That Obscure, Unattainable Object of Desire: Your Own Art

That Obscure, Unattainable Object of Desire: Your Own Art

Mr. Moss’s slippery, multilayered performance works use dance, theater, video and, frequently, audience participation. All come into play in “Petra.” In the Fassbinder film, Petra is a demanding, narcissistic fashion designer who rules over Marlene, her mute assistant. Karin, a stranger, arrives and Petra promptly falls in love with her. The relationship doesn’t end well.


Margit Carstensen as the title character in Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s “The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant.”

Criterion Collection

A Bessie-award-winning choreographer as well as a respected curator who programmed dance for several years at the Kitchen, Mr. Moss, who is African-American, takes a closer look in “Petra” at the experience of the New York City artist, with race and gender playing an integral role. His “Petra” is set in a mythical southern realm and deviates from Fassbinder’s film in another important way: Here Petra isn’t a fashion designer, but a version of Mr. Moss himself.

Reflecting on the reputation of Fassbinder and of the film — a work, he said, by a “genius artist who is also a quintessential queer artist” — Mr. Moss wants to explore what he calls “the queering of culture.” The story of a same-sex relationship is no longer taboo. But by setting his production in the South, he can take his “Petra” into a new arena or, “the territory of brown, which is a world that I live in and love,” he said. “Also for my viewer in New York, for the cosmopolitan who hasn’t spent that much time there, it’s a bit exotic.”

The Rwandan actor and director Kaneza Schaal plays Petra, and Ms. Sinha, an Indian vocalist and composer, plays Petra’s lover. Ms. Sinha also composed the score and is the audience-participation wrangler. At the beginning, she sits in the front of the audience and starts to vocalize as the houselights dim to black.

“As the composer I actually open the whole piece,” she said. “Then I step into it as part of the story.”

For her third role, she orchestrates a reading among audience members of a text about building diverse audiences, as Paz Tanjuaquio, another cast member, performs a solo. “It’s like a sound meeting content meeting dance space,” Ms. Sinha said. “It’s a complex — I’m not even sure if I call it a role. It feels like it’s a world.”

The other parts are just as vaporous. Mina Nishimura is Petra’s sister; Sari Nordman is her daughter; and Ms. Tanjuaquio is her mother. Each performer also plays Marlene. These Marlenes, like the Marlene in the film, find a certain pleasure in Petra’s mistreatment of them.

A similar suffering, Mr. Moss said, occurs in the performing-arts world, not only from the point of view of artists, but also administrators. “People involved in dance and the arts — when they are paid as low as they often are — have to get that enjoyment from that abuse,” he said. “It’s hard to stay in the job in an environment that’s changing and devaluing so much of the arts. You get exhausted.”

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