Before entering Culture Administration & Trembling at the Abrons Arts Center last Thursday night I had to take off my shoes. Reverence for Dominique Pétrin’s handcrafted stage, and pretty much everything else that took place that night, was part of the social contract performers Jennifer Lacey, Antonija Livingstone, Dominique Pétrin and Stephen Thompson put forth.
As the headline act at “American Realness”, a festival dedicated to showcasing new and experimental dance-cum-performance, (January 7-17th.) Culture Administration felt oddly church-like. The hour-long participatory experience looks at sharing roles, exchanging ideas and taking risks. By the end, I felt lighter but also somewhat exhausted. Like most experiences I’ve had in church, many scenes required a kind of meditative endurance for which only the faithful have developed the muscles. As a doubtful believer in this world, I struggled with my own unwillingness to accept what was presented, though by the end, the piece won me over. I found myself at turns enraptured, frightened, impatient, stunned, charmed and euphoric.
Structurally, the performance started with set choreography that was then fucked with. For example, when the performance begins with Lacey, Livingstone, and Thompson crawling over a patterned papered floor, live snakes and dogs were introduced to disrupt the script of movements. At one point, an audience member actually gasped out, as a snake was placed directly in the path of a crawling dancer who happened to be carrying another performer on her back. How would she move over the snake? The performer simply got off, but it was a good example of how difficult it can be to imagine new possibilities, even when we know the one we’re on is dangerous.
Tested structures weren’t limited to dance alone. In another scene, we’re told an insidery art joke: “An artist and an institutional walk into a bar,” says Lacey who holds out a small dog in her hands. As Lacey tells it, the artist and institution have relationship problems. The institution doesn’t take the artist seriously enough. The artist seems to invite conflict with the institution. There is no resolution. The couple goes home together, skips sex and make toast. Compromise isn’t sexy.
The joke landed well, but for me, the most effective scenes didn’t require a sermon. One part of the performance had three performers ringing and sharing bells as a light grew brighter over head. I couldn’t help but marvel at how much greater the sum of a shared resource was versus what would have been had we seen only one bell or one act. In another, performers paired off with audience members, cuddled with them, and exchanged turns in sleeping poses. I loved this, in part for the tension it created among audience members. Judging by the looks, at least a couple of us were terrified we’d be chosen. I was one of them.
Fittingly enough, a closing scene sounded yet more bells. Performers bounced up and down and jingled their keys defiantely as they danced to AC/DC’s “Hell’s Bells”. As I listened to the tempo pick and the low notes fade, I began to see the performance less as a reverent testing of systems, relationships and difference, but a celebration of it. Audience participation was not enlisted for this particular score, but this was one spot where I surely would have got up and danced.