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On Artists and Audiences at American Realness

On Artists and Audiences at American Realness


Usually, after watching a performance that I’m reviewing, I’m alone with my thoughts and opinions. But that wasn’t the case last week, after I caught Moriah Evans’s “Figuring” at American Realness, the annual festival of experimental performance. Back home, I watched a short segment of the work on Instagram, part of The New York Times’s weekly #SpeakingInDance series. And then I read the comments.

The video shows three women who look like they are having seizures — or, to paraphrase one of the comments, like “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” meets twerking. Most of the comments (thousands, it went viral) were in that vein, treating the work and its strangeness as comedy, though many reactions were more hostile, taking it as a symptom of what’s wrong with art or dance or white people.

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Sarah Beth Percival, left, and Ms. Feidelson in “Figuring.”

Credit
Andrea Mohin/The New York Times

I found the comments amusingly accurate and also unfair. Out of context, experimental performance is bound to attract ridicule, but the impulse to mock can blind. Show an artist some patience and you may be rewarded, or not. I normally take that for granted, but as I saw several other shows at American Realness, the relationship between artist and audience was on my mind.

Ms. Evans was on the less accommodating end of the spectrum. Her program note included an idea about taking internal physical processes and making them visible and audible. But that’s as much help as she offered. As the performers twitched and moaned for 90 minutes, she or they occasionally intervened with verbal instructions or corrections — implying a method or a system that nevertheless remained opaque.

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A scene from “les études (heresies 1-7).”

Credit
Ian Douglas

The odd behavior inspired a running commentary of quips in my head too, but because I have found Ms. Evans’s previous work worthwhile (and because it’s my job), I stifled them. Extended attention didn’t help, though. The dancers’ activity never really advanced or revealed anything new, so the work felt not just unpersuasive but far too static.

Antonija Livingstone, in “les études (heresies 1-7),” showed how it was possible to be fully hospitable and remain inscrutable. Escorting audience members into a studio at Gibney Dance, Ms. Livingstone smiled and spoke softly, like a hostess at a spa. And the room, decorated by the visual artist Nadia Lauro, did resemble a spa, one with basket weavers, the sound of surf and bare-chested people in blue mermaid wigs. Ms. Livingstone held a large live snail, a clear model for the work’s pacing. Select audience members were treated to ear massages.

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“Let ‘im Move You” with, from left, William Robinson, Jermone Donte Beacham and Jumatatu M. Poe.

Credit
Ian Douglas

Jumatatu M. Poe, in the two parts of “Let ‘im Move You” at Abrons Arts Center, could hardly have been more friendly. As he warmly explained near the start, the work is an exploration of J-Sette, a dancing form developed by female drill teams at historically black colleges and adopted by queer black dancers (and Beyoncé). Mr. Poe is a big guy with a cheerleader smile that could light up a stadium. He asked viewers to post footage from the show on the internet.





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