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Tell Them What You Told Them: Fire Drill on Mariano Pensotti’s Cineastas

To spark discussion, the Walker invites Twin Cities artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, local artists Emily Gastineau and Billy Mullaney of Fire Drill shares their perspective on […]

Photo: Carlos Furman

Photo: Carlos Furman

To spark discussion, the Walker invites Twin Cities artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, local artists Emily Gastineau and Billy Mullaney of Fire Drill shares their perspective on Cineastas by Mariano Pensotti. Agree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments!

Mariano Pensotti’s Cineastas opens with an outrageously clear structural conceit, represented by two chairs on two stages. The real chair on the bottom stage designates the area where “real life” filmmakers will be depicted, while a life-size photocopied image of a chair on the top stage marks a space for the world of their films. It’s a simple device that instructs us how to watch the action, and our understanding of the piece begins and ends with this image. We immediately see the congruence between “real life” and the filmic world, and the double image foretells the merging of the two spaces.

Nestled neatly within this delineation of space is a similarly clear narrative conceit: the filmmakers’ lives affect the films they create, and vice-versa. The visual split-screen produced by the architecture sets up a cause-and-effect relationship between the two stages. As we see the stories unfold (there are four main filmmakers, plus their films), we hear how each filmmaker’s vision for their work is changing due to their life circumstances (e.g., terminal illness, pregnancy, rising in the ranks of a corporation) and we are invited to scan the films above them for signs of change. It works the other way too, as we similarly see a film about a long-lost father subsume its filmmaker, whose own father was disappeared.

And in case either of these conceits fail to dawn on you initially, you are guaranteed to understand them thanks to Cineastas’ underlying performance conceit: constant narration. The narration is intended to evoke the sense of a voice over, but the narrators, who distinguish themselves by speaking into handheld mics, are nearly always onstage as they describe what is going on in the filmmaker’s life and their films. This narration is oftentimes crucial: with four filmmakers plus their respective films, we have somewhere between 7-9 mildly-interacting plot lines and probably 40 characters among the 5 actors. With every shift from filmmaker to filmmaker we need to be reminded who this new filmmaker is, which film is theirs, and brought up to speed on what has happened since the last time we saw them (e.g., they are now in Russia).

Their ability to shift seamlessly and even playfully from character to character, storyline to storyline, and narration to narration borders on the virtuosic. However, this sense of constant exposition extends to the point where it becomes an omnipresent oral history, telling everything that it’s showing, and then some. The performative conceit intended to evoke cinema ultimately lands it in another form, a lecture–or rather, a book, since those who do not speak Spanish will find themselves reading the subtitles projected between the stages.* The text would easily stand on its own as a printed publication. We are all about drawn-out structural conceits–but the question is: to what end was this conceit stretched? When the format refuses to change, how do we as an audience change in response? Perhaps apropos to movies, when we are constantly told what’s going on, what to look for and each character’s every action and motivation, we become much more passive and absorbent–not only to descriptions of what happens to the characters, but also when the piece tells us how to interpret it.

We can easily draw connections between the “real” lives of the filmmakers and their filmic creations, like relating fast food worker’s discontent with the character in his film who is kidnapped and forced to work as Ronald McDonald. Elements of the plot are often predictable–we are not surprised when the script exacerbates the filmmaker’s father issues. And yet the characters repeatedly comment on the obvious interaction of film and life, driving home just how meta they can be. To wit: “We know places by their fictional output.” “Two images come together to form a new meaning.” And the most obvious: “We live the way films tell us to live.” There are visual metaphors like this as well, such as the character in the film world who photocopies an image over and over until it’s faint and blurry. The production is eager to tell us that filmic life bleeds over into real life–so much so that the play includes not one, but two mentions of people literally walking onto a film set and believing that it’s real.

Many contemporary works of art ask whether art can have a true and profound effect on our lives. While we (Fire Drill) are more compelled by works that hold this question open rather than answer it, Cineastas makes a clear, partisan argument in the affirmative. We find this to be an interesting contribution to current discussions about the role of art in activism and civic life that are taking place locally and nationally. (Though we can’t speak well to the context in Argentina, that this show was curated here qualifies it as part of the conversation.) Cineastas makes a strong case for the material impact of art on life, with political threads tied throughout the work. No doubt this is inspiring for many viewers, fulfilling hopes that the time they’ve spent in the theater really does make a difference. As for the Minnesotan context, we see this piece as yet another work directly arguing for the importance of art via its content rather than its form. We wonder if these works would be more powerful if they didn’t try so hard to shore up their own powerlessness.

Another note on Cineastas and its contemporary context: The lower, real-life stage contained a laptop, which was sometimes used by the characters to view their own films. While it was somewhat out of place within the visuals of the piece, it served as the sole window into the contemporary. The play delimits film strictly, looking at cinema proper as opposed to the broader, more interesting question of how screen time and filmed media in general affects our lives now. Cinema has been around for roughly 100 years and has clearly impacted our sense of time and narrative, but Cineastas turns a blind eye to the contemporary manifestations of the omnipresence of film. Making films is no longer an esoteric activity, so what does it mean that everyone now carries a camera in their pocket? Focusing the piece on characters for whom film is a vocation and a profession, rather than an integrated part of their daily lives, actually seems out of step with the main argument of the piece.

We believe in evaluating work on its own terms, or watching it the way it asks to be watched. Cineastas is a work in which the form matches the content: the concept of the piece serves the narrative and vice versa. (Granted, that’s no small thing.) The structure is so airtight, however, that it forecloses the viewer’s ability to connect the dots on their own. It becomes didactic, spoonfeeding interpretation rather than suggesting pathways toward meaning. Rather than “show, don’t tell”, Pensotti’s code seems to be, “tell them what you’re going to tell them, tell them, then tell them what you’ve told them”–a rhetorical strategy, not a filmmaking one. But who is not aware that we live in a mediated reality? If art is going to change our lives, it needs to give the viewer more credit, and make space for a different kind of understanding.

*For those fluent in Spanish, there is a good deal of spoken dialogue that remains untranslated and subtitled. In the performance these were often punctuated by the laughter of the handful  of audience members sufficiently fluent in Spanish to catch a joke or reference. I highly recommend brushing up on your Spanish–particularly Spanish curses–as well as the recent geopolitical history of South America with particular emphasis on US interventionism and local resistance to globalization.

Cineastas continues tonight (Friday, January 23) and tomorrow night (Saturday, January 24)  at 8pm in the McGuire Theater.

Theater of the Interdisciplinary: Filmmakers without Film

In his fifteen-year career, Mariano Pensotti has become a staple of contemporary Latin American theater, and he contradicts the persistent belief that it is an emerging art form. Now foremost a playwright and director of live theater, Pensotti received his formal education primarily in visual arts and cinema. Introduced to theater only later in his […]

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Mariano Pensotti, Cineastas. Photo: Carlos Furman

In his fifteen-year career, Mariano Pensotti has become a staple of contemporary Latin American theater, and he contradicts the persistent belief that it is an emerging art form. Now foremost a playwright and director of live theater, Pensotti received his formal education primarily in visual arts and cinema. Introduced to theater only later in his formative years through experimenting with acting, his many productions represent the breadth and depth of many influences. Working often simultaneously as playwright and director, Pensotti interchanges techniques, combines audio and visual elements, and often blends genres, melding dance, theater, literature, music, and above all cinema into his works. Cineastas is no exception. A tribute to film on stage, it follows the lives of four filmmakers in the process of creating their own films, and explores the passage of time, the influence of fiction on reality, the (fictional) portrayal of a city — in this case Buenos Aires — through (fictional) characters, and the contrasts between the ephemeral and the permanent. All of this is represented on a complex two-level set designed by Mariana Tirantte, one portraying the lives of the filmmakers and the other the films they are producing, allowing for interaction between the two. This literally and figuratively multilayered production debuted in 2013 and will be performed at the Walker this week as part of Out There 2015.

Likely a reflection of his multifaceted education, much of Pensotti’s approach to creating work is based on experimentation and combination. In an interview with Julia Elena Sagaseta in 2010, he explains the approach to creating some of his earlier works by “searching, trying, succeeding in some things and failing in others… a process of creation very much connected in actually doing. I come from a generation very influenced by the ‘punk’ and ‘do it yourself’ spirit, and my formal education rather fell to the wayside. For me, it was always very important to do many things” (translation mine). One need merely head to Pensotti’s website, where poetic descriptions outline the many productions on his resume, to see what he’s referring to: Night at the Waterfalls (2003) includes video projections on performers’ bodies so “the same body is used for two juxtaposed forms of the same character”; Dirty (2007/2009), a “strange musical about masculine anguish” blends dance, theater, literature and music; Interiors (2007) takes place within a real building set up with fictional situations in separate rooms, wherein the theater is “a film set in which the spectator is the camera”; and Disco (2007), set in a disco with transparent walls in which playwrights write short texts in live response to particular music being played, while video projections portray the playwrights and the actors within the disco.

Integrating film or video in theater is not a new concept — early 20th century playwrights including Bertolt Brecht were already experimenting with film on the stage — but what is unique is Pensotti’s combination of these forms. In an essay for the journal territorio teatral, Liliana B. López writes:

“The film on stage opens up ‘a space within the space.’ It functions as a metaimage that interacts with the scene in multiple ways. Though this may be the most common and direct way to incorporate the use of both mediums, it is not the only way. [The Past is a Grotesque Animal (2010/2011)] is unique because of the multiplicity of modes and perspectives with which it establishes the intersection between theater and cinema…it offers a provocative opportunity to explore the possible relationships between both languages [theater and film] in many ways, including quotes, the thematic relations, construction of imaginaries, visual content, and as a language whose grammar is appropriate for the scene.” (translation mine).

Pensotti’s last visit to the Walker was in 2012 with Grotesque Animal, which formed part of Out There 2012: Global Visionaries. Based on the song of the same name by Of Montreal, The Past is a Grotesque Animal focuses on the parallels between city and individual, and on the interplay between fictions and specific narratives. Voiceovers narrate the past, and as Pensotti notes on his website, these “could give sense to the scattered fragments of a film that is lost forever. The past is like a strange animal which should be invented and trapped following blurred traces.” The use of cinematic elements, while not always including the use of video outright, has become a signature of Pensotti’s craft.

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Revolving set in The Past is a Grotesque Animal (photo: Matias Sendon); Cineastas’ split-screen set (photo: Carlos Furman)

In his most recent work, Pensotti makes similar use of these techniques, which become even more relevant given its title, Cineastas (“Filmmakers”). The piece uses no video, but the visual language and other elements of the production itself are reminiscent of cinematographic representation. Cineastas and The Past is a Grotesque Animal bear some resemblance to one another, and though Pensotti has produced a few works since The Past is a Grotesque Animal, it is rather fitting that these two productions will have visited the Walker consecutively. As in Grotesque Animal, the physical set in Cineastas is an important feature of the cinematic quality. The two-level Cineastas set creates the classic “split screen” used in cinema, while Grotesque’s rotating set offers glimpses into scenes of characters’ lives, and as Pensotti describes, presents “brief moments acted in real time and cinematographically.” Cineastas, like The Past is a Grotesque Animal, also uses voiceover to add yet another layer to the narrative, and its content deals with the passage of time and the relationship between the ephemeral and the long-lasting. However, unlike some of his other productions, in Cineastas Pensotti refrains from making reference to specific films or filmmakers, and though he interviewed several filmmakers while researching for this work, they remain anonymous and the final work remains completely fictional. Nonetheless, he manages to, as Under the Radar director Meiyin Wang puts it, “draw from the world of film and fill the stage with that combination of epic intimacy, using just his actors and his staging.”

Full of parallels (literal and figurative), Cineastas explores the contrast between the ephemeral (theater, life) and long-lasting (film, art); between fiction (the films being created by the filmmakers) and narrative (the filmmakers’ lives); and between the individual and society (Pensotti, deeply rooted in the culture of his home city of Buenos Aires is preoccupied with its portrayal and the relationship between city and individual and the fictions that arise from the mutual influence). As Jackie Fletcher writes in a review, Cineastas is “multi-layered, cleverly using theatrical devices in new combinations, but it remains deeply human, based on the work of actors who present us with people one could sit next to on the bus.” This emphasis on the sheer experience of being a human is what makes all of Pensotti’s work accessible. Interested in the passage of time and its representation, he leaves us asking questions like those posed on his website:

Are our lives actually the vehicles through which works of art become eternal, making us repeat the things that we’ve seen in them hundreds of times before? Do our fictions reflect the world, or is the world a distorted projection of our fictions? How do life and day-to-day experiences influence fiction, and above all, in which way has fiction then been the starting point from which our lives are constructed?

Perhaps, as Pensotti quotes Ingmar Bergman, “it is only the ephemeral that lasts.”

Cineastas will be performed at the Walker Thursday–Saturday, January 22–24, in Spanish with English surtitles.

Teatro de la interdisciplinariedad: Cineastas sin película

En los quince años que han transcurrido desde que Mariano Pensotti comenzó su carrera, este director y dramaturgo ha pasado a ser una figura prominente del teatro contemporáneo latinoamericano, lo que contradice la opinión generalizada de que se trata de un género emergente. Si bien hoy en día se desempeña fundamentalmente como dramaturgo y director […]

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Cineastas, Mariano Pensotti. Imagen: Carlos Furman

En los quince años que han transcurrido desde que Mariano Pensotti comenzó su carrera, este director y dramaturgo ha pasado a ser una figura prominente del teatro contemporáneo latinoamericano, lo que contradice la opinión generalizada de que se trata de un género emergente. Si bien hoy en día se desempeña fundamentalmente como dramaturgo y director de teatro, su formación se inició en las artes visuales y la cinematografía. Su introducción al teatro surgió a través de la experimentación con la actuación durante esos años formativos y sus numerosas obras representan una variedad de influencias. Con frecuencia se desempeña simultáneamente como dramaturgo y director y en sus obras intercambia técnicas, combina elementos auditorios y visuales, y a menudo mezcla géneros como la danza, el teatro, la literatura, la música y, sobre todo, el cine. En este sentido, Cineastas no constituye una excepción. Como homenaje al cine en forma de obra teatral, Cineastas trata de las vidas de cuatro cineastas, cada uno en el proceso de dirigir una película. Como obra, explora el tiempo, la influencia de la ficción en la realidad, la representación (ficticia) de una ciudad – en este caso, Buenos Aires – a través de personajes (ficticios), y el contraste entre lo efímero y lo permanente. Se presenta en un complejo dispositivo escenográfico de dos niveles, diseñado por Mariana Tirantte; en uno  se retrata las vidas de los cineastas, en el otro las obras que producen, y así se crea un espacio para la interacción entre ambos. Esta obra, con estratos y niveles de gran complejidad, tanto literal como figurada, se estrenó en 2013 y se presentará esta semana en el Walker dentro de la serie Out There 2015. (more…)

Tender Aggression and Commodity: Fire Drill on Pieter Ampe and Guilherme Garrido’s Still Standing You

To spark discussion, the Walker invites Twin Cities artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, local artists Emily Gastineau and Billy Mullaney of Fire Drill shares their perspective on […]

Pieter Ampe and Guilherme Garrido. Photo: Phile Deprez

Pieter Ampe and Guilherme Garrido. Photo: Phile Deprez

To spark discussion, the Walker invites Twin Cities artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, local artists Emily Gastineau and Billy Mullaney of Fire Drill shares their perspective on last night’s performance of Still Standing You by CAMPO/Pieter Ampe and Guilherme Garrido. Agree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments!

The audience for Pieter Ampe and Guilherme Garrido’s Still Standing You on Thursday night did not behave like a contemporary dance audience. On a visceral level, we behaved more like we were watching a circus or a wrestling match. We gasped, we winced, we recoiled, we craned our necks to see the action. We heard a few obliging gagging noises when a performer’s mouth was full of underwear. As a group, our timing was impeccable–we made rowdy laughs as if on cue, and we fell to a hush together. If typical contemporary dance audience behaviors include focused contemplation, parsing of references, and ironic chuckles, this behavior belonged more to an arena. They were the gladiators and we were the masses.

In Still Standing You, two men build a vocabulary of competitive behaviors that push physical and social boundaries. After an opening bit that establishes a) a gently antagonistic relationship between the performers and b) casual banter between performers and audience, the two men merge into a state of deeply performative play. They grunt like bulls, they strut like lions, they hiss like lizards. Garrido puffs out his chest, playfully winks at the audience, and wipes his sweat onto Ampe’s face. They fake each other out, pretending to be hurt or pretending to say sorry. The scenario escalates as they rip off their clothing, whip each other with their belts, and toss their pants into the audience. Ampe puts his Superman underwear on his head and Garrido chews it like a goat until he has (impressively) stuffed it all into his cheeks.

Steve Paxton is famously quoted as saying, “If you’re dancing physics, you’re dancing contact [improvisation]. If you’re dancing chemistry, you’re doing something else.” Ampe and Garrido are not dancing physics, nor chemistry–they’re dancing anthropology. While they’ve certainly upped the ante on partnering technique, they’re not doing it to explore weight shifts or body mechanics. They’re in the realm of the social. They hark back to the animal roots and the childhood memories of play, transposed into highly able adult bodies and keenly adjusted for pacing and format. This is what we would see if adults with post-pubescent strength continued to play, using the abandon that children exhibit.

Ampe and Garrido ape the behaviors of masculinity and expose the constraints of homosociality. Garrido tells us about his recent trip to Deja Vu–a moment that both places the performance here in Minneapolis in a casual, somewhat improvised statement, and announces that he’s into women. This prompted an ickier “no-homo” feeling initially, but it made the extensive penis play later in the piece a lot less sexual. And it is important representationally that we don’t see it as entirely sexualized. The penis play isn’t the sexual culmination of a playful meet-cute, and they don’t propose their aggressive play to lead to anywhere romantic. The one-upmanship logically extends their feats of physical endurance and line-toeing from subjecting each other to belt lashings and drop kicks, to foreskin-twisting and, well, more drop kicks. It wasn’t asexual in that it definitely recognized the naughtiness of nudity–much in how it relished the naughtiness of saliva and bravado–and they deliberately focus on the weirdness of penises as opposed to, say, the weirdness of earlobes. But based on their approach, it feels wrong to even delimit “penis play” with their other play. It is all the same research and relationship: how many ways can we relate to our bodies and each other?

In addition to avoiding an oversexualized lens, the playfulness also keeps the power dynamics and aggression readable as temporary competitiveness, rather than a character or even a performer in distress. They put on airs and knock each other down a peg, only to change the situation and dynamic immediately. The choreography often dictates that one of the men is horizontal while the other is vertical, in a shifting exchange of dominance and temporary power. This is a crafted give-and-take, and we as an audience understand that everything is consensual. These moments of combat are often peppered with a word or two of banter indicating the scripted nature of the tricks. (“Onion rings,” moans Garrido as Ampe breathes in his face, with the comedic timing of a Benihana chef.) There are also several moments of truce–a literal time-out is called at one point–and affection between the exhausted bodies as well, before launching into the next bit or provocation. We can laugh because we’re confident in the performers’ comfort and execution.

Of course, the tenderness and aggression that Ampe and Garrido display are conceptually, experientially, and aesthetically tied. Theorist Sianne Ngai links these affects to our relationship with commodities in late capitalism. Objects that call for our protection (think of babies, animals, stuffed animals) simultaneously inspire feelings of aggression or the desire to possess and to dominate. For Garrido to caress Ampe’s beard and then try to suffocate him with it does not display two conflicting desires, but rather they are integral components of the same impulse. Moreover, this twinned motivation “depends entirely on the subject’s affective response to an imbalance of power between himself and the object” (Our Aesthetic Categories, 54). The performers display shifting balances of power between themselves, but there is also constant interplay between them and the audience. Their tender/aggressive relationship and the framing of this work for the audience both have a close relationship to the commodity.

We consider this piece’s inclusion in a festival of performance alternatives–because Still Standing You is the most accessible contemporary dance work we’ve seen in a while. We find it accessible because it depends on comedy, physical feats, and culturally broad experiences of play, intimacy, and aggression. Appreciation of this piece doesn’t rest on one’s knowledge of form and the history of its innovation. The performers (particularly Garrido) often appeal to the audience for recognition, and we as viewers are not especially asked to shift our perception or mode of viewing.

Although some level charges of elitism or esotericism at contemporary art in general or the Out There festival in particular, Still Standing You does not support those claims. Instead, we’re reminded of Ben Davis’s assertion to the contrary:

One major contemporary trend in art is away from difficulty, toward really big objects, toward fashion: splashy gestures that go down easy. The old charge that museums are “elitist” doesn’t really feel totally right to me. MoMA’s doing a Björk show. The big institutions have found that buzz and long lines can replace intellectual cachet at a certain level, for the purpose of pleasing funders.

Still Standing You does not exemplify this form of celebrity pandering, and it may or may not be creating buzz. Discussions of accessibility, however, are always bound up in discussions of the bottom line.

Here’s another way to illustrate this tension, taken from a performance we saw last week at American Realness. Ivo Dimchev’s Fest (also presented by CAMPO) stages a conversation between the artist and a festival director who wants to present his work, an interaction that becomes increasingly warped and sexualized. The curator tells him that she thinks a lot of people in Copenhagen will want to see his work. “Are you saying my work is commercial?” he asks. “No, I’m saying a lot of people will want to see it,” she responds. Ivo concludes, “It’s the same thing.”

For Fire Drill, this piece’s accessibility creates a small crisis, because we actually liked the piece. Still Standing You bears many hallmarks of entertainment, and we get suspicious when they are mixed too liberally with art. If art must appeal to the widest possible audience, then how can it produce experiments that fail? If art can’t produce experiments that fail, then how can it produce new forms of thought and experience? But does that mean art has to be tedious and unappreciated within our culture? Still Standing You, in the context of the Out There festival, offers a kind of middle path to those questions. It appeals to a general audience without going for the lowest common denominator; it’s inventive and well-crafted without being obscure. When we view performance, we hope the work will revise our definitions of what art can be and do. As wary as we are of the proximity of art and entertainment, Still Standing You did challenge our definitions of both categories.

Still Standing You continues tonight (Friday, January 16) and tomorrow night (Saturday, January 17)  at 8pm in the McGuire Theater.

The Limitations of Theater Are a Gift: Fire Drill on Richard Maxwell’s The Evening

To spark discussion, the Walker invites Twin Cities artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, local artists Emily Gastineau and Billy Mullaney of Fire Drill shares their perspective on […]

The Evening by Richard Maxwell / New York City Players. Photo: Sascha van Riel

The Evening by Richard Maxwell / New York City Players. Photo: Sascha van Riel

To spark discussion, the Walker invites Twin Cities artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, local artists Emily Gastineau and Billy Mullaney of Fire Drill shares their perspective on The Evening by Richard Maxwell/New York City Players. Agree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments!

Let’s place comic books on the proverbial opposite side of the coin from theater. Both media have intuitive mechanisms for engaging the reader and audience, respectively, with medium-specific holes or gaps in what is presented to the viewer. In both, the audience looks for cause-and-effect relationships to imaginatively fill in these gaps–which skilled artists and writers in either medium exploit and leave open to the imagination. In literature, for example, readers imagine the sights and sounds of books with only the printed words as suggestions. The holes in theater and comics are particularly interesting since they seem to be close inversions of each other.

The mechanism of comic books engages the reader by showing framed, still images of the world it presents–the environment, the characters, what they say and think–leaving the reader to fill in how the characters move between frames, how they speak and sound, and justify the larger-than-life actions that occur. An example:

Frame 1: Character A rears back from Character B, fist clenched.

Frame 2: A zoomed-in image of Character A’s hand making contact with Character B’s face. (“Pow!”)

Frame 3: A zoomed-out image of the entire planet Earth as seen from outer space. Character B flies into the frame, as indicated by a motion line originating somewhere in the center of the North American continent.

What a gift! We don’t say, “That’s impossible,” “Nobody could…”, “Nobody would…” It’s up to the reader to justify the physics of the situation. Conclusion: He was punched into space. Corollary: Superpowers. It’s why the ideal medium for space opera and mutant heroes is the comics: the most delicious action happens between the frames. There could be a series of frames between 2 and 3, showing “how” it happened–maybe breaking through the ceiling, or passing a flock of birds on the way up–but the closer to 24 frames per second, the closer to the comparison with real life (here, real physics). It says, “This is how it happened,” and it cannot be as grand as we’d ever imagine.

The mechanism of theater, on the other hand, shows how the characters speak and move, and suggests what they look like, but it is up to the viewer to build the world. The audience of The Evening fills in the details–not just the architectural details of the bar the characters inhabit (and mountain and ocean and outer space, but more on that later), but also their interior worlds, the emotional landscape that propels them to the behaviors they perform. Rather than actions in between frames, we fill in the emotional past and narrative future outside of the stage picture. An example:

Scene: Character A and B are dancing together. Character C joins them, instantly provoking a fight between B and C, which is just as quickly won. Cash is literally thrown around, they reconcile over jello shots, and then character A pulls a gun on them.

What a gift! Instead of saying, “That’s impossible,” “Why would she do that?”, “Where’s the motivation?”, we are invited to connect the dots on our own, through our own emotional and narrative understanding. This is what theater does best: the most delicious action happens in the interior worlds of the characters. How appropriate, then, this acting style that refuses to justify these (here it is again) larger-than-life emotions and behaviors. These are emotional superheroes, and they are capable of much more than justifiable in systems of realism, any more than we can justify punching someone into space. From Sarah Benson’s interview with Maxwell on the Walker blog: “Yes, things can happen to characters that can’t happen to people. You can put characters in situations that we aspire to or are afraid of and can’t embody as people.” So this acting style is not merely a neo-Brechtian withholding of catharsis, this is giving us (like the comics) the imaginative license to fill in the gaps without showing us “how it really happened”. The beauty of archetype is that we’ve seen these characters before, hundreds of times. We don’t need Richard Maxwell to insist they actually sound like this, they move like this, etc.

So these archetypes—who are they? First we have Cosmo, the pleasure-seeker, the free-loader, the one who’s given up. “I want to get high. I use people.” He’s old, he wears a velour track suit and a gold chain, he’s carrying a pizza, he doesn’t give a shit. Then we have Asi, the fighter—a literal fighter (UFC) and an emotional fighter (misogynist). Cosmo tells him he should retire and Asi boxes his ears. He feels loss as a threat, he’s one of those insecure macho dudes, he feels the pressure of time running out. “I want to fight. I want one more fight.” Something has happened with him and the woman and he’s full of regret. Last we have Beatrice, the lone, young female—the seeker, the restless, the escape artist. The men order her around and she’s not surprised, she just gets them another beer. She wants to go to Istanbul, she’s been saving up. “I need to change camp.” She wears sequin shorts and she’s too big for this small town.

We’ve met them all before, and we’ve probably been them all before. They form a smooth surface for emotional projection. They’re a triangle of crossed desires, base-level drives that bounce off each other and ricochet off the drab walls. Both men kiss the woman the first time they enter. There’s a complicated history between them—Asi refers to when he and Beatrice used to live together, but they don’t anymore. Cosmo has given her money to go to Istanbul and Asi wants to know what she did for him that he gave her that money. They’ve all wronged each other but they’re resigned to sharing space.

And these archetypes, they’re like action figures that repeat one of five phrases every time you press a button. “I want to get high.” “I want to fight.” “I use people.” The woman mechanically opens a beer. The fighter draws back his fist again and again. The pleasure-seeker action figure is one of the kind that would walk straight into the wall and keep walking till his batteries ran out. We know who these people are because they tell us over and over. They can’t help themselves. “I want to fight one more time.”

The setting itself forms a spatial archetype in much the same way. We see terrible beige flats, the outline of a standard-issue small town bar. A TV plays sports silently in the corner, but it’s greenish like an Instagram filter and it blends in with its surroundings. A generic band plays off to the side, just loud enough for the performers to need to raise their voices, like you do. It’s just a sketch but we’ve been at that bar hundreds of times.

In fact, the quality of “sketch”–vis a vis these archetypes–is a mechanism to help viewers relate to the characters and situations. Comics use a range of drawing techniques, from photorealistic images to an outline as simple as a smiley face. The conceit is that the less “photorealistic” the image, the more relatable it’s supposed to be–so we see the bad guys drawn specifically and the protagonists drawn sketchily, and the reader identifies with the good. Functionally, the more specific they get, the less we can fill in, because they become objective realities rather than a subjective canvas. This extends to our trio in the bar: Any details, a hometown, a sibling rivalry, a favorite color, a penchant for scrapbooking, any desire beyond the most broad archetypal yearning, would make these characters into more objective “others”.

When you start looking, it’s hard to miss other connections to representational practices in comics. In addition to these open, pulpy characters, the exposed frame of the flats suggest a comic panel frame. The poses and choreographies of the characters are chock full of Brechtian gestus, gestures and still poses that show the “gist” of a relationship or attitude, distilling power structures into tableau-like arrangements. This recalls the still frames of comics, where position in frame must convey relationships and psychology when movement can only be represented by motion lines.

Maxwell’s gestus lives even through movement; when the men are fighting, Beatrice places a hand on both of their chests, simply conveying her intimacy with each of them as well as her efforts to keep them apart. Realistic physical exertion or realistic caressing would destroy this double-image and reduce it to one or the other. It’s very Brechtian…but then again Maxwell ultimately out-Brechts Brecht because in the end there is no clear pitiable Mother Courage or detestable Ui, no side you “should” take, just three archetypes lost in space and each other.

The Evening by Richard Maxwell / New York City Players. Photo: Sascha van Riel

The Evening by Richard Maxwell / New York City Players. Photo: Sascha van Riel

Yes, by the end they’re out of the bar and in outer space. So this huge changeover provides an interesting catharsis–but rather than a narrative catharsis we get an aesthetic catharsis. Clean bright light, camouflage suits, no architecture, three figures evenly spaced against a white wall. The representational practice of the first 5/6ths of the piece is about visually defining the characters’ positions in space (a bar) relative to where they are onstage, and the duration of the performance is equivalent to the amount of time that elapses in the story. When the changeover occurs, however, the rules change as well: we are wherever and whenever Cammisa says we are. They are doing whatever Cammisa says they’re doing: climbing a mountain, diving into the ocean, etc. It becomes an oral comic book. The frames change as she speaks, and we imagine these impossible stage directions, over great amounts of time. Really, it’s Maxwell giving these stage directions (they use actor names instead of characters now.) If this were a comic book the narration would simply appear in bubble text hovering above the image, rather than spoken by any of the characters.

The representational practices following the changeover, while it definitely breaks from the preceding performance, does so with tactics that strike us as precious, tasks we’ve seen a lot of: speaking stage directions, using actors’ names instead of character names, use of a live band. It dips into the twee instead of taking us to outer space. This is in contrast to an earlier moment in the bar, in which both men reveal the blood packs used to simulate their gunshot wounds. They didn’t need to reveal artifice throughout, because this significant yet understated moment accounted for all of it. Once they got to the white environment, there should have been even less need to tell us how to feel.

The style of performance deployed in The Evening is not just stylized in order to be different or avant garde; the techniques offer negative space for the viewer to interpret and project. Maxwell offers a formal alternative for live performance that is opposed to the hyper-real standard set by television and movies, rather than trying to replicate it. In the same way that impressionism reacted to the rise of photography by seeing what painting could do that photography could not, The Evening shows what theater can do that film cannot. It is formally generous, in that it allows the viewer’s experience to diverge from what is actually happening onstage. Because our contract as the audience is to submit to theater time as it unfolds (we aren’t going to close the browser window), we can project our own emotional fictions and personal associations with the archetypes. This ultimately feels more “real” than the real sweat on the football players on the TV screen. Maxwell’s work trains us as viewers to connect the dots ourselves, although the alternative remains present for those viewers who don’t want to do that work. If you want everything to be justified and given to you, there it is on the screen in the corner, in full color HD.

Note: Fire Drill is on tour during the performance weekend, so this blog is in response to the dress rehearsal on Wednesday night.

 

 

Like Brothers, Lovers, Proto-Humans: Miwa Matreyak on Still Standing You

In her film/performance works, Los Angeles–based artist Miwa Matreyek interacts live, through her projected shadow, with carefully crafted videos, to dreamlike and kaleidoscopic effect. Her multimedia work This World Made Itself will be presented January 29 as part of both the Walker’s Out There and Expanding the Frame series. Invited to participate in the Walker’s […]

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Pieter Ampe and Guilherme Garrido. Photo: Phile Deprez

In her film/performance works, Los Angeles–based artist Miwa Matreyek interacts live, through her projected shadow, with carefully crafted videos, to dreamlike and kaleidoscopic effect. Her multimedia work This World Made Itself will be presented January 29 as part of both the Walker’s Out There and Expanding the Frame series. Invited to participate in the Walker’s recent series of artist top-10 lists, 2014: The Year According to                      , Matryek selected another Out There work, CAMPO/Pieter Ampe and Guilherme Garrido’s Still Standing You, as her favorite performance of the year, describing it as “almost childlike but simultaneously emotionally complex.” In advance of the January 15–17 presentation of the piece, we invited her to expand on her experiences with Still Standing You.


I saw Still Standing You last year at Fusebox Festival in Austin, and it’s one of my favorite shows ever. I tend to like or dislike shows with my gut feelings rather than by checking myself intellectually, and this show has a lot of great raw gut.

As the doors open, Pieter Ampe and Gui Garrido are waiting for the audience in plain clothes—jeans and T-shirts. From this first moment their duet has established a distinct dynamic: Pieter is on his back, holding Gui in the air with his legs like a human stool. As Gui starts the show by casually chatting up the audience, Pieter struggles until we start to worry that his legs are about to give out, growing a bit uncomfortable with Gui for clearly putting Pieter in pain. We in the audience are already drawn in to the drama of empathy, curiosity, and unease that we experience throughout the show, as the performers push the boundaries of what two male bodies can do on a stage together.

The dynamic is often childlike but violent, like two giant toddlers who don’t know the limits of their own bodies or the limits of each other’s bodies and their thresholds for pain. They use and abuse each other, sometimes controlling each other’s bodies like fleshy props, there to conveniently toss around or step on—sometimes confrontationally and whole-heartedly upping the ante with their violence towards each other, like Elmer Fudd and Bugs Bunny in a ever growing arms race.

And there is a lot of abuse in this show.

I found myself trying to interpret micronarratives as the pair organically shifted from one relationship dynamic to another. Sometimes they seem like lovers, tenderly knowing every part of each other’s bodies or holding on to each other violently as if nothing existed outside of themselves. Sometimes they are like brothers, playfully and slightly cruelly competing with each other. And sometimes they seem like violent, crazed proto-humans or baboons in a zoo, duking it out without an awareness of social taboos like some neolithic fight club. Throughout these moments, my feelings as an audience member ran the spectrum, from guilty voyeur to mortified bystander, bemused anthropologist to the witness moved almost to tears.

Pieter Ampe and Guilherme Garrido. Photo: Phile Deprez

Pieter Ampe and Guilherme Garrido. Photo: Phile Deprez

Both Pieter and Gui are trained performers/dancers, but for this piece, most of their movements are stripped of formalities and very familiar. Watching, it was easy to find within myself visceral memories from childhood: competing with my brother to see which of us could punch the other’s shoulder harder, or, alternately, liking someone so much you wanted to bite them just to the threshold of breaking skin, to test them and test yourself.

I don’t know if it was specifically the crowd in Austin, but I’ve never felt so connected to the collective people that comprise the audience as when we experienced this show together. We all laughed, gasped, cringed, worried (a lot), and melted a little bit as the duo’s dynamic shifted from violent to tender, cartoony to hypnotic. I felt that the show was intelligent (more in an EQ way than IQ, although I also think they’re smart) in the way these artists could draw out so many emotional complexities on stage, while also pulling the audience along, unaided by text or a formalistic performance structure or narrative, with just their bodies unfolding over time.

By the end of the show, I certainly felt a bit wild-eyed, like I either wanted to doggie pile someone or play bloody knuckles or just enjoy having someone (a friend, a sibling, a lover) close enough to me that I could play hard with them, to the point of almost hurting them… something I’ve forgotten as an adult but that lurks somewhere deep in my psyche.

 

2014: The Year According to Grant Hart

To commemorate the year that was, we invited an array of artists, writers, designers, and curators—from graphic designer Tiffany Malakooti and artist Alejandro Cesarco to animator Miwa Matreyek and futurist Nicolas Nova—to share a list of the most noteworthy ideas, events, and objects they encountered in 2014. See the entire series 2014: The Year According to       […]

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To commemorate the year that was, we invited an array of artists, writers, designers, and curators—from graphic designer Tiffany Malakooti and artist Alejandro Cesarco to animator Miwa Matreyek and futurist Nicolas Nova—to share a list of the most noteworthy ideas, events, and objects they encountered in 2014. See the entire series 2014: The Year According to                                 . 

Best known as a founding member of the fabled punk band Hüsker Dü (with Bob Mould and Greg Norton), Grant Hart is a drummer, songwriter, vocalist, and founder of the band Nova Mob (1989–1994). In 2013 he released his fourth solo album, The Argument, a 20-song double album inspired by John Milton’s Paradise Lost and “Lost Paradise,” a short story reinterpreting Milton’s classic, by his friend, William S. Burroughs. Next June, Hart will be featured in WISE BLOOD, an immersive second-line opera and exhibition based upon the southern gothic novel by Flannery O’Connor. The work, co-commissioned by the Walker Art Center and The Soap Factory (where it will be presented), features music by Anthony Gatto, a visual installation by Chris Larson, a cast of singers, brass bands, percussion lines, string players, and singers. Hart will play the role of blind street preacher Asa Hawks.


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William S. Burroughs, 1977. Photo: Wikipedia

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As time goes by, more young people are surprised by the fact that William S. Burroughs actually wrote books and wasn’t just a freaky old man who influenced Kurt Cobain. True, the happiest looking photos of Kurt show him at William’s home looking out from Bill’s home made orgone accumulator. William loved interaction with intelligent creative people, and to this day any gathering at a Burroughs event continues this tradition.

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Jeff Petrich’s “Smoke and Croak”

Minneapolis’s West Bank has seen a lot over the years, but its Golden Age was long ago. During its heyday it was Mecca for jazz and folk artists who frequented the bars and cafes. A local fellow did his art there, producing an illustrated calendar for the Triangle Bar which featured photos of locals as well as notables from the outside world.

Jeff Petrich died this year. His death capped off a great year in which he showed his artwork in Finland as well as participating in a group show at the Belmore in Minneapolis.

When he suspected something was wrong, Jeff walked to Hennepin County Medical Center and was eventually told that he had cancer in more places than you can count with both hands. Treatment was as debilitating as the disease. Heroically, Jeff embarked on a project with his son William and William’s mother, Marie.  Entitled “Smoke and Croak,” this mission involved creating as much art as they could, smoking as much cannabis as he wished, and spending all of his time with the people who loved him the most. He stared death in the face, and I would not doubt if he saw death blink. There will be an exhibition of his work in 2015.

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Avjar. Photo: Ivana Sokolović, Flickr, used under Creative Commons license

Ajvar

September is the beginning of Ajvar (pronounced eye-var) season in Croatia. Sometimes ajvar is called “Yugoslavian caviar.” I think the reason for this is because people love to eat it rather than due to any snob appeal it might have. It is a simple paste made from roasted peppers, eggplant, and olive oil. Simple to make but recipes for making it will stray from that simplicity and suggest adding things that don’t belong in ajvar. It is not meant to be hot, but it’s warm and savory, rich and satisfying.

Nearly every Balkan country claim it as theirs. I have had it from northern Croatia to Bulgaria and it varies little from place to place.

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Stargaze

This is a group with roughly 20 members who rotate depending on the size required and the instruments involved. Stargaze teams up with songwriters to perform their music with an orchestra who shares this dream. I had the pleasure of spending a week with these fine players rehearsing and performing two concerts and watching them working with others.

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Haldern Pop

Situated near Cologne, Germany, the town of Haldern rolls up its sleeves every August and puts on what is arguably the most pleasant music festival in the world. Three days of music every year since 1984, Haldern Pop is devoid of billboard-sized corporate logos and all of the nonsense that distracts from a good musical experience. Set in a huge equestrian park, there is a very large stage and a “spiegel tent,” an antique portable venue that collapses to fit on a semi trailer. Off site in the town center are a bar and a 12th-century church that feature music indoors. Most of the tickets for next year have already been purchased.

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The “Joan Anderson letter,” written from Neal Cassady to Jack Kerouac. Photo: TIME

The Joan Anderson Letter

The very recent re-discovery of this legendary letter by Neil Cassady to a girlfriend, Joan Anderson has the world of literature flipping. Cassady was the inspiration for the Sal Paradise character in Jack Kerouak’s much overrated On the Road. For the rest of Kerouak’s life, people assumed that he was Paradise and Cassady went on and eventually was the bus driver for Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters. Justice will be served by the attention this discovery brings to Cassady as the master of hip argot.

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RMS Olympic and RMS Titanic

Titanic Controversy

With each passing year, more people are coming around to the theory that the White Star liner Olympic was switched for the Titanic and sunk in her place by swindling board members of a huge multinational cabal. Much like 9/11 and JFK, the sinking that shocked the world has captivated folks who won’t believe that anything or anyone so great could be brought down by simple means or by simple men. Such is the nature of men and myth.

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Still from Heavy Rotation (2011), featured in the 2014 Whitney Biennial

Whitney Biennial

This year I had the honor of attending this Super Bowl of American art with one of the featured artists, Chris Larson of St. Paul. Work by Charline von Heyl stole my heart like little else, but I was there for the shrimp.

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Union Depot, St. Paul

It was the largest building I ever saw when my family saw my brother off on his trip to Seattle in 1967 from this landmark. Back then, the gleaming brass of the William Crooks Locomotive was on display to excite the fantasy of a six year old and the ceilings looked as high as the sky. The first train in Minnesota, the Crooks is now at the Lake Superior Railroad Museum in Duluth and the station in St. Paul has assumed its place as the gateway to the city once again.

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The new Vikings stadium under construction. Photo: Lars Hammar, Flickr, used under Creative Commons License

Stadium construction

Whoever thought that blackmail could be so pretty! As a lifelong believer that professional sports should house themselves and not be parasites sucking resources from the city, I was surprised to see how visually stimulating the tower cranes and skeleton of the new downtown stadium are. Stadiums are much more attractive than low income housing or new schools with good teachers. The salaries paid to pro athletes are sometimes greater than the cost of building a school, but who needs schools when you can be Champions!

2014: The Year According to Eyvind Kang

To commemorate the year that was, we invited an array of artists, writers, designers, and curators—from filmmaker Sam Green and musician Grant Hart to artist Shahryar Nashat and animator Miwa Matreyek—to share a list of the most noteworthy ideas, events, and objects they encountered in 2014. See the entire series 2014: The Year According to                        […]

Eyvind Kang

To commemorate the year that was, we invited an array of artists, writers, designers, and curators—from filmmaker Sam Green and musician Grant Hart to artist Shahryar Nashat and animator Miwa Matreyek—to share a list of the most noteworthy ideas, events, and objects they encountered in 2014. See the entire series 2014: The Year According to                        .

Eyvind Kang is a composer and violist who has released a dozen albums of original music, including “The Narrow Garden” (Ipecac) and “Visible Breath” (Ideologic Organ). He often performs vocalist/composer Jessika Kenney, in many contexts including their works of austere beauty “Aestuarium” and “the Face of the Earth” (Ideologic 2011/12). As a violist he has worked extensively with Laurie Anderson and Bill Frisell, as well as presented solo works by Christian Wolff, Satyajit Ray and Hanne Darboven. He has also been a guest musician and arranger on hundreds of albums, including those by Sunn O))), Blonde Redhead, and Glass Candy.

 


 

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Qiu Miaojin, Last Words From Montmartre

The communication in these writings is so personal, you begin to feel greatly attached, and since this very feeling is described with precision in the text, the whole experience of reading seems to fold in on itself like a black hole. At a certain point I thought, “I don’t need any other book.” The author advises that the chapters can be read in any order. At first I bibliomanced my own order, but at the moment I prefer her order. Also, there are many serious insights, both spiritual and scientific, that wouldn’t necessarily arise outside the context of high emotion.

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Ostad Mohammad Reza Lotfi

This giant of Persian classical music departed on May 2. The Abu Ata concert, a duo with M.R. Shajarian, is one of the classic documents of this music. Towards the end, he seemed to take a spiritual turn; his compositions became concentrated on the state of trance.

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Alexander Grothendieck

Departed on November 14. At this point, due to the kind permission of his family, we may all begin to learn a little more of his work during his final period of seclusion. For more information: Grothendieck circle.

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Sepideh Meshki

There are so many amazing setar players, but she stood out in this performance with the aforementioned Ostad Lotfi. From the first moments on her solo album on the incredible new Iranian label, Kherad Art House, one falls into a kind of dream. But she balances the paradoxes in the sound of the setar with perfect precision while maintaining a kind of intense communicative empathy with the listener. Although the discursive quality of the phrasing could easily lead to a cascade, she manages to keep the clarity of the musical idea up front. Also a deft combination of original/traditional.

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Taku Unami at Issue Project Room, New York

What can I say about this gig? Nothing, because nothing really happened. Most of the people weren’t aware there was a performance going on. I was about to leave because I was so bored, and ran into a friend on the steps, who informed me of the presence of a rare bee in the back of the room. Curious, I returned inside. I had previously become aware of a kind of strange aura, but by now it was really unmistakable. Like a funny party, in which very little happened, but whose aura increased as time went by.

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Alain Badiou, Mathematics of the Transcendental

An invaluable resource for those of us trying to study category theory independently. Especially huge for musicians, since it helps open the door to studying Guerino Mazzola’s epic textbook, The Topos of Music.

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Martial Canterel, Gyors, Lassú

A new album from him is always a cause for celebration, but I appreciate the change to a more up tempo sound on this one.

Remembering Robert Stearns: 1947–2014

On Wednesday, December 3, the Walker lost a good colleague and important past leader, former Performing Arts Coordinator and Curator Robert Stearns, to a short battle with cancer. He served the Walker from 1982 to 1988, producing a host of bold performing arts pieces that continue to be viewed as historic highlights. “Robert’s vision and leadership was […]

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Robert Stearns, Walker Art Center, 1982. Courtesy Walker Art Center Archives

On Wednesday, December 3, the Walker lost a good colleague and important past leader, former Performing Arts Coordinator and Curator Robert Stearns, to a short battle with cancer. He served the Walker from 1982 to 1988, producing a host of bold performing arts pieces that continue to be viewed as historic highlights. “Robert’s vision and leadership was reflected in the diverse programs across his six-year tenure. He spearheaded some of the most ambitious performance projects that the Walker has undertaken by leading edge artists of the time,” said current Performing Arts Senior Curator Philip Bither.

Stearns came to the Walker by way of The Kitchen, the renowned New York City experimental arts space. As The Kitchen’s first director, he was instrumental in developing a downtown arts scene that would obliterate notions of “high” and “low” culture. In a tenure that ran from from 1972 to 1977, Stearns helped bring artists like Robert Mapplethorpe, Eric Bogosian, the Talking Heads, Tony Conrad, and John Cage to perform in a kitchen in the back of the Mercer Arts Center and, later, a small space in SoHo. His time in New York seemed to endow him with a determined optimism. “There was just a sense you really couldn’t fail at anything, and therefore there was a sense of you could try almost anything,” Stearns told The Kitchen’s Oral History Project.

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A March 1973 events calendar from The Kitchen, featuring luminaries like Alvin Lucier and Eliane Radigue. Source: The Vasulka Kitchen archive

After a brief stint as director of the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati, Stearns landed at the Walker. His leadership of the Walker’s Performing Arts department led to an increase in artist residencies and commissioned pieces. Of these efforts, Stearns is possibly best remembered for producing the premiere of the Knee Plays, a celebrated collaboration between librettist-director Robert Wilson and composer David Byrne. the Knee Plays was a series of interludes of Wilson’s massive twelve-hour opera, the CIVIL warS: a tree is best measured when it is down, a six-part production that featured six separate mini-premieres in six countries around the world.  In 1984, Robert Stearns managed to secure for Minneapolis the US premiere, held in the then Walker Auditorium following a Walker commission and a nearly month-long developmental residency. Byrne’s score fused the influences of opera, Japanese Taiko drumming, and New Orleans brass bands. Stearns’ commissioning of the Knee Plays not only further established the prominent position of the Walker and the Twin Cities on the international arts scene, it also continued a tradition at the Walker of presenting unusual and visionary works that break down the boundaries of genre.

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Performance of the Knee Plays, 1984. Courtesy Walker Art Center Archives

Stearns’ term brought many more national and international triumphs to the Walker. In 1983, he commissioned The Gospel at Colonus, a hugely successful collaboration between experimental playwright Lee Breuer, composer Bob Telson, JD Steele and the Steele Family Singers, and gospel legends the Blind Boys of Alabama (including Sam Butler). This work was presented twice, first as a work-in-progress in the Walker Auditorium, and later in collaboration with the Guthrie.  In 1987, he commissioned the first phase of what would later become playwright Matthew Maguire and guitarist-composer Glenn Branca’s brilliant operatic work, The Tower. Notable dance commissions of Stearns’s time at the Walker include Trisha Brown’s Lateral Pass (1985), which had its world premiere at Hamline University Theater; Merce Cunningham’s Fabrications (1987), the first of a series of three Cunningham commissions by the Walker, which premiered at Northrop Auditorium; and David Gordon’s United States (1988). In addition, the Walker brought in a number of other vital artists during his tenure: William S. Burroughs, Fab 5 Freddy, Laurie Anderson, Christian Marclay, and John Cage all made trips to the Twin Cities during the Stearns years.

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John Cage, Wordworks Festival, 1983. Courtesy Walker Art Center Archives

Robert Stearns was responsible for presenting performing artists often left on the fringes to larger audiences. With former Walker film curator Melinda Ward, he helped develop the PBS program Alive From Off Center, which featured experimental performances and short films. He also helped lay the ground work for Out There, the annual festival that continues to showcase provocative theatrical performances to this day.

Perhaps his greatest gift to the Twin Cities arts community was his unshakable faith in it. Stearns took chances on challenging works with the belief that the audiences would be there to engage with them, and he was right. In 1988, he moved on to become the founding director of the Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus, Ohio, an important multidisciplinary contemporary art center very much inspired by Stearns’s time at the Walker. Later, he spent six years as a senior program director and curator with Arts Midwest. In more recent years, Stearns established and was president of ArtsOasis in Palm Springs, California.

Despite his relatively short tenure at the Walker, Stearns’s impact on our community has endured.

The Ecstatic Celebration: Omar Souleyman at The Cedar

To spark discussion, the Walker invites Twin Cities artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, Walker Performing Arts Intern Sam Segal shares his perspective on Omar Souleyman at the […]

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Omar Souleyman; Photo: Molly Hanse

To spark discussion, the Walker invites Twin Cities artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, Walker Performing Arts Intern Sam Segal shares his perspective on Omar Souleyman at the Cedar. Agree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments!

In Modern Standard Arabic, the word “Hafla (حفلة)” carries the sense of both the English words “Concert” and “Party.” It might be more accurate then to refer to Syrian singer and electro-dabke wizard Omar Souleyman’s performance to a packed crowd at the Cedar on Friday night as a hafla. Slowly traipsing back and forth across the stage, Souleyman led one of the most frenzied and ecstatic dance parties I’ve ever seen in the Twin Cities. When I saw this crowd of supposedly reserved Minnesotans losing their minds like a bunch raving club kids to Souleyman’s synthesis of traditional Levantine celebration music and Western electronic dance music, I have to say I was a bit relieved.

International pop artists like Omar Souleyman are so often positioned as mere intellectual curiosities by Western press and promoters. A lot of the discussion around Souleyman seems to amount to little more than saying, “He wears a keffiyeh  and he makes electronic dance music?! How fascinating?!” When people come to shows expecting to see some think piece of a pop performance, they’re rarely ready to dance. In July, I was lucky enough to see the legendary Ethiopian pop star Mahmoud Ahmed at Pioneer Works in Brooklyn. Sadly, while Ahmed and his band were laying down the rawest gutbucket grooves, most of the people in the crowd were standing stiff, flaccidly nodding their heads, or taking Instagram photos. It took over half a set of the 73-year-old Ahmed’s desperate coaxing before the audience allowed itself to stop observing and start participating (I don’t think it helped matters that two hardly-danceable free jazz trios served as the opening acts that night). Thankfully, those who attended Omar Souleyman’s party in Minneapolis came to play.

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Vacation Dad; Photo: Sam Segal

The hyperactive cosmic slop of opening performer Vacation Dad provided a perfect entry point for the night’s festivities. Vacation Dad, the project of producer Andy Todryk, ramped up the BPMs on the spaced-out electronic exotica of his recordings in favor of lush, drop-heavy dance music. After a short set of Bernie Worrell meets Diplo magic, Vacation Dad cleared the stage for the man we were all here to see.

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Rizan Sa’id; Photo: Sam Segal

Building up the tension with the skill of a true showman, the performance began with Souleyman’s master keyboardist, Rizan Sa’id, alone on stage. Over the years, Souleyman’s band has trimmed down to the solo accompaniment of Sa’id, who somehow manages to conjure an entire dabke orchestra on two old Korgs. With a slow, somber melody emanating from the keyboard, Souleyman’s ghostly Arabic greeted the crowd from somewhere offstage. “He’s saying, ‘Goodmorning,’” a guy next to me told a child near him. The guy continued to translate Souleyman’s speech for another minute, but eventually he gave up, telling the child to “think of the words as music.”

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Omar Souleyman and Rizan Sa’id; Photo: Sam Segal

Over the years, Souleyman has replaced all traditional instrumentation with electronics, leading him to develop a totally unique style of manically sped up, overdriven dabke music. In a 2013 interview with The Guardian, he referred to this style as a sport: “The fast music is a kind of sport, it makes you move—it’s like any sport where you jump or run. And it’s the same for the audience as well; they tend to dance even more to the fast music.” Well, if this concert was a sport, then Souleyman was our haggard veteran coach, effortlessly conducting our boisterous participation with stoic hand gestures and the occasional affirmative grin. We clapped when he clapped, and we shouted back in call-and-response joy when he pointed the mic towards us (no doubt botching the Arabic phrase he was looking for).

Throughout the show, I was doing my best to try and figure out which songs Souleyman was pulling from his massive catalog, but outside of the fact that I don’t speak Arabic, I could hardly quit clapping and jumping up-and-down long enough to even try. I’d come in with all sorts of political questions: What does it mean that Souleyman is performing music that is increasingly becoming a historical artifact with the devastation caused by the civil war in Syria? Does it matter that this audience might not understand the ethnomusicological context of his music? How much will a Western audience project its stereotypes of Arab identity onto him? But when the skittering beat took over and Souleyman’s gruff voice began calling out poetry I could only understand as another musical instrument, those questions really didn’t seem relevant. What was relevant was the moment and the simple awe of watching a pop star at the height of his powers leading a crowd in communal celebration.

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