American Realness

Putting It Together

Putting It Together

By Ellen Chenoweth
Published: August 31, 2015 as a part of READING 2015

I’m tired of talking about money all the time. I want to see a thousand think pieces about how glorious it feels to dance, and a thousand long reads about how delicious and amazing it is to be a performing artist in America, as we buck capitalist expectations of productivity and rationality. I want us to gloriously proclaim our non-utilitarian nature, shouting it from rooftops everywhere. I want us to bask in our place as cultural guardians, high priests and priestesses of the nation’s soul.

Unfortunately, we are surrounded by inequities and injustices and some of us still don’t have health care, so we have to keep talking about the fucking all-mighty dollar. We keep talking about it, and advocating for artists to get paid, and writing think pieces about the difficulty of making a living, and making work about the trials and tribulations of being a working artist, turning the hustle into a dance. Three performances at American Realness 2015 took a look at some of the indignities and perils of trying to survive as an artist in the current moment: Cynthia Hopkins’ A Living Documentary, Miguel Gutierrez’ Age & Beauty Part 2, and Ivo Dimchev’s Fest.

“What if the art part is all you’re good at? I’m good at making weird songs and performing them. So basically I’m like I Love Lucy, she sucks at everything! I’m like Lucy without Ricky Ricardo!” Fortunately for those of us nestled into the Underground Theater at Abrons, Cynthia Hopkins is indeed good at the art part. In A Living Documentary, she compellingly describes her failings in other areas, the panic attacks caused by logging in to facebook, the production budgets prone to bloat, the struggles with liability insurance.

Swinging the pendulum the other way from some tech-heavy productions in her past, A Living Documentary is enchantingly low-tech. The fact that she is able to weave a spell with an acoustic guitar, a cassette player providing taped accompaniment, and her voice, both speaking and singing, might provoke a renewal of faith in the power of the theater, if you were in need of such a thing. Costume changes happen on the stage as Hopkins channels characters ranging from a wizened playwright advising the women in his workshop to marry rich, to a Creative Capital professional development guru exhorting her participants to grow some spiritual testicles.

Just as I was starting to break out in anxiety hives listening to Hopkins enumerate some of the non-artistic challenges in her life (that bugaboo of liability insurance again, the weight of responsibility that comes when you provide employment for friends, the issue of storage for sets and costumes from productions past), she breaks in with a melodic PSA of self-awareness, “If this sounds like a stress-inducing litany of real life that you’re trying to escape, don’t worry, there’s a story!” As another person fleeing from the wreckage of the 501c3 set-up, I laughed in recognition as Hopkins complained that the structure “is like an albatross around my neck—it’s like a family of fifty albatrosses and I’m gasping for air.”

But rather than letting the bastard albatrosses get her down (or more accurately, in addition to often feeling down), Hopkins has managed to make a work which deftly navigates around the dangers of being simply depressing, whiny or narcissistic. Through focusing on her own story, Hopkins indicts the systems and structures around her, from presenters who back out of agreements, to interim grant reports that are longer than the initial application, to the expectation that artists be salesmen and PR shills in addition to making good work. There are no saints or martyrs in this telling, as Hopkins provides shades of nuance and complexity to her character.

The performer recounts an episode in which she inherited a large windfall, $200,000, from her disagreeable grandfather. She describes her complicated feelings about the money and the man (an engineer for the Manhattan Project). She traces the inexorable path that led to her decision to make a show with the money, and how that show eventually absorbed the entire windfall, and then some. I internally gasp at the loss of all that money, while also thinking, ‘damn that show sounds good.’

In one section towards the end, Hopkins sings about her midlife crisis, with lyrics like “I don’t want to do this no more…. I never meant to become what I am,” questioning, “Should I keep doing this thing with my life?” There’s no easy answer, of course, but it makes your heart hurt. Maybe A Living Documentary should be required viewing for young makers, providing artist-to-artist real talk.

We all walk out of the theater in a respectful hush. Somehow I feel like I’ve gotten all worked up and then quieted down again. There’s a simmer of anger and frustration at the plight of artists in this country, mixed with empathy and awe for Hopkins herself, but there’s some fuck-yeah-defiance in there as well. Hopkins told the audience that A Living Documentary represents “freedom from the tyranny of fundraising and big sets”; witnessing it felt like getting a jolt of vicarious freedom.

Age & Beauty Part 2: Asian Beauty @ the Werq Meeting or The Choreographer & Her Muse or &:@&.

I am in the searing pink and white landscape at the Whitney, where I saw Age & Beauty Part 1: Mid-Career Artist/Suicide Note or &:-/ back in April 2014. It is still in my bones. Mickey Mahar like a baby lamb, gangly limbs still being discovered. Miguel Gutierrez emitting a force field of crackling energy. I’m looking for connections between that world and this more austere one.

Part 2 puts me in front of the sound board on the stage at the Abrons Playhouse, seated next to a new acquaintance, Alec White. Sitting next to another administrator manager type adds a layer of richness to the viewing. I can sense that we’re both cheering for manager/curator extraordinaire Ben Pryor, glad that he is singing and dancing on stage, in addition to working on his laptop.

I am transported back to 2009, watching a work-in-progress performance of Gutierrez’ Last Meadow at Texas Woman’s University during a Powerful People residency. As part of Age & Beauty Part 2, Michelle Boule is performing snippets of previous performances and roles, and seeing her James Dean takes me back.

Cut to a scene at a dance company that I worked at for several years: the company artists have invited the administrators to join them in the studio for a showing and some movement exercises. They are trying to include us, to make us feel a part of the artistic work, but I feel exasperated and overextended. Do they want me to get this grant report out so we can get paid, or do they want me to play around in the studio with them? Of course the answer is always both, that both spheres are important. But the reality is that it’s just not always possible to manage both.

I am flashed-back and flashed-over.

The tension between the artistic and the administrative is dramatized in Age and Beauty Part 2. Boule represents the Art, pieces of old repertoire hovering around the edges of the stage, or forcefully inserting herself in the middle, a wild animal force underneath the table where Pryor and Gutierrez calmly continue working out the Business of logistics and money.

On the one side is power, passion, strange and terrible beauty—not to mention the decades of work embedded in Boule’s movement phrases. She is mute but insistent; at the same time I notice it’s oddly easy for my eyes to drift away from her. Stripped of their context, these fragments seem lonely.

On the other side, the discussion is terribly familiar and mundane. We all have these boring scheduling conversations that Pryor and Gutierrez enact for us; our work, more than most, depends on us being in the same space at the same time together. We’re all trying to figure out the best video samples to submit for MAP. We’re all sending out emails and waiting for replies, spending more time than we want to facing these soulless screens. When he’s not talking with Gutierrez, much of the time Pryor is doing just that.

In Part 1, there was an unmistakable throbbing sadness, and this has continued into Part 2. Gutierrez’s text is projected onto screens, so I both read and hear his distress: “I want to stop making work. I make pieces others like or don’t. Feeling like a ghost in my own life. I never want to stop making work. … I want things to be easier at this stage in my life.” I feel torn. I don’t want Gutierrez to stop making work. I want him to make work forever. The losses if he were to stop making work seem …incalculable. But I want things to be easier too, for Gutierrez, and for Pryor. I want all of us to be relaxed and happy, surrounded by happy, stable relationships, having real, healthy budgets for our brilliant projects…. But maybe here too the reality is that both are just not possible.

Pryor sings that “the history of arts administration is an invisible history,” and it rings painfully true. Claudia La Rocco has come at this from a slightly different angle, but identifies one of the roots of the problem in a rehearsal diary from the fall of 2013, published in the Brooklyn Rail: “I think a lot about this idea of artists taking up all the oxygen in the room, and who gets to be an artist, and when. The Artists with a capital A in the dance field are both glorified and infantilized and the people around them are seen as less than full people; they are not meant to exist fully so that the Artists get that space. Davison [Scandrett] isn’t meant to be fully seen; only to light the stars.” Pryor insists, “I have a voice. I’m a muse too. I’m not invisible.”

Hopkins closes A Living Documentary with her desire “to be seen and heard,” the same message that Boule, Pryor and Gutierrez argue for in different ways through Age & Beauty Part 2. Artist or administrator, no one wants to be invisible.

Ivo Dimchev doesn’t so much flip the scripts as he chops them up, throws them into the air, and then loosely stitches the pieces together after they land. He has said that was created out of the predictability of his professional communications, and his resulting boredom. The show he makes in response is gleefully never boring. The Bulgarian performance artist highlights some of the ways in which artists are required to kiss ass.

In the first scene of Fest, Dimchev is negotiating with a Danish festival curator who wants to present his work at her Copenhagen festival. Usually in these situations, the presenter has the majority of the power, and the artist is just trying to break even and show their work. But Dimchev subverts this and has the artist, played by himself, base his fee on the number of fingers the curator allows him to insert in her vagina.

The conversation begins not-so-strangely, with the curator telling Dimchev “I’ve seen your work and I really appreciate it,” but from there things quickly diverge from the usual negotiation. He works up to this ask by first inquiring if he can see her vagina, then smell it, then taste it, then insert his fingers. I am squirming and laughing and aware of exactly how closely the theater seats are squished together, as it feels like I’m very close and intimate with my neighbors in this audience as we listen to the sounds of a vagina being licked.

The curator draws the line at four fingers being too much to ask, and Dimchev replies then the price for presenting his work is 4000 euro, “plus travel and accommodation.” The fact that this piece is being shown during the time of APAP to an audience full of artists and presenters adds to the delicious subversion.

The dialogue is delivered in a forced-neutral, robotic tone. Everyone on stage is so tense while they pretend at neutrality, working so hard to seem like everything is normal. Later, all characters will start shaking and jiggling while maintaining the neutral tone, adding to the impression that the emotions are just barely contained.

Unlike in the real world, the curator discusses her decision-making rationale explicitly, “Ivo is a radical artist, will I be seen as a radical programmer or a freak?” Some of the prestige of the artist will rub off on her by proximity. I’m hungry for this discussion from presenters: if not their emotional vulnerabilities, I would at least like to hear about why the work they choose speaks to them, or why they think it will speak to their audiences. Anything beyond the slick marketing material as empty as it is de rigueur.

When Dimchev arrives at the festival, he must jump through all kinds of hoops in order to keep the technical director happy and on the job. When he finally gets to present his work, we get only the broad outlines, but we do learn that Kenny Rogers is involved. A crazy woman comes up from the audience in this show-within-a-show and kills the artist, so he becomes a sort of zombie. “I hope he can still do the after-talk,” the curator murmurs.

He does indeed manage to muster the strength to do a post-performance discussion. So the artist is dying in his chair, with his tongue lolling out, but still must endure the local critic telling him that she found the work “superficial.” Nonetheless, the critic asks the artist for some sperm, which he obligingly produces, and then she tries to inseminate herself. She doesn’t want to be in a relationship with Dimchev, she just wants his raw material. She herself is not an artist, but “just want[s] to be a part of it.”

The characters are impersonal and dispassionate, highlighting the farce: we all pretend that these discussions aren’t about personality, about desire and love and sex and reputations and money. Dimchev pulls the blanket down, exposing some of the uncomfortable undercurrents hind the bland façade.

After performing as required for the curator, the production crew, and the critic, and doing his show, Dimchev staggers off, minus some sperm and some dignity, presumably to die alone. It is death by a thousand cuts.

The three artists range from late-30s to mid-40s, and each has a substantial body of work and has won a number of awards and accolades. By many measures, they are the successful ones. To see them dispirited and questioning is to know that there is a legion of artists behind them who gave it up and dropped out. These reports from the toughest canaries in the coal mine look at the financial, spiritual, emotional relationships in the ecosystem and call us towards keener vision.

READING is made possible with support from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.
photo by Ian Douglas