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What is American at this moment? Turning to the East Village, we find artists working in iconic spaces, acknowledging the original people who lived where their theaters now stand. Invoking the Lenape in the program for Untitled Work for Voice — and from the stage floor itself — Tatyana Tenenbaum is connecting all the way back in her search for the “music of American desire.” Very cerebral, this collaboration among five performers (Marisa Clementi, Pareena Lim, Emily Moore, Jules Skloot, and Tenenbaum) involves experimental music as much as it does movement.
The opening invocation amplifies the sense of sacredness surrounding the seventy-minute piece, consecrating the air in the St. Mark’s Church sanctuary. Early on we hear high-pitched tones, and what might be breaking waves; performers appear brandishing thundersheets, the metal devices long used in radio to imitate storms. Emily Moore, wrapped in a white lace sheath speckled with green pompoms, crawls onto the floor and begins a slow, spiraling ascent, her pre-verbal ululations turning into one-syllable utterances and, finally, the word happening. Occasional audible sentences emerge from the cast’s humming and chanting, but a coherent narrative never does. What we’re watching, according to Tenenbaum, is “a backstage musical…a show about a show whose production is never seen in completion.”
Yet passion accrues, as do oddly lyrical moments. Pareena Lim, in a striped tank-top, keeps troubling the word boundary, carefully shaping her syllables. Marisa Clementi, in a loose gray jumpsuit (the endlessly inventive costumes are by Claire Fleury), intones the word power. A couple of performers stalk the spectators, brandishing dowels standing in for weapons, evoking warriors from eternal conflicts aeons and continents away. There’s the occasional melodramatic exchange, as close to conventional theater as the show ever gets apart from a moment of unison dancing to a tune that might have migrated from a Broadway show. There’s a sudden tableau of triumph, the kind of flag-waving (but with no flag) that might grace the stage at Les Miz.
Tenenbaum, attaching long cardboard fingernails to her hands, takes a quick turn at the sort of faux-Siamese dancing created by Jerome Robbins for The King and I, and Lim reappears all in black, wearing a deconstructed red skirt in the shape of a cage, slowly swiveling her hips and walking with a subtle hitch-step. Somebody shrieks; somebody trills. Skloot, who’s been a recessive, almost stagehand-like presence until this point, emerges in a martial arts stance, wearing brightly appliqued green chaps over his grey sweats. This curiously adorned figure begins to chant: “Take your chance. Circumstance,” as he swirls through attitudes of confrontation, covering the whole floor with full-bodied circular gestures.
Then the lights go out, and we’re done. What have we seen and heard? A series of visual and sonic bagatelles, like charms on a psychoanalytic bracelet. We give ourselves up to this exploration, to this arena where the personal meets the political meets the impulse to claim musical theater as folklore. “Song and dance are not vehicles for expression,” says Tenenbaum in a program note. “They are themselves embodied expression.” She is trying to deconstruct desire, a sensation so often amplified in American musical theater that it’s spawned its own subgenre: the “I want” song.
Calling herself “an assimilated American Jew,” she makes these embodied inquiries in a church sanctuary. They cannot help but be bathed in the significance of light streaming through a stained-glass window; of an odd, fire-like lamp sitting on an offstage piano; of patches of fake greenery scattered on and ultimately cleared from the floor. If Tenenbaum is searching for some sort of absolution from her complicity in colonizing this continent, she has come to the right place and is wielding the right strategies; she may just find what she seeks.