Boxing Joseph Cornell
at the Neo-Futurarium, through June 19
Rachel Rosenthal Company
at the Dance Center of Columbia College, May 13-15
By Carol Burbank
It's the perfect marriage--eccentric artist Joseph Cornell and the Neo-Futurists. Cornell's surreal boxes and collages made his reputation as a mysterious, somewhat wacky visionary. Greg Allen and company, if less famous, are exploring an equally mysterious and wacky theatrical aesthetic, a kind of new naturalism in which the performer plays himself and the audience gets to play along.
The strongest connection between the Neo-Futurists' brand of theater and Cornell's surrealism is a mutual obsession with impressionistic, fragmented storytelling. Cornell put found objects into handmade boxes, paying homage to everyone from film and ballet divas to the Medicis and conveying a cascade of ideas about travel, luxury, and popular culture. In his penny arcade boxes and eerie collages, he staged his personal obsessions with the same casually intimate care that the Neo-Futurists give their weekly performances of Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind.
In Boxing Joseph Cornell, performer-directors Greg Allen and Connor Kalista use references to Cornell's life and work as a frame for their own experiences. The result is a kaleidoscopic series of theatrical boxes that physically and metaphorically shrink even as they're stuffed with stories, images, and theories about the relationship between art and memory. It's not surprising that they retell the story of Pandora's box in the program notes--twice--since what flies out of their box of improvisational games and scripted narratives is entirely unpredictable.
The opening-night performance began as the audience was filing in. Allen and Kalista were securing a large open-sided wooden cube at center stage by tying ropes to chairs. A few audience members were recruited to hold the ropes taut, eventually suspending the large box over the stage. This is a piece where there are few secrets; as in other Neo-Futurist works, the illusion is that the performers are simply accomplishing set tasks. Certainly Allen and Kalista are very good at performing themselves: Allen's clownish sense of irony is an intriguing contrast to Kalista's almost somber bluntness, particularly as they progress from scripted dialogue to exercises designed to call up incidents and images from their personal lives.
Like Cornell putting together his boxes, Allen and Kalista repeat bits and pieces of stories, creating patterns that overlap and diverge. Part of their brilliant design is the physical arrangement of the boxes onstage, which undergo impressive transformations. The original cube opens up and, with other frames, forms three playing spaces in which smaller cubes, tables, and chairs are set, depending on the scene. In this way, boxes become other boxes, and different exercises, stories, dialogues, and set pieces fill them, adding another detail or giving the performers a chance to trade roles. In scripted and improvised question-and-answer sessions, Allen and Kalista quietly interrogate each other, revealing their relationships to Cornell's work, to the process of developing this piece, and to their own pasts. Playing with distance and tone, they create little ritualistic dialogues, filling in random details until the evening seems a fabulous, purposeful muddle organized by the stark simplicity of the boxes.
The tension between improvisation and scripted material is best expressed in a whimsical ongoing writing project. At the beginning of the performance, Allen and Kalista write one story on two chalkboards, each scrawling phrases completed on the other's board. "Once upon a time there was a box," it begins, telling Cornell's story as if the boxes were searching for him, personifying them as questing heroes. This becomes the piece's primary metaphor, evoking the myth of Pandora's box, this time emptied and searching for new contents. When the chalkboards are used as tabletops, notepads, and drawing boards, the story is physically and metaphorically blurred. Through this simple device, Allen and Kalista evoke the fragmented writing and pictures in Cornell's work and create a visual record of their own verbal boxes.
Audience participation completes this satisfying visual and intellectual exploration. At one point, Allen riffs on an audience member's story about what he did that day. Projecting snapshots, the performers hold up Kleenex squares to show each image piece by piece, playfully forcing us to make sense of a leg here, a face there, a flower. Sometimes our own memories become part of the piece. In one exercise, the two trade free-associated memories in response to pictures on cards randomly plucked from a deck. As they trade cards, they simultaneously show the audience the next card in the series, inciting an irresistible if silent participation. Once I started playing the memory game I couldn't stop, silently adding my own recollections to their dialogue; their stories called up mine, making the experience richer and more cluttered.
Boxing Joseph Cornell grows out of the Neo-Futurists' vital aesthetic, still in progress. Though it has the potential for producing coy, self-conscious performance, the Neo-Futurists' aim is to push artists into a state of vulnerability that provokes an honest experience for audience and actor alike. The results are entertainingly uneven in Too Much Light, but this production shows the aesthetic's philosophical potential. Allen and Kalista quote Francis Bacon in the program: "I believe in deeply ordered chaos." Boxing Joseph Cornell creates the sort of carefully framed, neatly boxed experience of chaos and randomness Cornell would probably have admired. After all, he once wrote, "Anyone who has shown any concern with my work and has not been moved or inspired to become involved...with the humanities in a down-to-earth context...has not understood its basic import." The Neo-Futurists have obviously been moved, combining the experience of memory and the memory of experience in a down-to-earth collage that reconfigures Cornell's eccentric, brilliant vision.
Rachel Rosenthal's performance art offers an entirely different kind of honesty than the Neo-Futurists' more spartan work. At 72, after 45 years of writing, performing, and teaching, Rosenthal has become a master of self-invention, and Timepiece may well be the ultimate ritual to address her aging. It was also a fitting conclusion to the "Changing Channels Festival" at the Dance Center of Columbia College, representing both the best and worst that can happen when an innovator becomes an institution.
First staged in 1996, Timepiece combines Rosenthal's spoken text with performances by her agile dancers, all set against a nearly continual backdrop of images taken from her life and her research into the origins and possible ends of the universe. At times her narrative seems stagy and whiny--she treats her confusion and disgust with herself and her aging body with a well-rehearsed irony and coyness. But the intimacy of her piece also generates scenes of remarkable power. And despite the practiced nature of her rage and moralism, her combination of blunt choreography and heartfelt commitment can produce a startling emotional response. Given her passionate insistence on sustaining tension between violence and comedy, grief and delight, it's easy to see why similar work galvanized audiences in the 1970s, and why activists and artists have turned to Rosenthal as a model of polemical performance.
The center of the work is Rosenthal's sorrow, performed on a spectrum from comedy and irony to confession and melodrama. In particular she grieves the ungraspable but inevitable decay of the planet, conflating her personal decline--growing confusion in the present, preoccupation with the past, and waning physical strength--with the death of the earth. This leap is less arrogance than a pagan faith in the power of Gaia, a faith also reflected in Rosenthal's animal-rights politics. Eventually bypassing personal issues of aging and death, she leads the audience on a rambling journey, asking everyone from Buddha to Einstein where eternal peace might lie. Although she never comes up with a coherent answer, it's a wander worth taking because of Timepiece's moments of inspired theatricality.
These moments often come after a particularly shocking cliche or personal revelation. Showing us family photographs of uncles, aunts, and cousins lost in the concentration camps, Rosenthal makes a strange confession about her choice to remain bald after shaving her head for a performance. This was a conscious act of solidarity with concentration camp victims, she says, but she continues to shave as a sign of the suffering denied her when her immigrant parents protected her from the truth of the brutality they escaped. This self-indulgent display of survivor's guilt stopped me in my tracks; one friend of mine, the child of survivors, was particularly struck by Rosenthal's longing for an agony she would rather have been spared. Yet as Rosenthal rages against her childhood ignorance, her dancers create an image that's remarkably moving despite her ingratitude: after several march naked across the stage, doubled over in apparent pain or exhaustion, three men stand and stretch themselves upward only to fall, trees toppling to the insistent sound of a chain saw. Released from twisted discomfort into sensual lyricism, they bluntly collapse into a different death than I would have predicted.
Such contrasts are instructive, demonstrating the ways that a performer can be both corrupted and bolstered by habits developed over many years. Rosenthal's narrative is a roller coaster of emotional storytelling and coy intellectuality, but at moments her choreography gives the journey a visual and physical power that transcends the limitations of her blunt ideologies. Her dancers throw themselves into each scene, from the graphic, flirtatious gestures of a drag "office whore" to a threatening, dreamlike dance lit only by bulbs on their foreheads and wrists. Contrasting images and tones create uneven but lively tableaux: Kali-like orgies give way to haunting abstract scenes of rape and violation, while playful children's gestures mutate into hypersexual scenarios.
Against the backdrop of slides of ancient galaxies, taken by the Hubble telescope, or a video of a huge dog playing with a well-worn ball, the company lovingly embody fragments of Rosenthal's text, giving physical form to her ideas about death, sex, suffering, and pleasure. Their commitment occasionally lifts Timepiece out of its self-indulgence, revealing the raw power that comes from an Artaudian sense of risk, muted by the fears of old age. It's as if Rosenthal were offering us her nightmares and fantasies, some shopworn but others darkly honest, full of fear and startlingly original in their brutal embrace of the aesthetics of excess and rage.