Last night, a group of about 30 P Clubbers trucked over to the Baryshnikov Arts Center to see Young Jean Lee’s Untitled Feminist Show. The work lasted a little more than an hour, the post-performance q&a about the same and our discussion at the Concrete Bar was still going strong close to midnight when I had to hustle to Port Authority to catch a bus to Jersey (don’t ask).
It was one of the more vociferous discussions I can remember (I still can’t get over how smart and interesting you all are – hope some of you will restate your thoughts about last night here). But the curious thing was that there was virtually no disagreement; other than a couple of folks who liked it, and had generous and thoughtful things to say, pretty much everyone’s responses fell somewhere within the irritation/boredom/anger register.
I mainly vacillated between the three (there were spikes of admiration for the performers, especially the marvelously strong and subtle Hilary Clark and Katy Pyle, who do a lot with a little; that is not a pun). I’m often a fan of Lee’s productions, and artists are allowed to have bad days in the office – it’s vital, actually, I think – but UFS is disheartening in a lot of ways.
As has been widely discussed, UFS began as a word-heavy production but bit by bit (and apparently torturously, with Lee likening the process to, uh, war) turned into a wordless, clothes-less dance. As I understand it from last night’s q&a, Lee’s explanation for this shift, beyond how difficult it is to make a successful play that sets as its subject feminism, is that audiences were latching onto the words too intensely, getting upset by them and often thinking the production was making a feminist argument that it didn’t intend to be making.
I didn’t see those early showings at the New Museum (please chime in if you did). But I so wish that there had been some sort of an attempt at an argument in what Lee and her cohorts ended up with, and that it had been something worth getting upset about. Instead, what was upsetting here was the astounding lack of serious, contentious or thoughtful material, and the lazy way in which related but distinct and complex fields such as feminism and gender were conflated. I would so much rather watch artists plunge into too-deep waters then paddle around the shallows; as one person said last night, the jettisoning of language here felt like an avoidance, or a capitulation.
Structurally, too, UFS is lazy. The choreography is by Faye Driscoll (who seems to have become contemporary theater’s go-to dance gal), Morgan Gould and Lee, in collaboration with the performers, and it lacks any sense of the strong and vibrant guiding hand which Lee’s productions often have. It feels, frankly, like dance made by theater folks: simplistic and schlocky, with no understanding of what it doesn’t know. Someone last night (feel free to out yourselves, folks, and to clarify if I mangle your smart points) noted Lee saying that it became clear to her while making UFS that the words being spoken were no match to what the performers were saying without words, and that this seemed like a rookie’s dazzlement with a form that takes as a given wordless communication.
I don’t know how much dance Lee sees, but the structures she and her colleagues settled on are crazy boilerplate. Everyone gets a solo. Violent shaking is used to convey violent emotion. There’s a slow-mo fight. There’s lots of cookie-cutter patterns and fakey-fake dancey-dance. Imaginary penises are sucked and then hacked off, all for laughs.
Watching, I kept thinking of a choreographer like RoseAnne Spradlin, who was sitting a few rows in front of me last night and who has forged a gritty career out of painful, thorny explorations of the female form, feminism and society’s expectations toward women. Her pieces aren’t easy to watch (or, I gather, to make), and they don’t always succeed; but her involvement in her subject matter and the depth of feeling and force she and her dancers bring to the table stays with you. Even when her dancers have clothes on, they’re naked.