Thursday, April 16, 2015

Limits of the S K Y: Gill, Anderson, Hay at New York Live Arts

New York Live Arts is what now? Some combination of 92Y and TED Talks? A place, beyond dance, for avant garde marquee names and hip intellectuals to hold forth?

Not that those are necessarily bad things. Let us, indeed, engage with the most stimulating and crucial issues of our day. But the home for a wide range of contemporary dance and performance art--a place I've cherished since the 1970s, where ideas were already quite alive without being forced--seems far from recognizable today.

Again, this is not to suggest that, as a work of intersection, New York Live Arts's annual Live Ideas Festival--launched in 2013 with programs inspired by Oliver Sacks and, last year, James Baldwin--lacks potential meaning and usefulness. By all means, let's intersect. Let's get real intersecty in ways that even the new boss, Bill T. Jones, might not be ready to imagine.

But let's make it work.

This year's Live Ideas Festival, curated by the famously intersecty Laurie Anderson, bears the title, "S K Y - Force and Wisdom in America Today," and New York sophisticates will please themselves to be in one another's presence enjoying contributions from marquee names like Anderson's, Anne Carson, Julian Schnabel, John Zorn, Pauline Oliveros and dance's own Deborah Hay in a slate of 25 events, including performances, screenings, readings and talks.

The desired audience for New York Live Arts will be able to shell out a minimum of $50 to witness a "conversation" between Anderson and Hay, her collaborator on Figure a Sea, a upcoming premiere for Sweden's Cullbert Ballet. And, yes, this less than enlightening encounter followed the premiere of an hour-long dance by Bessie-winner Beth Gill, commissioned for the festival, something that certainly might have run all by itself at New York Live Arts (or even Dance Theater Workshop) but at less than that S K Y-high price point.

From Beth Gill's Portrait Study
at New York Live Arts
(photos: Yi-Chun Wu)

No shame to Gill in describing her presentation, Portrait Study, as a rush job. Gill admits as much. She got Live Arts' invite at the end of January.

January 2015.

So, with her bang-up cast of downtown dance artists, here's how she handled things:
I am building a structural overlay that will both incorporate and highlight the improvised movement of a cast of brilliant dancers. I am using a complex and layered movement score, which will act as both a map and a set of directives for the performers. The show as a whole will be an improvised installation in which the event's timing and structural arrangement is determined by the performers. The movement material for each dancer will be a combination of self-directed individualized choreography and past experiences they have from working within the score during our rehearsals.
--Artist's Statement 
Portrait Study--accompanied live with Eliot Krimsky and Ryan Seaton's electronic score and a song by Eliot Krimsky/Glass Ghost--presents "short autobiographical solos that collect in the space over the course of the hour." One or another of a total of thirteen dancers emerges or bursts into the space, executes a short or sustained passage of abstract, eccentric improvisation and finally sinks into a dead pose on the floor. The floor, littered with bodies of the fallen--at one point, I thought of Jonestown--becomes a more and more crowded platform for each dancer, each self-portrait drawn.

A one-time-only event, remember. Here, Gill used the ephemeral nature of dance--and of her specific challenge from New York Live Arts--to strip her usually meticulous process of its training wheels. In this, she reminds me of Katie Workum with her Authentic Movement-inspired Black Lakes shown, just last week, at Danspace Project. Like Workum, Gill now entertains a "broad goal of finding less controlled ways of working—while still producing beautiful and meaningful work...without the pressure of becoming bound over time to the product." She asks of each dancer that they find and make the dance largely from their own inner materials.  Since we're talking about recognized adepts such as David ThomsonNeal BeasleyOmagbitse OmagbemiStuart SingerJodi Melnick and Emily Wexler, there can be interesting moments to take in and appreciate.

And there can be puzzlement.

Again, as with Workum's presentation, each witness will decide whether all these parts--fascinating or not so much--add up to a substantial sum or if they even need to do so. Perhaps, as observers of dance, we're also being trained to take satisfaction where and when we can.

After a 20-minute intermission, the Anderson-Hay "conversation" kicked on with a rocky, baffling start. Collaborators? The two women did not seem to occupy the same psychic space.

If you're wondering why the quote marks: Is it a conversation when, over the course of an hour, one person is doing almost all of the talking, nearly nonstop? After a long time, though, Hay slipped from her folding chair and started moving around it, around the space, to the edge of the audience and back home to her original perch--while Anderson rambled on or played music, some of which was delicious, at her electronic setup.

I don't know if Hay's sojourn was planned, but it was reasonable strategy--meeting verbal torrent with the language of the body in space.

The evening had started at 7:30. Around 9:40, Anderson looked out and acknowledged that the audience might have questions. I took my leave.

For information on other events from Live Ideas 2015: S K Y - Force and Wisdom in America Today, click here.

New York Live Arts
219 West 19th Street (between 7th and 8th Avenues)

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