American Realness Festival
Abrons Arts Center
New York, NY
by Martha Sherman
copyright © 2015 by Martha Sherman
- “Age and Beauty Part 1: Mid-Career Artist/Suicide Note or &:-/,” January 10, 2015; Gibney Dance at 280 Broadway.
- “Age and Beauty Part 2: Asian Beauty@the Werq Meeting or The Chroeographer & Her Muse or &:@&,” January 17, 2015, Abrons Arts Center.
The American Realness Festival, in its sixth year and now firmly established in the January festival firmament, continues to stand at the gritty edge of contemporary dance. Miguel Gutierrez and Jack Ferver are two artists who use themselves as mirrors, and in their works for this year’s festival, each dug deeply into fears of aging and death, balanced against the sustenance of relationships.
Photo: Mickey Mahar and Miguel Gutierrez in “Age and Beauty Part 1.” Photo © Ian Douglas.
In Part 1, the bright white, new downtown Gibney dance studio offered an ideal site for a pink and white affair. Gutierrez pranced in, wearing a magenta bathing suit and bright yellow hair, with a slash of pink across his face and eyes. He offered the audience members bright pink nail polish to match his own and his partner’s, Micky Mahar, his shadowy foil.
An angular wraith, Maher paralleled Gutierrez’s fleshy curves slinky move by slinky move. Their sensual hip rolls, and energized sashays around the stage suggesting a masquerade, that was, at the same time, oddly real. Unlikely twins, they were connected by a raging joy in their sexuality, grabbing their crotches or flailing their tongues suggestively, their bodies making noise as they flopped and staggered or sprang across the white Marley floor.
Both dancers’ solos jerked their bodies in painful contortions, flopping and staggering around the floor. Gutierrez’s soliloquy about sex, time, and age and the consequences of growing old was the score for this self-reflection, and a throbbing pop soundtrack framed the dance. The bright white and pink lights, by Gutierrez’s long-time lighting collaborator Lenore Doxsee, stripped away every defense, highlighting every wrinkle, and all of the black hairy skin clothed in pink.
To a reverberating mix, Gutierrez and Mahar dashed around the stage, twirling and blazing. Gutierrez bid the audience farewell, “You’re free to go – you’re always free to go,” as the throbbing continued. His story wasn’t over; he was still dancing, but finally, hesitantly, we left him.
Part 2 of the series made its world premiere on the stage of the Playhouse at Abrons Arts Center. This time, the performers were surrounded by black – and instead of dancing for himself, Gutierrez became the presenter, offering his life as an artist, as played by others. Playing Gutierrez, was Sean Donovan, younger, taller, thinner, but channeling Gutierrez in his pink and gauze costume and the same slash of pink across his eyes and cheek that Gutierrez had sported in Part 1.
In addition to the musical score, the key soundtrack was a spoken script, transcribed verbatim from a series of conversations between Gutierrez and Ben Pryor, his long-time manager (as well as the founder and curator of the American Realness Festival.) And opposite Donovan at a long table, playing Ben Pryor, was -- Ben Pryor. They read this play within a play from their laptops, long conversations, ranging from touring to funding to the politics of art. Some of the script was projected on screens around us, and this deep dive into Gutierrez and Pryor’s working lives was both familiar and intimate, in a quotidian way.
Behind and around them, the dancing star of the show was Michelle Boulé, a powerful dancer who has worked with Gutierrez for fourteen years. In a scarlet outfit, she moved from lithe and elegant, to frantic and flailing. She danced blindfolded in gold; she danced imprisoned by the walls and by the table.
The script became increasingly frantic as Boulé added her voice. All the players wanted their voices heard, their needs met. The script became a dance. Gutierrez stepped back in, at last, to dance for himself. He was joined by his partner – Pryor – and, in a clever reveal, we learned that he can do more than run a festival – he can also dance. They moved in parallel, their energized movement pounding to rhythmic music. Boulé and then Donovan joined them, and the quartet dashed around the space in the midst of pinwheels of colored light (Doxsee’s contribution, joining the dance in her own way, from the light booth.) A dancer would call out another’s name (“Sean” “Mickey”) and that person would lead the next portion of the dance, followed by the other three.
Suddenly, without a break or a breathe, it was time to work again, but this time Gutierrez took his place with Pryor to continue the conversation (“I could do Part 2 at American Realness – that could be appropriate.”) The cast rotated offstage to change costumes, and all four returned in pink bubblegum gowns, each with their own message of identity and desire – including Doxsee, who was projected up on the screen, to bow with her partners. As self-referential as the work is, Gutierrez knows that in his art, he’s not alone.
Jack Ferver, “Night Light Bright Light,” January 18, 2015.
Jack Ferver, another self-referential gay performance artist, took his inspiration for “Night Light Bright Light” from the story of dancer and performer Fred Herko. Ferver used images from Herko’s art and dramatic 1964 suicide to reflect on his own life, although Ferver, instead, turned his own fear, anxiety, and loneliness into a performance that was the marriage of shtick and balletic burlesque.
Ferver’s partner (and adopted protector, as Ferver contemplated a suicide like Herko’s) was Reid Barthelme. Barthelme danced classical arabesques, foot positions and port de bras as simple ballet moves that anchored Ferver’s feverish recitations. In multiple monologues at a tall microphone on stage, he repeated conversations with his not-very-effective therapist, telling his own and Herko’s, stories. As the dance and dialogue shifted, the score wended, too, among classical, pop, and Ferver’s musical creations.
To a “Kyrie, Eleison,” Barthelme danced elegantly in leaps and pirouettes, and Ferver joined him in a passing imitation, then tipped the duet into satire as he wrapped an arm around Barthelme’s head and balanced on Barthelme’s knees. Later, Ferver broke away in minced steps to the microphone, his story more important than his movement. The second wandering monologue included a three-minute summary version of the entire “A Streetcar Named Desire,” as well as simple declarations of fact (“I have a boyfriend, but I want a puppy,) all laced with his suicidal imaginings.
As Ferver quavered “I’m not afraid” in the midst of a childhood story, Barthelme took on a new role, and danced by, swathed in a long black veil and toes shoes, and carrying a candle. He circled through the blacked-out theater, lightly touching audience members and panting, a perfect childhood terror, and the audience wept with laughter. Barthelme seemed to fulfill the real requirements of an FOA (friend of artist) – both substantive and silly.
In a long closing video (“a clip from my first documentary,”) Ferver’s face became a repeated tic, his eyes fluttering as the camera zoomed in and the edited frames played an endless loop that became totally boring, and a perfect metaphor for Ferver’s self-obsessions. The film ended, and the crowd roared its approval; as befits a prima ballerina, Ferver took several curtain calls with Barthelme presenting him in low bows. When the self he offers is so fully embraced, it’s hard to expect Ferver to reach for more.
Top: Michelle Boulé in “Age and Beauty Part 2.” Photo © Ian Douglas.
Middle: Michelle Boulé , Miguel Gutierrez, Sean Donovan, Ben Pryor in “Age and Beauty Part 2.” Photo © Ian Douglas.
Bottom: Reid Barthelme and Jack Ferver in “Night Light Bright Light.” Photo © Ian Douglas.
copyright © 2015 by Martha Sherman