Ed. Note: This is part three of a series in which Jeanette Joy Harris, Melissa Noble, and Julia Wallace recap their visit to the 2021 edition of Performa, a performance art biennial in New York City. Read Part 1 here, and Part 2 here.
Melissa Noble (MN): On Friday night of New York City’s Performa Biennial, we saw Madeline Hollander’s work Review, which was a collaboration by the artist with 25 professional dancers from iconic NYC dance companies whose public performances were canceled due to COVID-19. Companies such as Trisha Brown, Martha Graham, New York City Ballet, Bill T. Jones, and Metropolitan Opera participated.
Jeanette Joy Harris (JH): Getting all of the dancers to be there simultaneously must have been a scheduling nightmare!
MN: The performance took place at the Hamilton Fish Park Outdoor Pool on the Lower East Side. Dancers performed in the drained pool, and the audience was seated above. Instead of dancing “full out,” as many audience members expected, the dancers “marked” their choreography. “Marking” is an informal and highly personalized language of short-hand gestures representing bodies moving through space. Dancers often “mark” movement to save energy during rehearsals. Given many of these dancers were cramped in their apartments during COVID, they likely “marked” their movements to rehearse. I think that was what Hollander was hinting at.
The performance space was chaotic. The dancer/s from each company awkwardly maneuvered around each other to “mark” the movements. Curiously, Hollander said in the program that she considers this work “a live choreographic ready-made” because each of the dancers’ choreography is pre-set and represents ballets dating from the 1800s to the present.
JH: Hollander is, of course, referring to Duchamp’s ready-mades, but this comparison does not convince me. I don’t think of choreography as an object for reuse. Choreography is typically passed down generationally through company members. Often dancers who previously danced a role teach it to new dancers. This seems to have a different character than a repurposed or recycled art object. I am still thinking about that.
MN: The idea of the ready-made in relation to choreography wasn’t one I had heard before either. Though I understand why this comparison might be made, you could infer that every piece of choreography performed at another time would be categorized as ready-made. As you say, this isn’t exactly the way this concept is used in the visual art world. However, something to consider regarding authenticity is the method of re-using choreography in a different dance with a new title. The most striking and the most fun part of the performance for me as a former dancer was the identification game I played while watching. Trying to guess which dancers were from which company based on their movements was a living dance history lesson and was truly incredible. All the dancers performed their sequences simultaneously and repeated the entire sequence four times, facing a different direction each time. Though the movement recognition was interesting at first, once I had identified the choreographers as much as I could, the repetition became tedious.
JH: I agree, it was a bit long, and I had to wonder — if you don’t have a dance background, is this even interesting? As a former dancer, it was fun to play “dance history,” but it seems like there should have been more to the performance than that. It felt like an insider performance, and since this was a public piece, I would have liked it to be a bit more accessible.
Julia Claire Wallace (JW): Yes, as someone who does not have a dance or dance history background, I experienced the piece very differently. I read their movements as muted versions of dances, many of which “felt” familiar since they were being repeated over and over and over. It was a challenging and exhausting watch, but ultimately rewarding for me conceptually.
JH: I was even confused by the “marking” premise. Some of the dancers weren’t marking; they were dancing “full out.” Maybe Hollander wanted to demonstrate that people rehearse movements to varying degrees or that some movements just can’t be “marked?” I think it would have been interesting to see all “marking.” Instead of just wondering which dancers belonged to each company, you would have also been trying to imagine what the final product was supposed to be.
MN: I agree the “marking” at times seemed to start small and then bloom to full-out for some dancers. If it was a progression from marking to full-out, it was not obvious enough in all the performers. I liked the sentiment of representing all the choreography from the last year that couldn’t be performed, and the site of the performance was interesting too. Still, the material wasn’t as experimental as I was expecting from a Performa program, not to mention that the site didn’t seem specific to the piece. The idea of marking appeared to be the experimental component, but it didn’t come through as strongly as Hollander’s might’ve intended.
JW: What I really appreciated about this performance is that it successfully mirrored quarantine discomfort. As a performer myself, I related to being in a behind-the-scenes mode for an exhausting amount of time, with no relief of a glorious unveiling of a full and final production. It did remind me of sitting at home dealing with all the cancellations, never getting fully dressed like I would have if I left the house, feeling the loss of all the events that were never going to happen, and countless depressing discussions about trying to turn thwarted plans into god awful Zoom videos.
JH: Yeah, the automatic move to Zoom was hard for me. Most live performances can’t just be moved online. You lose the energy and the audience participation.
MN: The move to Zoom had some benefits. I was able to see some performances around the world that I would never have been able to attend. Though it was no replacement for live performance, the pandemic did make performance more accessible to some extent. But ultimately I agree that for performers (and the audience) it is not ideal.
JW: As we left the pool, we saw the friends and families of all the dancers — flowers in hand — congratulating them with hugs. That did provide a real feeling of relief and appreciation that I think this piece was supposed to give all these dancers. That experience might have been an accidental addition to the performance. Still, it was a welcome positive rush of feeling after the arduous task of sitting through an hour of watching people practice the same dance moves over and over. This also left me thinking, like Joy, about how this festival did feel geared towards the artists more than the audience in some ways, which isn’t a criticism. I just think it is interesting.
JH: So, I have to ask: where does Houston stand in all of this?
JW: I walked away with a much better understanding of Houston in relation to performance art. Like many artists, I have been given this idea that New York City is the real deal — miles ahead of us, the biggest, brightest, and the best. I walked away from Performa feeling an even deeper appreciation for Houston’s art scene. I have seen some incredible performance art pieces in Houston that were on par with the kind of work we were experiencing at Performa, no question. Facing the myths and legends of Performa head-on solidified my notions about Houston being an incredible city for performance art. I don’t know why it isn’t written about more or more widely understood. CounterCurrent, DiverseWorks, and the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston have presented performance art on a world-class level. Houston deserves much more acknowledgment than it has received.
JH: To be honest, I think COVID-19 certainly impacted Performa’s curatorial decisions, and — to be fair — they promote more experimental works between their biennial festivals. But — based on what we saw — we really have something going on here in Houston. I liked the COVID-19-themed show Morse Covid by Jim Pirtle and Thanatos Gonzales in early 2021. I also really liked Lionshare by Dinolion. Of course, Experimental Action, our own performance art biennial, brings in performance artists from all over the world to collaborate with local artists. Gustavo Solar’s performance in Experimental Action 2019, where he was tied to motorcycles, was pretty intense and wonderful. Performance is happening at the University of Houston and the Mitchell Center, as well.
MN: Yes, Convergence Research is a program co-hosted by the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Center for the Arts and the Blaffer Art Museum for students and faculty of UH who are interested in experimental performance. Of course, I think the Mitchell Center’s CounterCurrent was very similar to Performa in that it highlighted curated performances that didn’t fit into performing arts’ traditional categories. There was a focus on commissioned works, site-specific pieces, and performances in different venues around the city. In general, there is plenty of site-specific work going on in Houston. Several dance companies regularly do site-specific and unusual collaborations, such as Karen Stokes Dance, CORE, and Open Dance. Even Houston Ballet did an outside performance last year.
JH: Jennifer Mabus’ students in the dance department of the University of St. Thomas did a performance during COVID-19 in a campus parking garage. Okay — so what is your high-level opinion of Performa?
MN: As a first time Performa attendee and long time admirer, I expected more experimental work in the disciplines represented. I also expected there to be straight up performance art since the first Biennial in 2005 featured Marina Abramovic’s 7 Easy Pieces. The only one of the pieces that met my expectations in this way was Andrés Jaque’s Being Silica, and it was my favorite.
JH: Agreed. Being Silica was my favorite too. It was well-thought-out, and it made good use of prime NYC real estate. I left that piece with more questions and a desire to see more content generated from the idea. In general, I was struck by two observations: first, Performa had access to an immense amount of resources. I don’t think that performance art, in general, receives a lot of financial backing. I would love to see more of that. Second, for most of the pieces, I genuinely felt like I was at an outdoor theater performance, not a performance art event. I enjoy watching performance art because it questions the relationship between artists and audience members. A real energy erupts from that tension, and I just didn’t feel that at Performa.
JW: During the festival, I realized, as an organizer and facilitator of performance art, that this extremely well-funded festival wasn’t necessarily serving the performance art genre, at least not in the way I had assumed. These commissions did not go to people known as performance artists. Instead, it seems like a kind of performance in and of itself with the aim of encouraging artists to experiment in the genre of performance art. That is fine and interesting, and may possibly expand ideas or possibilities of the genre.
Still, it was an eye-opener for me to realize that there is one less platform and source of funding than I thought for people strictly excelling in the genre of performance art. I really love Houston, and I really love Houston artists — I have devoted a ton of my life to Houston performance art, but somehow going to Performa had me flying home with a resounding realization that Houston and the art we have happening here is even more important than I thought.
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Jeanette Joy Harris is a Houston-based artist and artistic researcher focused on performance and politics. She works in a variety of media including performance, video, photography, installation, and public engagement. She has shown work in London, the Netherlands, Venice (IT), Brindisi (IT), Los Angeles, New York City, Pittsburgh, New Orleans, San Francisco, Portland, Miami, Chicago, Dallas, and Houston, including a residency with International Performance Association in conjunction with International Performance Art Week in Venice (IT) facilitated by Vest+Page. Joy regularly speaks about performance at universities and community organizations including Texas Woman’s University, University of Houston, American Society for Aesthetics, New Mexico Texas Philosophical Society, and the Jung Center Houston. Joy is on the management committee of Experimental Action and was elected to the American Philosophical Association’s Committee on Public Philosophy (2021-2023). She completed her MscR in history of art at University of Edinburgh College of Art and is currently pursuing a PhD in Philosophy, Art, and Critical Thought from European Graduate School. Joy was scholar in residence at the Hannah Arendt Center at. Bard College.
Melissa Noble is Managing Director of Cynthia Woods Mitchell Center for the Arts at University of Houston, Coordinator of Interdisciplinary Initiatives and Lecturer at University of Houston’s Catherine G. McGovern College of the Arts and facilitator of the Blaffer Art Museum’s Convergence Research program. She has previously taught at the University of Washington, Juniata College, the Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University, the Shepherd School of Music at Rice University and the Houston Grand Opera Studio. Her professional career as a movement consultant and choreographer of 25 years in the areas of theatre, dance, and opera spans across the United States. Her work has been seen with the Pacific Performance Project, Stages Repertory Theatre, Robert Davidson Dance Company, Aero/Betty Aerial Dance Theatre, Houston Grand Opera, San Francisco Opera, the Meany Hall of the Performing Arts in Seattle, On the Boards in Seattle, and the Manhattan Movement and Arts Center in New York. Melissa has a BA in Art/Art History from University of Northern Iowa and an MFA in Interdisciplinary Practice and Emerging Forms from University of Houston.
Julia Claire Wallace is a Houston-based artist, curator, community facilitator, and director of Experimental Action, Houston’s performance art biennial. She works in a variety of media including performance, video, social practice, spoken word, painting, and writing. She has performed in Houston, Austin, Chicago, Pittsburgh, New York City, New Orleans, and Leipzig (GR). Julia served as a facilitator to Performance Art Lab and was one of the founding members of their guerilla flash dance project sexyATTACK. She is the creator and curator of Houston’s Performance Art Night and a founder and former facilitator of the social sculpture Continuum. She was a co-director of Lone Star Explosion 2014 and Experimental Action 2017. She was the director of Experimental Action 2019. She received her BFA in painting from the University of Houston in 2009 and her MA in Arts Leadership at the University of Houston in 2018.