davison Scandrett. Presented by Summer Stages Dance at Concord Academy and the Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston at the ICA, Jan 24-25.
By Debra Cash
Last summer, the ICA and the sadly budget-slashed Summer Stages Dance at the Concord Academy played matchmaker to three artists whose shared efforts, they hoped, would strike sparks. Rashaun Mitchell, Concord Academy’s most lionized dance graduate (class of 1996), had been a principal in the last company led by Merce Cunningham, and with his offstage partner, Cunningham colleague Silas Riener has presented a number of process-driven works in the Boston area (I still have a white vellum paper airplane somewhere that was a prop created during a semi-improvised performance at Wellesley). Stephin Merrit, the droll, faux naif frontman for The Magnetic Fields, had seen Mitchell’s work, but, as he said in a post-show q/a Friday night “I feel about dance as I feel about viruses: there’s a certain beauty to it, but I hope not to get too close.” The third creative collaborator would be Ali Naschke-Messing, who had known Mitchell from their college days at Sarah Lawrence but who had never worked in the theatre before. Valuably tying the elements together was former Cunningham production manager and lighting designer Davison Scandrett.
Artists depend on exploratory processes to generate new ideas, processes, work. The friction of shared collaboration across disciplines can be disappointing or rewarding: you never know exactly what you’ll get. But no amount of postmodern theory can paper over the fact that a half-baked cake, even one made with tasty ingredients, fails to satisfy.
The listless title should have been a red flag. PERFORMANCE was said to take its cues from Richard Avedon’s platitude that we all perform “deliberately or unintentionally” and indeed, Mitchell’s experience posing for Avedon against a blank background did offer a precedent for Mitchell’s most static, decontextualized poses.
But the work’s real inspiration was the ICA’s Barbara Lee Family Foundation Theater. Naschke-Messing discovered a starting point in its glass walls and ran with the theme of reflectivity, moving towards shine and indulging in sequins. Stage right she hung a dispersed mobile of crumpled gold-leaf shapes. Stage left was a ceiling-height conical tent of shimmering ropes. Beyond the stage’s dark windows were the tiny lights of the harbor.
Maybe it was deliberate irony, but the transporting beauty of the set was undercut by the rest of PERFORMANCE’S lackadaisical tone. First came the tasks. Hiroki Ichinose polished a window. Cori Kresge pushed a broom. Riener unscrewed light fixtures. The dancers put florescent marking tape on the floor; they peeled it off.
Then Merrit, in a brown wool hat, settled himself on a boom and played “the world is a disco ball and we’re little mirrors one and all” on the ukulele. Getting more dancey, the performers kicked and shimmied aimlessly; they hopped in unison and slid across the floor on their socks. They moved to the tent as if entering a forest, carrying one another on their backs like new creatures, but nothing came of that, either. Especially with Riener, a dancer of poignant clarity, this was a huge frustration for me, and it had to have been a frustration for people in the audience who hadn’t seen him dance before but who were tantalized with snippets of his grace.
By the time selected audience members were asked to shine hand mirrors on their dancers so that light would strobe across on their scribbling hands and faces, it was hard to care. In Naschke-Messing’s glittering habitat, these performers were drab passersby.
Yet even as the dancers resisted fluent motion, they activated the set. Shaken, the threads of the cone turned to bright, rippling streams; collapsed into bunches, they looked like glinting sea wrack. As a boat swung by over the dark water, a small, bundled-up winter parade could be seen outside the theatre’s back window, Merrit and his pals blowing huge soap bubbles into the night air. The bubbles weren’t cold enough to freeze solid but for that brief moment, their shining was enough.
Debra Cash has reported, taught and lectured on dance, performing arts, design and cultural policy for print, broadcast and internet media. She regularly presents pre-concert talks, writes program notes and moderates events sponsored by World Music/CRASHarts and cultural venues throughout New England. A former Boston Globe and WBUR dance critic, she is a two-time winner of the Creative Arts Award for poetry from the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute and will return to the 2014 Bates Dance Festival as Scholar in Residence.
c 2013 Debra Cash