Theater archives

Noémie Lafrance, Melanie Maar, and Keith Hennessy Inscribe the Body


You climb the splintery stairs to a Williamsburg loft, where you are politely relieved of your coat and bag, given a name tag, and asked to go into the kitchen and wash your hands. How nervous do you get? Since Noémie Lafrance devised the performance you’re about to see, not very. Lafrance is known for staging site-specific pieces in city spaces, and no one got injured or dirty watching her gorgeous Descent coil down the stairwell in the New York City Court Building Clock Tower or her Noir unfold its 1930s gangster tale while you sat in a car in a parking garage. However, you can sense ritual in the air, and her new Home is subtitled, “the body as place.” The question is, whose body?

The room we’re ushered into is almost filled by a very long dining table (heavy wood, inlaid, old). On this particular night, ten of us sit along one side, ten along the other. Staring. The plat du jour is definitely not edible. Curled on her side on the table is Lafrance. She’s wearing antlers (real ones), plus flesh-colored panties, a skimpy top that reveals her very pregnant belly, and . . .what’s that on her right leg??!! As she inches her way along the table, we see that it’s a miniature agrarian world—so tiny that Lafrance’s discreet assistants, Celeste Hastings and Melissa Lockwood, pass out magnifying glasses. Two-inch parsley florets serve as trees. Minuscule animals are scattered around, some in a herd near a single piece of fencing. It’s a devastatingly brilliant and witty image—over all too soon—of the female body as a fecund place in more ways than one.

The loft is a home and an office, and Lafrance plays with those two aspects, aided in her transformations by Thomas Dunn’s warm lighting (hanging lamps, mirrors, discreet spotlights—the glow punctuated by pitch-dark moments). Seated in a chair at the head of the table, Lafrance is an imperious CEO, telling us that we will die but the corporation will go on. She fixes this person with a steely stare, that one with a sly smile, another with a disappointed moue. Later, we become the drudges in this “conference room.” Maré Hieronimus, wearing antlers and a pin-striped jacket, orders us to add one word to each of the many sheets of paper being passed around the table. She keeps doling out paper and yelling, “Faster!” until a storm of words accumulates.

However, when Lafrance reappears, bare-breasted and without her thighscape, she’s an imperturbable, if not particularly gracious hostess, maneuvering teapots and vessels and steaming water. Her helpers pass out the little sake cups of tea that she’s poured, and remove them after we’ve taken our three sips. Then she carefully pours tea over her chest.

Fluids are featured in Home, as they seem to be in most rituals. Hieronimus removes her clothing, washes her feet in a basin, and furiously scrubs down the table. Later, she strips and bathes her whole body. Lafrance, striding along the table, brushes her teeth with alarming efficiency and spits the water into a bowl in front of her. People laugh and flinch when drops fly up. We wash our hands in shared bowls as the performance ends (we’ve been dipping pieces of cheesecloth in paste and sticking them on the supine Hieronimus’s body until they resemble mummy wrappings).

Everything happens very ceremoniously. The discreet “waiters” bring and take away. I like it all, except the orders to do this or that (although I see the point of them). The monitored intimacy with another’s body is strange. In one sequence, we dip black crayons in water and write on Hieronimus as she is pulled slowly along the table. Her composure is astonishing. I pick up her wrist and turn it to inscribe a bracelet of words; I wonder what it feels like to her. One person writes a phrase in her armpit, and my skin prickles. Later, it takes all my nerve to lay a piece of sticky white cloth over her nipple. Most of her chest is covered by then, and it looks cold; then I realize how much colder the cloth must feel.

Home ends when the assistants enfold Hieronimus in the white sheet she’s lying on until she’s truly mummified. I try not to think about that part. And there are other things to ponder: the images of the deer, of nature, of the body as private vessel and public space. Oddly, I don’t wonder whether Home qualifies as dance. Part ritual, part installation, part inquiry into the spectator-performer alliance, part kindergarden art class, it evades labeling.

Keith Hennessy dances a fair amount in his Crotch (all the Joseph Beuys references in the world cannot heal the pain, confusion, regret, cruelty, betrayal, or trauma. . .). He covers his object-strewn playground in DTW with big, clunky hops and leaps. He tries to rise from a sitting position, but his legs have other ideas. He does these things wearing a hooded black mask with a white outline of Edvard Munch’s famous painting, The Scream, as its face. At least, this is what happens the night I see the piece. The San Francisco–based artist has a long history of improvised performances.

He, like Lafrance, wants to undermine the performer-observer barrier. He starts by inviting us to return to the lobby, luring us with a platter of chocolates and delivering some state-of-my-life remarks. He then lets us wander around the performing area—a quasi-Beuys environment. We listen to Emmy Lou Harris sing while we examine the objects—stuff like lemons with nightlights plugged into them (a reference to Beuys’s Capri Batterie), a suspended stuffed bear wearing a prison hood and being whipped by Hennessy, a chair, a toy rabbit, three rectangles of pink fabric, et al. The writing on one cloth announces in German that, “The silence of Marcel Duchamp is overrated” (an anti-Dada statement that Beuys made over the radio in 1946).

Blogging about Crotch, Hennessy refers to the brave obstreperousness of Beuys’s artistic vision and discusses Queer Performance (“To perform queer is to embody, shamelessly, the shadows of a culture so colonized it can’t recognize its own losses and failures”). An undefinable sadness clings to Crotch, even though Hennessy chats and jokes with us. He gives three members of the audience control (from their seats) of three cords that cause a plastic sheet to rise from the floor. Talking a mile a minute and writing on the sheet as it ascends, he offers a charmingly manic, chaotically erudite survey of German philosophy and art history that might trace routes to Beuys. Somehow Judith Butler’s name ends up above the Romantics, and Schelling—or was it Novalis?—leads us to contact improvisation via Isadora. Circuitous lines and arrows remake genealogy.

Yet—a startling contrast—he follows this hilarious, bravura performance by helping a stagehand dismantle the sheet and then nailing the two boards from which it hung into a cruciform shape. Balancing this on his head, he walks calmly and carefully along a diagonal path, wavering slightly. A tender, sleepy rendition (on tape) of “Wake up in New York” accompanies him, and as he walks, Hennessy begins to sob.

The last scene may be the most disconcerting. Hennessy removes his emerald green jockey shorts, sits in a chair, and with handfuls of lard (a favorite Beuys material) builds a wall in front of his genitals, slavering the stuff onto his thighs and pressing it to stick. Thus fortified, he asks for three volunteers to sit on chairs placed close to him in a semi-circle and invites the rest of us to cluster around. One volunteer holds a spool of red thread. Hennessy takes the needle end and begins slowly to sew through the clothing of all three—a stitch through the knee of one person’s jeans, another’s skirt. Long red lines begin to connect them to him, because he’s passing the needle through his own skin. I’m standing at the back where the crowd is thinner, and what I see are the rapt faces of the spectators, some of them crouching close, others leaning in. No one winces, no one draws back. Has art lost its power to shock? But Hennessy doesn’t linger over the image of a sacrificial hero in charge of his own fate. He cuts the threads, the stage manager drapes him in a blanket, and he stuffs a prizefighter’s mouthpiece behind his lower lip. Having fought the evening’s battles, he can afford to sing along with Nirvana. There’s no climactic ending. He indicates he’s done, and the crowd cheers.

It’s a good thing that Melanie Maar’s Phenomenal Bodies preceded Hennessy’s work on their shared evening. Hers is a slim, disciplined piece, although it’s as quirky in its own way as his. The Austrian-born Maar, who began choreographing in 2002, has been influenced by her studies in cognitive science—an interest engendered by her father’s movement disorder. The movements that she, Mariangela Lopez, and Marilyn Maywald perform are often repeated until they become obsessive, or transform into something else that may have been what they had in mind all along. Sometimes the women stand with their hands awkwardly forward and curved, as if they wished to take hold of some large object but weren’t sure how to go about it.

A couple of times they wear dark wigs, for no reason that I can fathom. A need to disguise themselves from themselves? They begin by swinging their arms and twisting their torsos from side to side with increasing speed. Eventually their gestures morph into an increasingly frenzied hurling, then calm back down. Kenta Nagai, drawing high, ringing sounds and percussive thumps from his electric guitar, intensifies his playing to match their escalating mood.

In another section, Maar and Nagai sit on chairs and use mics to draw music from their own bodies—a piercing shriek here, a hum there. Meanwhile, Maywald, prone, tries lifting a leg or levering her butt into the air, grunting with the effort, and Lopez, wearing a red apron backward, dances with almost pompous care—now dropping into a deep knee-bend, now walking on tiptoe, now attempting to sit on or straddle Maywald’s uplifted foot. Can she have mistaken it for a toilet?

Maar sings in German—softly at first, then louder. When she begins to dance, Nagai comes close to her, lashing his equipment cables out of his way, jazzing his body around. Maar gives us a fine-tuned display of unusual, patiently effortful movements—repeatedly dropping into a squat and bouncing up again the way Lopez did, forming her hands into birds’ heads that peck the air and her body, trying to balance on one bent leg with the other locked behind it, standing with one foot clubbed.

In the final sequence, the three women perform a phrase that, repeated many times, gets them across the stage in increments. It’s strangely elegant, despite its awkward edge and lack of efficacy. Eventually they return to their starting point with big, heavy skips and begin to alternate those with increasingly athletic runs. You want to cheer for them. Nagai plays on an acoustic guitar that sounds almost like flamenco, but he sings in Japanese, and it’s he who brings the piece to a close after the women return to swirling their arms and fingers. He exits singing, and we can hear his voice getting fainter and fainter in the bowels of the building.