It’s 2023. Using only your smartphone you can study dance moves in Berlin, shout along with protests in Iran, watch opera in Finland or witness catastrophe in the Middle East, if not live then close to it. In other words, it’s easier than it’s ever been to believe you’re everywhere when you’re actually nowhere, to feel as if you’re acting when you’re only reacting, to think you’re making connections when you’re totally alone.
For RoseLee Goldberg, an art historian and the founding director of Performa, the New York-based nonprofit dedicated to performing artists, all this just proves how desperately we still need live performance. Performa is mounting its 10th Biennial edition this year, featuring nearly 50 artists and collectives from around the world, and includes events all across New York City through Nov. 19.
Goldberg herself doesn’t have a bad word to say about social media, though she doesn’t really use it. She keeps abreast of new developments in art the old fashioned way — through gallery and museum visits, frequent travel and word of mouth, and especially credits the tight cohort of curators at the core of Performa, most of whom have been with her from the beginning.
Every two years, she and they commission new works of dance, theater, or general happening, mostly from visual artists whose talent they admire but who’ve never worked live before. The idea started, years before Performa proper, with “Turbulent,” a simple but compelling two-channel video by the Iranian artist Shirin Neshat that Goldberg saw at the Venice Biennial in 1999. (In it, a man singing to an appreciative audience is faced down by a woman singing to an empty house.) Returning to New York, she suggested that Neshat find a way to stage it live — and they did, at Lincoln Center, in 2001.
Soon after, Goldberg told her assistant at New York University, where she teaches, that she wanted to create a biennial. The first one, in 2005, financed on a shoestring and staged all over the city with the help of partner institutions, included musical interpretations of a Christian Marclay video, an opera by the Danish artist Jesper Just, and a crowd commanded to laugh for hours. Since then, they’ve developed national “pavilions” in which foreign cultural organizations sponsor performances — this year it’s Finland — and have started using a “hub,” or a single rented space that holds several separate events over the festival’s three-week run. (Originally every event was matched to a venue of its own, like the outdoor swimming pool on the Lower East Side, closed for the season, where the choreographer Madeleine Hollander and 25 professional dancers performed during the pandemic.)
But one thing that’s remained consistent is an avoidance of installations that visitors can walk in and out of. When you attend a Performa show, you can expect to get there on time, sit (or stand) where you’re told, and stay till the end (or at least sneak out quietly). Quite apart from the art itself, this creates an experience that’s increasingly rare in our lives — one of sustained attention. Aside from psychotherapy, a criminal trial or occasionally sex, a live performance may be the only time you spend more than two minutes really looking at anyone.
I couldn’t preview Performa, strictly speaking, because many of the works remain under development till the very last moment. The festival’s aim has always been to germinate new ways of thinking, to provoke lively, spontaneous conversations, and those aren’t things you can really plan ahead. As Goldberg says, the process calls for “a hundred percent risk, a hundred percent trust” between Performa and its artists, and the hope is that their risk and trust will expand to embrace the audience.
But I did go to a dance studio in Hell’s Kitchen to see what the French-Caribbean artist Julien Creuzet was working on. For years he’s been using social media to “collect” gestures and dance moves from across the African diaspora. Now, in collaboration with the Brazilian choreographer Ana Pi and a company of talented young Alvin Ailey dancers, he’s combined them into a mesmerizing tapestry of movement. Behind them played a video of Creuzet’s, an otherworldly, undersea fantasia. He hadn’t yet decided how to mesh video and dance for the public.
Though the piece wasn’t finished yet, I could already see its raw intelligence, the broad grasp of Creuzet’s thinking. Gestures spread from one performer to another, bringing them into brief, precarious unities of movement, moments when all dozen or so dancers, each of whom had been pursuing his or her own course around the floor, were suddenly nodding their heads and pointing their fingers in exactly the same way. Then the coordination would pop like a bubble, and they’d all be doing their own things again, physically close but disconnected. It was thrilling to watch, but not a little unnerving.
Nothing online can really compete with this experience of being in the room with a work as it develops, or as it’s performed. Instead of a partial, abstracted view, I had a presence of my own. As for the artists, instead of operating at a remove, through galleries or museums or time delays, they were pulled into a vital, ephemeral exchange that could only happen once. (The show may repeat, but every night, like every audience, will be different.)
Of course, once this magic is happening, there’s a role for video and social media, too. Though they won’t be broadcasting everything live on the internet the way they did last time, at the height of the pandemic, Performa will document this year’s events as they happen and add them to the excellent catalog of past work at archive.performa-arts.org. So you can get a taste of the magic even if you can’t be there for all of it.
Other highlights include the artist Nikita Gale interacting with Antonio Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” in collaboration with the Los Angeles-based composer Lisa Liu, who helped her chop the famously bubbly concerto into tiny pieces she could rearrange into what Kathy Noble, a senior curator, calls a “slightly wonky fairground mirror.” The Seoul- and Berlin-based artist Haegue Yang has a single actor, Noma Dumezweni, interpreting “The Malady of Death,” from the erotic novel by Marguerite Duras, at the Guggenheim on Friday and Saturday, and eight events grouped under the rubric “Performance and Protest” will explore the overlaps of action in a theater with action on the street.
From Marcel Dzama, whose timeless, fantastical watercolors often seem like new discoveries from the 1920s, comes “To Live on the Moon (for Lorca).” Inspired by a surreal, unrealized movie script by the poet Federico García Lorca, the show will involve musicians, dancers and Dzama himself performing alongside a filmic interpretation of Lorca’s imagery.
The commission came at a perfect moment for Dzama, who grew up in Winnipeg, Manitoba, and now lives in Brooklyn. “I had a weird situation,” he says, “where I had a waiting list for drawings that I was working on, and people wanting them right away.” It was a problem most artists would be glad to have, of course, but a problem nonetheless, he says, because art making had come to feel “too much like a factory.”
When he worked with Performa, by contrast, Dzama found himself part of a little “family, or a group, or a gang,” whose reason for being was simply to provide an audience of strangers with a renewed sense of wonder.
When it started in 2005, Performa was responding to what Noble, the curator, calls “almost a vacuum” of performance in the city. Now every major museum has a performance program; places like the Met are using them to get people in the door. But the way a large museum works with an artist is necessarily different from a smaller affair like Performa, which typically spends two years developing every commission. Rather than fitting a new idea into its own pre-existing rules and procedures, as a larger operation would, Performa essentially “makes it up from scratch every time.”
“A lot of the artists that I’ve worked with,” Noble says, “have told me that they made works with Performa that they wouldn’t have made with other institutions.”
Performa 2023 Biennial
Through Nov. 19; various venues in New York City, performa2023.org.