Sass and Sensibility: The Eighth American Realness Festival

Ligia Lewis: minor matter, 2016. Photo Ian Douglas. 


In 1988, at the Tracy Aviary in Salt Lake City, Utah, a flamingo took flight during a routine wing-clipping procedure. The bird, whose sex is unknown, flew to the Great Salt Lake, an environment not unlike its native roosting grounds in Chile. Popularly referred to as Pink Floyd, the flamingo lived at the lake for seventeen years, garnering attention as an ecological oddity and tourist attraction. A group concerned about the bird’s welfare formed and advocated for the Utah Parks Department to release additional flamingos at the lake so that Pink Floyd could have some companions of the same species (even though the bird seemed healthy and content living among the geese and gulls). Local officials blocked the proposal, fearing the consequences of introducing a non-native species into the lake’s ecosystem.  

Pink Floyd’s story figured into the spoken-word component of Jen Rosenblit’s four-person piece Clap Hands (2016), which was staged at the eighth edition of American Realness, an eight-day live-art festival in New York hosted by the Abrons Art Center and Gibney Dance. Rosenblit’s work centered on themes of the body, polyamory, and “self talk”-a therapeutic practice of talking to oneself about oneself-and was performed in the round, with a table in the middle covered with sound equipment. Rosenblit, in boxing shorts, acted as a narrator, delivering fragments that interspersed meandering poetic lines among anecdotes about nature (“An unknown disease began to kill bees; the hive died because it was queenless”). But it was Rosenblit’s inclusion of Pink Floyd’s story, with its themes of difference, displacement, fear of the other, and gender ambiguity, that echoed most loudly across the landscape of the festival.

This installment of American Realness featured performances, dance, panel discussions, and a digital publication that dealt broadly with issues of identity, race, and difference. American Realness was conceived by Thomas Benjamin Snapp Pryor, who acts as its curator and producer. What sets the festival apart from other live-art series is that it presents itself  as a kind of kiki-a site for banter, camaraderie, and gossip. In drag parlance, “realness” describes one’s ability to pull off an alternate identity. Realness is about the total embodiment of an identity as opposed to pantomime or make-believe. In the context of the festival, it is a state of total absorption in the craft of dance or performance, a promise that the participants delivered on. 

Montreal-based choreographer and performer Dana Michel presented her solo work Mercurial George (2016). It opened with Michel crawling onto the stage and wading through a crumpled mass of tarp while murmuring to herself. Seemingly unaware of the audience, she enacted a closed-off, almost ascetic singularity that she maintained whether she was piercing a plastic bag with a barbecue skewer, tangling herself in wires, or mixing a green doughlike concoction. With each movement, Michel convinced her audience that her task, however absurd it might appear, was absolutely necessary. She unzipped a tent at center stage to reveal a podium, where she stood and delivered a soliloquy of utterances like, “Yes, milk!” and “Salt in the frothy butter!” She spoke in a deep baritone, like a civil rights leader addressing a group before a march. Though the statements were incoherent as directives in themselves, they came across with the stirring urgency of a political rallying cry.

Polish choreographer Karol Tyminski presented the solo piece This is a musical (2016) in the Abrons Center’s Underground Theater. He tapped a microphone and rubbed it across his body. The device picked up the subtle sounds of scraping and scuffing, which were recorded, layered, and played back as a soundtrack. As Tyminski’s movement grew more complex, so, too, did the sound, which became the sonic residue of his body breathing, spitting, and slamming against the floor. Later, Tyminski thrashed around the stage, humping the air as his movements devolved into a fitful style of mosh-pit dancing to heavy trance music. He created an atmosphere reminiscent of a dance/sex club, like Berlin’s infamous Berghain. His movements suggested that he was being acted upon-even dominated-by an unseen force. He left the stage and a graphic video of himself having sex with a figure whose identity was obscured by a kind of holographic filter began to play on the large rear wall of the theater. When the tension Tyminski built up in his performance was released in the form of a video of an actual sexual climax, the metaphor was ruptured, transgressed, leaving the audience with a naked image of messy postcoital melancholy.

A standout work in the festival was Berlin-based Ligia Lewis’s minor matter (2016), the second part of her unfinished trilogy “BLUE, RED, WHITE.” Lewis was joined by dancers Jonathan Gonzalez and Hector Thami Manekehla, and the three switched between solos to deftly executed trios. The latter included a sequence where the three performers advanced in a line toward the audience with movements that evoked both voguing and combat. When they reached the front row of the audience, they made eye contact with spectators through black contact lenses that made their eyes look hollow and alien. At one point, as Lewis and Manekehla sparred and grappled, Gonzalez said from the sidelines: “I make that choice everyday-to be an assertive bitch.” For the last quarter of the piece, the three performers launched into a series of extreme movements and poses. They tangled their bodies together, took running starts and jumped on one another, collapsed in piles, and used one another as stepladders in futile attempts to scale the Experimental Theatre’s concrete walls. As they became visibly more exhausted, their feats became more tenuous and dangerous. A trickle of blood ran down Lewis’s leg, Gonzales’s shorts had come off, and sweat fell in great beads from each of their bodies. The lodestar for this work was the color red. Toward the end of the performance, a series of red beams of light pierced the inky darkness onstage, landing on the dancer’s bodies like laser sights of an automatic weapon. 

As I waited in the lobby of the Experimental Theater to see Juliana May’s Adult Documentary (2016), amid a scrappy installation by Franklin Evans composed of paper detritus and neon tape, I felt unmoored, uninitiated. Had I not read enough Butler or Sedgwick or Baldwin to fully understanding the goings-on? Has realness become institutionalized as yet another countercultural phenomenon that has been converted into an academicized aesthetic proposition? Sound bites from the crowd began to tell me a thing or two. A young woman behind me said to a well-known choreographer: “I just wrote about you in my grad school application . . . I mean, I don’t even know if I want to go to grad school, but it’s, like, so hard out here.”  Shortly after, a refined young man said to the same choreographer: “My adviser told me to just sit down and make sentences. So I did that and, you know, walked away with a PhD.” This account of academic achievement, despite its shoegaze simplicity, seemed like rather sound advice to a choreographer (or critic). Though May’s piece seemed milquetoast and insular (full as it was of inside jokes about dance that made the dance-world folks in the audience chuckle to themselves), it became clear that a venture like American Realness is absolutely vital. The conversation and kvetching (and posturing and flattering) that was going on before the doors opened galvanized the spirit of realness, which at its best foregrounds both attitude and inclusion. In a political moment where feelings of anger, alienation, and profound uncertainty are reinforced daily, American Realness continues to be not only an outlet, but a lifeline.