Performance 2016: Mining the Past to Change the Future

In 2016 – at a time when American politics and media culture sank to an all-time low—where could a thinking person go to find respite from the deafening toxic assault on both reason and sensibility? Certainly not to the pandering media that fueled this degrading spectacle. Where could one go to find insight into the human condition—even a small beam of illumination on how we have arrived at this place, let alone a redeeming vision of an alternative way of being? Where could one look when language failed us? 2016 might go down as the year in which so-called real life became a perverted form of bad performance art, and many had their 15 minutes of infamy.

Fortunately, hope was to be found in a surprising number of new performance works incorporating dance and music, with a focus on the live performer unadorned by flashy technology and its illusory environments. These distinctly different productions had one additional common thread. Each drew upon historical works as source and offered a contemporary interpretation that casts a different light on the turmoil and uncertainties of a world in upheaval.

The most unexpected of these was an entirely new version of The Temptation of St. Antony created by the Four Larks, a young theater collective led by creative director and composer Mat Diafos-Sweeney and artist Sebastian Peters-Lazaro. The saga of the third century Christian Egyptian monk’s struggle to resist the temptation of the seven deadly sins during his sojourn in a cavern in the desert has long been fodder for art and literature. Most notable is Gustave Flaubert’s poetic tome written in the form of a play script begun in 1849, the final version published in 1874. While this text provided the foundation for the Four Larks production, Diafos-Sweeney’s intertextual version offered a dialectic between the biblical narrative, the writer – both the 19th century author and his contemporary counterpart – and a 21st century deconstructing critic. Thus, the dilemma of the pious monk in resisting the temptations of material and sensual pleasures becomes the struggle of the artist against the enticements of commercialism and fame. The question of what one is to believe in, and if anything can be “believed”, are the existential problems of this time. Are virtue and worldly success incompatible? Has language itself become unreliable in the age of the Internet?

The Four Larks’ St. Antony stood in sharp contrast to the hellishly black 1988 Wooster Group’s Frank Dell’s The Temptation of St. Antony in which flesh and spirit grappled with itself in a dark night. Channeled through the delusional yet brilliant drug-soaked brain of a profane Lenny Bruce (who had used the pseudonym Frank Dell) the quest for spiritual “truth” played itself out in the underbelly of a depraved and decadent cultural body. In 2016, the new dialectic became the question of knowledge contained in books versus the white noise of information in the digital domain, signified here by bodily material evidence versus the illusiveness of the disembodied spirit.

The brilliance of this postmodern opera is how this version of the text is staged visually and performed musically, including some glorious singing throughout by Esther Hannaford and chorus. The 12 performers, six of whom are also the musicians, were all clad in white on a white set constructed of stacks of books, obsolete technology and old furniture. In the center, the Hermit (Antony)/Writer (Flaubert & his present-day counterpart) pounded away at a manual typewriter, reciting the texts and confronting his inner demons, which include boredom and isolation, desire and doubt about the virtue of suffering. As played by Max Baumgarten, Antony seesaws between frenetic obsession, melodrama, unexpected humor and youthful angst reflective of both Flaubert’s temperament, and current millennial anxieties. Flaubert, who began this work in his 20s, was rigorous in his intellectual pursuits, while his sexual proclivities led to lifelong venereal diseases.

Antony’s protagonists come in the form of singing and dancing seducers bearing banquets of food and drink, tossing coins. They include the Queen of Sheba, Nebuchadnezzar, and Bacchus among others. The second half began like a screenplay pitch session that evolves into a philosophical debate between science and logic, and religious doctrine. “All is nothing,” posited Sophia (goddess of Wisdom) in her contemporary “academic” guise. But Antony wanted to see the Lord’s face. She presented him with a hilarious parade including a dancing man-God with a fish head, another with a three-faced goat head (Father/Son/Holy Spirit), the Egyptian Goddess Isis, Diana the huntress with megaphone, the Devil — God of the Flesh. Finally the computer voice of Siri, our contemporary goddess of information, spoke. “It is all in your mind,” we were informed at the end, as masses of paper fell from above leaving the nature of Truth, purpose and meaning up in the air. But not without the possibility of future questions and answers, and a disarming sense of optimism about what artists can do with inventiveness as their primary resource.

In d’après une histoire vraie, a contemporary dance performance with an illuminating perspective on the human condition, French choreographer Christian Rizzo drew his inspiration from kinetic rather than textual historical material. Rizzo had a transformative experience in 2004 that changed the course of his work. He sought to understand why a group of Turkish men performing folk dances had had such a profound impact on him, the memory of which resonates to this day. His response is a work that explores something we rarely, if ever, see in this age of identity politics – masculine bonds of friendship, affection and brotherhood – love without sexual overtones.

Performed by eight European men to the music of drummer-composers Didier Ambact and King Q4 accompanying them on stage, the piece expresses a deep sense of male camaraderie. Guided by ritual forms drawn from cultural traditions, Rizzo transformed them into contemporary models of possibility other than the stereotypical ones of war and sports. Performers paired up, grouped in circles and lines, came apart and re-grouped in complex repeating patterns of theme and variation. Hands clasped behind backs, arms around each other’s shoulders, or spinning out, they were propelled by the rhythm of the drumming, a fusion of tribal exuberance and rock energy. The music was hypnotic, the dancing exhilarating, the movement precise, clean, sharp, yet emotive, ranging from joyousness in shared communion, to tenderness in duets, and solemnity in aloneness. When one fell as if expired, his comrades revived him, bringing him back into the circle.

With sources as varied as traditional men’s folk dances and the minimalism of Lucinda Childs and Laura Dean’s spinning dancers, Rizzo has created a passionate and insightful work very much his own. There were no projections, no electronic computer-based music, no costumes. Just the unmediated shared experience of barefoot, shaggy haired men in black pants and T-shirts dancing together to the driving rhythms and energy of live music. In d’après une histoire vraie, Rizzo and his company presented something rarely seen in American culture – a loving and compassionate celebration of masculine brotherhood without any implication of homosexuality, exaggerated machismo or adolescent buffoonery. It was as intensely moving and memorable as Rizzo’s own initial experience.

Four Larks
The Temptation of St. Antony
August 27-October 9, 2016
Vacant Warehouse
244 S Broadway,
Downtown Los Angeles.

Christian Rizzo /ICI-CNN Montpellier d’après une histoire vraie
September 15-18, 2016
631 W. 2nd Street
Downtown Los Angeles

Part 2: Mining the Past to Change the Future


About Kazuo Ohno- Reliving The Butoh Diva’s Masterpieces, Letter To A Man, Sonnets to Orpheus

Japanese performance artist/dancer Takao Kawaguchi took a radically different approach to the work of a famous deceased artist as source. Kawaguchi’s About Kazuo Ohno- Reliving The Butoh Diva’s Masterpieces raises questions about the difference between imitation, reproduction, and interpretation.  Kawaguchi, who had never seen Ohno perform live decided to take on the challenge of literally “copying” Ohno’s early Butoh masterworks Admiring La Argentina (1977), My Mother (1981), and Dead Sea, Ghost, Wienerwaltz (1985) from video recordings of premiere performances. This is not a simple matter of recreating the choreography, but rather of inhabiting the body of the original. A task made even more unorthodox as Kawaguchi had never studied butoh, an intensely personal improvisational dance form emerging in Japan in the aftermath of WWII in which movement and gesture is developed through the body from the inside out.  It is primal, ritualistic and earthbound, “a dance of darkness”. In addition, Ohno who was born in 1906 and served in WWII, did not premiere his solo work until 1977 at the age of 71. Thus the movement vocabulary he created, as well as the “characters” he inhabited on stage evolved out of his life experiences.

There is a distinct difference between restaging a choreographic score on a new company of dancers, and replicating the physical body and spirit of a solo artist with an intensely personal body language. Thus despite the extraordinary skill of Kawaguchi’s duplication of Ohno, his performance was in fact his own interpretation of the various personae Ohno created and inhabited, rather than a strict reproduction of Ohno himself. This is revealed gradually with each costume change on stage. In the first piece, “The Embryo’s Dream,” from “My Mother,” Kawaguchi comes closest to Ohno’s primal expression and intention. An androgynous figure dressed in a pale ripped dress, pieces of fabric hanging off the back like torn skin, he moves with slowness and determination.  He navigates the space with twisted limbs like someone who has suffered injury, yet with the grace of struggle, a pink paper flower in hand like a promise of renewal.  The image brings to mind the aftermath of Hiroshima.

Ohno’s transformative gender-bending, cross-cultural portraits were infused with a profoundly endearing humanity, tenderness and empathy even in their most flamboyant moments. However Kawaguchi’s Gypsy Baron in white satin cape and tiny crown, tossing candies to his subjects to Strauss waltzes and marches, seemed more like a parody of Western Empire. In Episode in the Creation of Heaven and Earth the medieval monk prostrated before the Almighty bearing the suffering of Christ, his body contorted with the burden of sin and damnation, yet reaching to heaven, had a satirical edge. Ohno’s masterwork La Argentina was an homage to a woman and an artist he deeply admired. Kawaguchi’s tango version had a subtle difference – more affectation than affection.  Just as his opening entrance in the lobby as a street person clad in plastic tarp, garden hoses, and other discarded objects, took on a posture of “caricature.” Even his ballerina/opera star bows at the end seemed infused with postmodern irony. In Kawaguchi’s virtuoso and often mesmerizing “copy” of Ohno’s oeuvre, the pathos of suffering took on the veneer of commentary on the excesses of Western culture. However so exacting was his adherence to the choreography, this difference would be lost on an audience who knew nothing of Ohno’s work or the philosophy behind Butoh. Hence leaving open questions about the claim of “authenticity” in replication of such personal performance.


Letter To A Man, the latest collaborative work by Robert Wilson and Mikhail Baryshnikov, two iconic visionaries of theater and dance in the late twentieth century, is based on the diaries of Vaslav Nijinsky, the revolutionary choreographer and dancer of Ballet Russe fame in the early decades of the century. The man the unsent letter was addressed to was impresario Serge Diaghilev, who discovered the beautiful nineteen year old dancer in Russia, seduced him, and brought him to Paris as his protégé in 1909. Nijinsky’s meteoric rise to fame, culminating in “Afternoon of a Faun” (1912) and “Rite of Spring” (1913) is the stuff of legend, as is his fall.  Upon learning of his paramour and star’s sudden marriage to a young woman, Diaghilev was so enraged that he banished him from the company, stripping him of his art and his livelihood. By 1917, spurred by abandonment, shame, and the horrors of World War I, Nijinsky began his descent into “madness”. The Diaries written in 1919 in a period of deep depression and agitation, mark the disintegration of his already fractured psyche. They also ironically reflect the madness that will soon engulf Europe.  He was subsequently diagnosed with schizophrenia and institutionalized.

Unlike Takao Kawaguchi’s About Kazuo Ohno, Letter To A Man is neither a biographical dramatization, nor an impersonation, or homage. Instead it is a transcendent visual journey that traverses an historical and cultural landscape, as it illuminates the depths of the artist’s interior mindscape. As a philosophical and spiritual quest, the text touches on universal questions of identity, faith, sexuality, morality, and the nature and meaning of existence.  It is particularly relevant amidst the chaos of this moment when the irrationality displayed in public and private speech has put the definition of “madness” and sanity up for grabs in our own schizoid culture. 

True to Wilson’s aesthetic, the non-narrative texts extracted from the Diaries are spare, more like a piece of minimalist music composed of repeating phrases and codas, varying in tempo and timbre. Both live and recorded sentences spoken in English and Russian are almost like palindromes, circular rather than linear in structure, equalizing conflicting thoughts. Wilson’s architectural lighting creates the structures, spaces and frames in which Baryshnikov portrays Nijinsky’s states of mind. Doorways of bright light, and rooms of utter darkness mirror the vacillations between innocence and hope, and the despair, guilt, and doubt of a tortured soul.

The choreography and body language, as well as the performer’s gestures and roles, are Baryshnikov’s, (in collaboration with Wilson and Lucinda Childs) not Nijinsky’s. Sometimes the movement is in slow motion, as precise as a marionette. Or constrained in a chair as if in a straitjacket. Other times it is frenetic as a music hall number. Dressed in a tuxedo, and elaborate face makeup, Baryshnikov goes through a range of dance numbers, a little fox trot, a full out Fred Astaire, a bit of Cabaret, even struts like Mick Jagger, with music to go with it. Hal Wilner’s sound collage is a century-spanning soundtrack of songs by Tom Waits, Arvo Pärt, Henry Mancini, Soviet futurist composer Alexander Mosolov, Bob Dylan, and Bessie Smith, plus They’re Coming to Take Me Away, and Let’s Misbehave.

Wilson’s brilliant staging is a montage of vignettes like sudden dazzling flashbacks of memory intercut with blackouts cued by loud clicks of a remote as if changing TV channels. A shadowy dream becomes a vaudevillian romp. Hallucinatory projections thrust us momentarily into the muddy killing field of World War I. An exaggerated frozen face– Pierrot or Petrushka– is spotlit in electric color. Ever the virtuoso performer, Baryshnikov is utterly captivating, beguiling one minute, and the tormented artist wrestling with his demons, the next, all with pathos and dark humor.

Although the aesthetics of the Four Larks production of The Temptation of St. Antony are vastly different, Letter To A Man’s Nijinsky had much in common with St. Anthony.  Both men at the  center of these works – the author/artist — were torn asunder by their own contradictions, and the schism between the flesh and the spirit.  Both retreated from the world and wrestled with God. Both confronted the wages and temptations of “sin”, struggled with sexual desire and identity, and despaired of the world and human nature, as they did battle with their own. Nijinsky speaks of the harm done by the strong to the weak, “They are eagles. They prevent small birds from living.” He also says, “I am a beast, a predator. I will practice masturbation and spiritualism. I will eat everyone I can get hold of. I will stop at nothing.” Later, “I am not Christ. I am Nijinsky.  I do everything God commands.”

Flaubert, Nijinsky, and Ohno all tackle the contradictions and paradoxes of art and the artist with meaningful insight. But Wilson and Baryshnikov’s Letter To A Man is a work of perfection in its conception and its execution, as mesmerizing to watch as it is thought provoking. It tells us to pay attention to what we are thinking and why, to stop and listen and take notice of the nuances, the contradictions. On the stage of life who is the puppet and who is the puppeteer.  And are the madmen running the show.  All the more relevant in this time of demagoguery when the pathological symptoms of  “madness” — delusions, disorganized language, and disorganized behavior, are all around us.  All the more reason we need great works of art with an historical perspective to keep us awake.


Like the Four Larks Temptation of St. Antony, Danielle Birritella’s chamber opera Sonnets to Orpheus uses the text of a famous modernist writer, who in turn has drawn upon more ancient texts as inspiration, as its foundation.  In this case it is the renowned Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke whose cycle of 55 sonnets written in 1922 was based on the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice.  In his reflections on the nature and meaning of art, Rilke invokes Orpheus, a musician and poet whose music was irresistible to all living things in nature.

Birritella selected twelve of those sonnets and set them to music as a song cycle that ranges from minimalist to rhythmic, ambient to romantic, a waltz, a torch song, and a joyous melodic finale.  Each sonnet, although scored by a different composer, herself included, came together as a cohesive whole much like a film score beautifully performed by a string quartet with Birritella as the solo vocalist. What made the hour-long piece so arresting was the way the words and music were integrated into an ethereal multi-dimensional sensory exploration,  that was both sonically and visually immersive. A dreamlike continuously changing visual landscape was projected over the performers on a transparent scrim. Flowing colors and patterns bled from inky dark blue to faded paleness, dissolving into a web of branches, rippling water, patterns of leaves. A white landscape as if blanketed in snow slowly turned black. Earth and bark, and canopies of leaves became airborne, land forms and galaxies and super novas gave way to strings of light and energy. 

Birrittella states that this mini-opera is “about nature, sensuality, death, light, surrender and transcendence.”  In this narcissistic era of materialistic self-interest and short-term gratification, Birritella takes the long view and infuses it with a sense of wonder. At the same time she reminds us of the fragility of the natural world, now in peril due to our exploitation. Her all encompassing collaborative effort offers an alternative vision of possibility in which we see ourselves as an integral part of the eternal cycles of nature. It also offers hope, in a time of darkness, and faith in the transcendent power and meaning of art as a shared human experience.   

“O fountain mouth, you generous, always-filled

Mouth that speaks pure oneness constantly

You marble mask before the waters still   

Flowing face and in the background the …” 

Sonnet XV  Verse 1


Takao Kawaguchi
About Kazuo Ohno- Reliving The Butoh Diva’s Masterpieces
October 7,8,9, 2016
631 W. 2nd Street, Downtown Los Angeles

Robert Wilson and Mikhail Baryshnikov
Letter To A Man
November 18-19, 2016
Royce Hall, UCLA

Danielle Birritella
Sonnets to Orpheus
September 22 and 26, 2016
LAX Festival
Bootleg Theater
2220 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles

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