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The Terror of Being Present

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THE NEXT GENERATION PROJECT

Lydia Charaf, John Sanchez, and Vicki Walden

at Link's Hall, April 8-10

Surely no criticism of an artwork is less sound than "I could do that," a knee-jerk response I hear with alarming frequency from artists themselves. Such a statement implies that virtuoso execution is a prerequisite for artistic value, summarily dismissing nearly all conceptually based work. But sometimes the simplest gesture--scrubbing public statues of war heroes with soap and water, eating a full meal under a sheet, placing a urinal in an art gallery--speaks more meaningfully and economically than the most expertly executed harbor-at-sunset painting ever could.

In performance, especially, the "I could do that" approach overlooks the importance of personality in an artist's work. Certain performers have an aura, a captivating presence, that no amount of technical expertise can duplicate. This ineffable quality can make a mundane activity thoroughly engrossing. John Sanchez, Lydia Charaf, and Vicki Walden, the performers presented in this Next Generation Project showcase, all demonstrate this kind of magnetism. Their self-deprecating humor, poker-faced deliveries, and general lack of pretense quickly make us comfortable. But their true expertise lies in making us like them.

Nearly all the work here could be dismissed with a quick "I could do that," because the evening focuses not on demonstrations of skill but on the unfolding of ideas. In fact, the more these performers work at performing, doing the things that performers are "supposed to do," the less successful they become.

Sanchez's exquisitely conceived piece demonstrates just how successful a skill-less performance can be. Sitting a few feet in front of the audience in a chair with a telephone in his lap, he announces, "My name is John Sanchez, and I'm going to call 976-MUSCLE." After dialing and wading through the preliminaries--you must be 18 or older, you can't call from a cellular or mobile phone, all of which he relays to us in an utterly matter-of-fact voice--Sanchez finally gets 20 minutes on the party line. He spends this time trying to get someone to come over and appear in his performance, talking to about two dozen men in turn. No matter their responses--some inquire about penis size, some profess a preference for "ass work"--Sanchez tries to convince these men that he simply wants them to appear before his audience and say hello.

Talk about a dangerous piece. Not only is there no guarantee that anything of interest will develop, but the audience cannot hear half of what goes on. And as any solo performer knows, 20 minutes without a safety net is an eternity. Intelligently, Sanchez exploits rather than conceals the nerve-racking elements of the situation. Planted in front of us like a specimen in a museum case, he makes no attempt to disguise his stage fright: his hands shake, and his voice at times is unstable. He watches a clock behind the audience with real urgency, repeatedly telling the men on the other end of the line that if they want to be in the show, they've got to hurry.

The piece succeeds for two reasons. First, it takes the audience along for a ride full of vicarious thrills. Not only does Sanchez call one of those numbers we've long been too embarrassed to call ourselves, but he plays amusing pranks on the men he talks to. "Hey, what's up?" he says over and over again. "I'm looking for someone to come over. Are you interested?" Second, the piece good-naturedly insults traditional theatrical notions. Listening to someone talk on the phone does not belong onstage, a fact that produced much of the humor, and paying money to watch this event is in a way absurd. Yet in another way, for all its antitheatricality, this is a highly dramatic event. The possibility that someone might actually show up gives the piece a giddy sense of suspense.

Like the best conceptual work, Sanchez's piece ultimately reaches beyond its own cleverness and audacity. Fundamentally at stake is the terror of being genuinely present, whether before a live audience or in the virtual world of telephone sex. It's old hat to suggest that 900 numbers exemplify the fear of intimacy that plagues our age, but Sanchez puts an insightful spin on this notion by desexualizing it. He only wants someone to show up and stand onstage with him, but even this prospect is unnerving to the men on the phone. All but one of them hung up on Sanchez within moments of hearing that he wanted to meet in person. Being fully present can be tremendously risky, but as Sanchez eloquently demonstrates in his own performance, risk is the basis for a meaningful connection.

Charaf's piece, We: Healing, continues this exploration of the inherent vulnerability of appearing "in person." The piece begins with a highly stylized, campy black-and-white film, "The Wound." Two women in slinky dresses with glowing lamp shades attached to their heads alternately caress and bandage a woman with a third eye painted on her forehead. Charaf's recorded voice reads a ridiculously overwrought poem about a painful love affair called "The Life & Death of a Band-Aide."

The film represents the ultimate "safe" performance, not only because it makes light of genuine pain but because it is a film: flip a switch, and the performance happens automatically. Charaf's presence is abstracted: she's a flickering image on a screen and a disembodied voice. But the film segues into Charaf's live singing, accompanying herself on the bendir, a small drum. Her lyrics describe an emotional break-up like the one in the film, but this time Charaf is in earnest: "I've been washing in my ocean / The salt it clears the stains / And unencumbered by debris / I wrap me in myself." Her incantatory melody is haunting as she emerges from the shadows behind the audience. Despite the emotional openness of the performance, Charaf keeps herself hidden to some degree, either concealing her face behind the bendir or keeping her back to us. Only in the final moments does she appear fully revealed in a pool of light in front of the audience, as though being fully present with these feelings first requires a lot of careful maneuvering.

Like Sanchez, Charaf is perfectly straightforward in her presentation. Neither her voice nor her drumming nor her gentle movements are intended to dazzle; she simply places the song before us. The song isn't intended to stand alone but invites comparison with the film. Charaf suggests that embellishing an emotional wound with fancy theatrics and campy humor is an easy trick, but being present with it in a simple human way is a much greater challenge.

Charaf's largely improvised second piece, Wash, begins in a similarly straightforward manner but gets weaker as it becomes more intentional. In Wash, Charaf and two women offer up found sounds and movements. They begin by locating spots in the room where the wooden floor creaks, and then they jump, twist, and undulate to produce different types of creaky noises. Not only is this nonmusical score beautiful, but the bizarre movements required to produce it are fresher, more curious, and less self-conscious than most choreography. Like Sanchez's piece, Wash delights in its own banality, its antitheatricality.

The same results are produced when foot-long wooden dowels are kicked to and fro, as well as when an enormous white oil drum is rolled into the space. After this point, however, the women turn from discovering music to producing music in a much more intentional way. They use the rods to beat on windowsills and door frames, they sing into the drum, they blow into bottles. The serendipitous quality that gives the first section of Wash its charm disappears, and a disappointingly predictable musicality takes its place.

Walden's dance trio disappoints not only because of its predictable gestural sequences but because of its contrasts with the other works on the bill. Walden's physically urgent work with the Cook County Theatre Department has been characterized by an almost antidance mentality: people commit actions and execute tasks rather than perform movements for their own sake. The piece presented here, Full Time, by comparison has a decidedly lyrical tone. The dancers perform their abstract routine in a purely formal way, without much personal involvement. The dancers' skill is clear, but the piece lacks a solid intellectual or emotional foundation. Compared to the other works in this highly conceptual evening, this one has little impact.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo/Blair Jensen.

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