Algorithmically generated concert? Check. Inuit throat singing? Check. New musicals, pre-teen performers, re-enactments of 1960s sexual utopias? Check, check, and check. Does anyone remember a time when January wasn’t Theater Month in the downtown and experimental world? If so, let’s never go back there.
In the more than ten years since the Public began producing Under the Radar each January, the big three festivals — the other two being P.S.122’s COIL and the relative upstart American Realness — have become fixtures of the New York theater season, filling a dark, cold month with the new, the exciting, and the strange. This year’s lineups, running roughly from January 5 to January 17, feature a cast of heavy hitters from the international festival circuit, plus a healthy dose of the American theater and dance artists most deserving of your attention.
Long the biggest and most international of the festivals, Under the Radar is also, ironically, the least concerned with presenting the truly unknown. But since when does a festival have to be subversive to be worth your time? This year’s program includes an assortment of known quantities, but excellent ones: for instance, Chilean playwright and director Guillermo Calderón, whose poignantly ironic Escuela follows a cell of revolutionaries — long on passion, short on know-how — in the waning years of the Pinochet regime; or Inuit singer Tanya Tagaq, who reinvents the classically controversial 1920s documentary Nanook of the North. At the Japan Society, playwright Toshiki Okada — whose dramas of digital-age alienation have been speaking to American audiences for years — brings God Bless Baseball, a meditation on a sport with outsize significance on his home turf as well as here.
Under the Radar doesn’t lack for local work, either. New York–based troupe 600 Highwaymen will present Employee of the Year, a winsome meditation on family and aging performed entirely by a group of eleven-year-old girls. (Pre-teen performers have been a thriving theatrical trend over the past few years: Just think of U.K./German troupe Gob Squad’s Before Your Very Eyes, featuring eight- to eleven-year-olds, which played at the Public in October.) And of late, the Public’s festival has supplemented its lineup with “Incoming” programming — works-in-progress by less established artists. There, you can catch young local companies like Sister Sylvester and I Am a Boys Choir, which excavate moments both momentous and strange from decades past: the 1970s student occupations in Athens and the, uh, legacy of Tonya Harding (remember her?).
The act of looking forward by looking back — a time-honored tradition in the experimental theater — also animates several new works on offer at COIL and American Realness. For COIL, Austrian artist Michael Kliën stages a one-time-only “excavation” of Martha Graham’s choreography at the Martha Graham Studio Theater in the West Village, performed by a multigenerational cast of the legendary dance company’s members. If you’re seeking a racier sort of re-enactment, check out Danish choreographer Mette Ingvartsen’s 69 Positions, a “guided tour through an archive of sexual performances” from the 1960s, presented by American Realness at MoMA P.S.1.
Then, too, you’ll find imaginative dives into the personal past, like Erin Markey’s new musical A Ride on the Irish Cream (American Realness) or Jonathan Capdevielle’s Adishatz/Adieu (COIL), an autobiographical concert that conjures up iconic pop hits of the Eighties. To truly shake up your experience of past, present, and future, don’t miss Annie Dorsen’s Yesterday Tomorrow, an “algorithmic” concert in which three singers, under the live direction of a computer software program, harmonize their way from the Beatles’ “Yesterday” to the musical Annie‘s “Tomorrow,” moving through many mysterious choral arrangements in between.
American Realness, hosted at Abrons Arts Center, usually presents the widest array of forward-thinking experimental performance and brings theater and dance into the intimate proximity they deserve. This year’s offerings appear especially diverse: There are dance pieces by Jillian Peña and Larissa Velez-Jackson, two intriguing works about race and the body (M. Lamar’s Destruction and Jaamil Olawale Kosoko’s #negrophobia), and a smattering of performances by festival regulars like choreographers Keith Hennessy and Jack Ferver. (Ferver will remount his vulnerable, darkly hilarious dance-theater solo Mon, Ma, Mes, which should not be missed.)
All three festivals are headquartered in the East Village or on the Lower East Side but leave their mark all over the city. COIL, whose home base P.S.122 remains under construction, arranges the most interesting array of venues, from downtown standbys like La MaMa to the scrappy Ideal Glass Factory to the Chocolate Factory in Long Island City. COIL also expands the geographical reach of its programming this year, featuring a lineup of artists from Australia in addition to the European and American regulars, and it continues to be the only festival to regularly include performance installations in the scope of its January programming.
And what if you want your January to lead you into the total unknown? Luckily — as with all avant-gardes — when the mainstream absorbs one institution, a new and scrappier one tends to step up and take its place. Such is the case with Special Effects, a newer feature of the January landscape, which offers a weekend of hit-or-miss but refreshingly new material at the Wild Project January 15–17. For the newest of the new, check out “Gray Spaces,” an evening of short works that combines white-cube and black-box sensibilities. And the theme of this year’s “Gray Spaces”? Aptly enough, the young artists participating in the evening will be meditating on the future. You can say you saw it here first.
Under the Radar Festival
The Public Theater
425 Lafayette Street
Abrons Arts Center (and other locations)
466 Grand Street