By Siobhan Burke
There were no program notes to go with Elad Lassry’s performance at The Kitchen last weekend. Nothing identifying the ten elite ballet dancers—four from American Ballet Theatre, six currently or formerly with New York City Ballet—who moved among the architectural units of the set, repositioning the brightly colored walls, with their geometric apertures, to frame themselves in various ways. Wearing jumpsuits of eye-popping yellow and blue, they looked like high-fashion gas station attendants, footwear notwithstanding; the men wore ballet slippers, the women were on pointe.
Credits for the spare, straightforward choreography were, likewise, nowhere to be found. Side by side, two men leaned back and raised their bent arms, Thriller-style, then stood up straight, one elbow perched daintily atop the back of the opposite hand. They did this a few times. Four women addressed simple, presentational poses to each side of the blackbox theater. Small armies, four on four, advanced toward each other with a flurry of swiveling, heel-toe walks. Blackouts, used liberally, separated these episodes, extinguishing them before they could amount to much, each as inconsequential as the next.
Had the dancers created these steps? Had Lassry, an Israeli-born and Los Angeles-based artist best known for his conceptual photography and film? (Though he hasn’t choreographed in the past, ballet dancers are a recurring subject for him; his 2007 film Untitled (Agon) focused on the final minute of that iconic Balanchine pas de deux.) Were they the work of a known choreographer? All of the above? My date—a dance critic, former ballerina, and loyal follower of both ABT and City Ballet—thought she spotted some Balanchine. The Four Temperaments, she guessed. But if she didn’t know, most of our fellow audience members probably didn’t either. (A publicist later informed me that all of the movement was pulled from neoclassical ballets, though she couldn’t specify which.)
That anonymity was everywhere in Untitled (Presence), a solo exhibition that encompassed three nights of this brief and rather underwhelming show and, in the gallery upstairs, a much more thoughtful arrangement of Lassry’s images, open through October 20. This was, the press release announced rather astonishingly, The Kitchen’s first attempt at devoting its gallery and theater spaces to the same project, and it brought out a full house on opening night—not surprising, given the current renaissance of dance in the visual arts world. The confection in the blackbox suggests that Lassry has hopped on that bandwagon, without much sensitivity to the complex stuff of movement. But the multi-part approach was still welcome, the muddled communication of one medium underscoring the clarity achieved through others.
I came to the performance after spending about an hour upstairs, gazing at the nameless subjects of eight small photographed portraits, including some of the dancers I would later see onstage. Woman 065 gazed right back at me—alert and content and a shade surprised—from behind a teardrop-shaped orifice, as did Men (055, 065), though with a stronger note of seduction. The imploring eyes of Man 077 were less interested in meeting my own, and there was no getting through to Woman 097, who seemed troubled by something far off in the distance, behind my right shoulder. In the most literal sense, these faces were anonymous (unnamed). But I felt their presence very strongly.
I couldn’t say the same for the accomplished performers (who, for the record, were Ask La Cour, Grant DeLong, Meaghan Dutton-O’Hara, Kaitlyn Gilliland, Lauren King, Megan LeCrone, Lars Nelson, Patrick Ogle, Lauren Post, and Devon Teuscher) despite their actual, in-the-flesh presence. After the novelty of seeing them in this intimate space wore off (they usually appear on such grandiose stages), I realized how distant they nonetheless seemed. They wore expressions of strained neutrality, as if following instructions not to think or feel. Somewhere between coldly robotic and vulnerably human (how exposed we look when trying not to look a certain way), they remained as opaque as the looming, multicolored structures around them.
With all the shutting off and on of lights, all the re-framings of the space, it appeared that Lassry was trying to create a series of living photographs, elongating that stretch of time—and the motion that occurs within it—illuminated by the camera’s flash.
And indeed, in the right context, a great dancer can transform or suspend our perception of time’s passage. But paradoxically, Lassry’s living images felt stagnant while his stationary ones, upstairs, felt radiant, alive, poised for action. Even the layout of the gallery—perhaps the exhibition’s strongest element—had an inherent vitality, instantly shifting and sharpening my awareness of the space, inspiring a sort of “Where am I?” moment. Through the domelike entrance, you could peer through a rectangular slit in the wall just beyond it, which revealed a shallower, more decorative wall reminiscent of cartoon-like cresting waves. Beyond that, peeking out from the dip between each crest, was a row of those enigmatic portraits—quadruple-framed, you could say. The most poetic choreography of the evening may have been inadvertent: the drifting of the gallery visitors, spontaneous and mundane, examining those faces, viewed through these frames-upon-frames.
Siobhan Burke writes about dance for The Brooklyn Rail, The New York Times and Dance Magazine, where she is an associate editor.
*Editor’s Note: So … remembering the conversation sparked by Sarah Maxfield’s essay on identifying performers, and because I am trying, when possible, to avoid being another journalist who does not make the effort to find out who the artists are, I asked for the names of the dancers in these photographs. Well, see the captions: no dice, because the artist himself wants it that way. Ahhh, aesthetics as politics. Or is that the other way around?