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This article was written on 21 Sep 2012, and is filed under Guest Writers.

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Face in a Crowd

Elad Lassry, “Untitled (Presence 2005),” 2012. Performance views, The Hayworth, Los Angeles, March 2, 2012. Photos: Fredrik Nilson. (From publicist: “At the request of the artist, we are not identifying the dancers by name.” )*

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.

Elad Lassry, “Untitled (Presence 2005),” 2012. Performance views, The Hayworth, Los Angeles, March 2, 2012. Photos: Fredrik Nilson. (From publicist: “At the request of the artist, we are not identifying the dancers by name.” )

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 RailThe 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?

5 Comments

  1. claudia
    September 21, 2012

    Glad to see I’m not the only one grossed out by absolute lack of credit for the dancers: https://dancespy.wordpress.com/2012/09/21/on-interdisciplinarity-collaboration-and-attribution-or-lack-thereof-elad-lassrys-untitled-presence/

    But it’s important to add that the dance world often does the same thing when drawing from other disciplines – not with actual people, maybe, but certainly with art. Think of how many times music isn’t credited in programs, to get away with $$ and copyright issues, for example.

  2. Siobhan
    September 21, 2012

    Another thought on not crediting the dancers: If the artist really wanted them to be anonymous, if that is an important part of his aesthetic, then he shouldn’t have even mentioned that they are from ABT and NYCB. But he seemed to have no problem publicizing that they’re from these major companies. I think that’s what makes the lack of identification feel so elitist and exploitative.

    C, that’s a good point, about the dance world’s drawing from other disciplines (and from itself too). I often think about the program notes for Yvonne Rainer’s “Spiraling Down,” when I saw it at Dia Beacon last winter, as a shining example of giving credit where due. She listed all of her sources, movement and otherwise, from Fred Astaire to Serena and Venus Williams. Very democratic. 

    Look forward to reading this dancespy post…

  3. Nancy Dalva
    September 22, 2012

    Consider in contrast To Yvonne Rainer, another Kitchen presentation, Sarah Michelson’s “Devotion” (reviewd by you Claudia) where neither Merce Cunningham, Twyla Tharp, nor Lucinda Childs were mentioned in the program, though their “texts” were clearly legible to those familiar with them. (Cunningham’s technique class;and “Interscape”; “Upper Room,: including  Norma Kamali costumes; “Dance,” Child’s solo.) There are photos and videos on line which readily document the source material, right down to the actual “figures.” (I know because I tracked them down.) Michelson readily discusses her decision to credit or not–and what she did she did for love. But it was an open source cultural moment (so 20th century and boring  of me to want otherwise, no? so “generational,” to use the dismissive adjective conjured up as a label for the old hat and uncool) that left to the viewer to know or not know what was quoted. I wondered what would have happened if the two living choreographers so quoted had happened by and seen it; whether the lack of attribution implied a lack of permission; and so forth. A lot of extra-theatrical concern, so instead of admiring the deft manipulation and giving myself over to the compelling performance of the given items, I fretted. Michelson tells me she doubts she will ever bring back that piece, but I’m still worrying over it. I totally got it. I should have loved it….and I can still run it in my head.

  4. Sarah Maxfield
    September 23, 2012

    Obviously, I feel strongly that dancers should be credited when performing.  Anonymity as an artistic choice is extremely problematic when those made anonymous are the already disenfranchised, and those given credit are the ones already holding all the cards.  The lack of crediting performers, in favor of singling out one “master” creator points to a larger cultural problem.  (But I repeat myself.)

    It’s true that other (non-performing) artistic contributions are also often uncredited, and that issues of sourcing ethics, particularly in this Internet Age, are confusing.  Certainly, there’s a point where over-crediting is possible and could overwhelm an audience.  (Rainer’s decision to site every single influence for “Spiraling Down” that Siobhan mentions isn’t necessarily the ideal model for every work.)  It’s complex to sort out which references are in our shared cultural consciousness and therefore do not need credit, as we all already know what they are (i.e. pop music); which references deserve credit (i.e. the texts that Nancy mentions, perhaps); and which references are truly only a basis for work that becomes transformed by a new artist.

    HOWEVER, as complex as these various crediting issues may be, I’ll argue (’till I’m blue in the face) that it is ALWAYS necessary to credit live performers, unless those live performers have true agency in the work and have chosen (free of duress) to perform in an anonymous capacity.  There are situations where anonymity has power for performers (Pussy Riot comes to mind), and then there are the much more frequent situations in which performer anonymity is an exploitative act, by a fame-hungry artist, afraid to share the spotlight with collaborators.

  5. [...] And then we had the whole conversation about appropriation and sampling and art world mores versus dance licensing and who is the intended audience for these insertions (hasn’t SM said she makes her dances for four people in the world?) and on and on and on … I don’t care here about the money issues or the legality. But in terms of the ethics of it, and the question of why not credit … I don’t know. Some people are all for it, the sort of “We live in the 21st century and Michelson made her own work and how great that she is in conversation with Tharp” and I can see that (and indeed when I reviewed Devotion I wasn’t especially bothered by the non-crediting—it didn’t make my word count. I adored and still do adore that Tharp lives on in Michelson—especially at a time when Tharp doesn’t seem to live on in Tharp). But then there is this argument, put forth by Nancy Dalva in a longer conversation about crediting initiated by a Siobhan Burke essay for the P Club: [...]

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