While the plutocrats in D.C. go about the business of dismantling government, a hardy band of New York’s smartest artists continue their investigation of social change. Closing out the final weekend of the Coil Festival, David Thomson and his collaborators expose their thinking and feeling about issues — race, gender, identity — that bedevil the current leadership in Washington even as they give the rest of us faith in the future.
Part installation, part performance, he his own mythical beast has been developing for more than five years, while the crumbling East Village art space known as PS122 underwent renovation. The audience is arrayed around three sides of a long, narrow room, the smaller of Performance Space New York’s two new theaters. Keeping track of the parade of vignettes is rather like watching doubles tennis; you shift your focus from one end of the space to the other, fearful of missing something essential.
This sensory overload begins before the doors even open: Out in the bare lobby two screens display animations of wolf-in-sheep’s-clothing figures, accompanied by thoughtful texts derived from essential writers and philosophers on the subject of race.
Bronx native Thomson, a longtime dancer-choreographer of great physical and vocal proficiency, begins moving, bare-chested, in a chalk square in the middle of the long room. It becomes clear that he’s riffing on Trisha Brown’s 1975 Locus, a contained work that keeps our focus on his body without revealing anything about the person in motion. Thomson, a member of Brown’s troupe from 1987 to 1993, observes that her choreography seemed to obliterate the person; from there, his focus on more political questions begins to take form.
Co-director Peter Born and designer Roderick Murray’s spare lighting decisions begin with a frame of bulbs that illuminates the face of Paul E. Hamilton, another black male dancer. Two women, Katrina Reid and Jodi Bender, a generation younger than the men, engage in quiet conversation about one’s desire to be chased and to manipulate situations, their faces hidden by a scarf as their voices are amplified by a microphone. Another narrative by Reid, full of sly technical allusions, threading through the hour-long work, involves the process of developing a voice for a “black Siri.” At one end of the room, in almost full light, Bender grapples with Hamilton in violent ways, evoking racial unpleasantness throughout the country’s history. Then he and Bender stand and dance, breathing hard and swiveling their hips. The women wear eye-catching separates by Naoko Nagata; I found myself distracted by Bender’s complex blouse and high-waisted trousers and oddly soothed by Reid’s yellow turtleneck top.
Meanwhile, yards away in another corner under black light, Thomson climbs into a voluminous white dress and sheds his pants. He and Hamilton hold and counterbalance one another, spinning in place. He pulls up a couple of chairs; he and Hamilton converse as if on a first date, sharing tales of what gives them pleasure, often items of food. The women dance, close together but rarely touching, and murmur about biscuits.
And so it goes, often bewilderingly for a person positioned, as I was, far from much of the action. Thomson lubricates his face and dons a black latex helmet-mask that covers his whole head except his eyes and mouth. Hamilton rolls slowly down the space as the women surround his body with chalk outlines. Thomson, in black spike heels, strides down the floor and gyrates, fully inhabiting a genderfluid persona, flashing the spectators. Then drums come up and the performers disappear.
Made in sections over the past five years and brought together in this new black box, he his own mythical beast has power if not always legibility. Its form is new and startling and its content is sometimes challenging. There’s no show Saturday night, but get yourself on the waiting list for one of the others and meet the future.