Under the Radar Underwhelms

Saturday, January 09, 2010

Under the Radar, Mark Russell’s international festival of contemporary theater, is now in its sixth year, and it’s bigger than ever: 20 shows over 12 days through January 17th, spread out at spaces around the city in addition to its home base, the Public Theater.

Bigger than ever. It’s a hallowed American concept. But is bigger necessarily better, especially in a city where none of us can keep up with the volume of new work?

I thought about that yesterday while watching two shows that had little to do with UTR’s core mission of presenting challenging work “that questions our time, our history and our world.” The first was “Space Panorama,” Andrew Dawson’s sometimes charming, rather slight mime documentary about the Apollo II moon landing. The 30-minute work is from 1988, not quite contemporary. The second was 2b theatre company’s “Invisible Atom,” a tedious, predictable monologue by Anthony Black following the breakdown of an ex-stockbroker. Despite the fact that it dealt with issues of the moment, such as terrorism and economic instability, it managed not to ask a true question or push real boundaries.

These shows are perhaps not indicative of the festival’s overall quality. UTR contains productions I’ve greatly enjoyed (reprisals by Pig Iron Theatre Company and the National Theater of the United States of America) and work generating buzz on the international circuit like Teatr Nowy’s “Versus – In the Jungle of Cities," a Brecht adaptation directed by the rising young Polish star Radoslaw Rychcik.

Perhaps, as Russell says in his program welcome, “It’s up to you to tie these threads together as you make your own festival.”

But what if it were instead up to Russell, a highly and rightly respected figure in the field, to make a tightly curated festival, a UTR that took a real stand and lived up to the promise of its name by focusing only on artists who are contesting this form, and pushing it forward? What if the festival were smaller than ever this year, and presented work that totally alienated some people and knocked other people’s heads off, with not much room in between for the “Space Panoramas” of the world?

What might that festival look like? Better than ever or bust? And would I approve if I were one of the alienated folks? I suspect I'll never know. But--for those of you on the prowl for a ultra particular festival, check out the brand new American Realness contemporary dance happenings this weekend, held mainly at the Abrons Arts Center (a new, stealth force for presenting challenging work).

American Realness features just eight artists, including Miguel Gutierrez, Ann Liv Young and Luciana Achugar, and its press release reads like a manifesto:

"At a time when international perspectives of American dance hang onto Merce Cunningham and Trisha Brown, and too many American performing arts presenters are afraid of dance that traverses the heritage of lights and tights, AMERICAN REALNESS commands attention to the proliferation of choreographic practices transcending the traditions and expanding the definition of American dance and performance."

AmReal even gets in a swipe at Michael Kaiser’s beyond dumb lament for modern dance. What’s not to love??


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Comments [4]

Mary Love Hodges

I didn't see anything at Under the Radar, but I did catch a few American Realness events and had mixed feelings. I too was heartened by the bold press release, but I questioned the choice of Zoe/Juniper puzzled me. Although literally, the dancers are bare-legged, the work seems pretty "lights and tights" to me.

That said, the rest of what I saw at American Realness would probably be considered challenging to at least some audiences, and at least three of the works were divisive enough to knock some heads off and drive others out of the house. Unfortunately, I missed Miguel Gutierrez, but the few I know who went were totally riveted.

Jan. 13 2010 11:44 PM
David Sacks from NY, NY

could some one please pass the smelling salts so that I can perhap wake up and relisten to Claudia's overall lauding of American Realness' "Last Meadow" ? Granted, Michelle Boule was quite talented and granted i have limited exposure to "East of Eden", "Giant" and "Rebel without a Cause". But I believe I exercised due diligence in spending 90 minutes on Saturday reviewing old movie clips and interviews of James Dean and Sal Mineo on YouTube.
On Sunday I found the overall performance barely audible, and so inaccessible as to be self indulgent on the part of Gutierrez. Again, good dance performance by Boule (and the others), but I felt that the overall performance was a conceptual dud. I "never" walk out of movies or live performances. I can no longer say this as my brother and I thankfully relieved ouselves 2/3 of the way through !

Jan. 10 2010 11:14 PM
mgm27 from Los Angeles

Curating performance, who knew! I wish I could make it to American Realness, or that American Realness would come to me. Unfortunately the costs are frequently too great and the venues too small to bear such risk - and so safe, pleasant things get thrown together in the name of a festival or tour.

Of course I didn't see IA but I'm guessing it fit right in to some affirmative notion of 'experimental' and so made people feel smart while boring them to tears. Can't win 'em all, but this type of theater is particularly egregious because it is all too common -


Jan. 10 2010 01:17 PM
Jamie Leo from New York

Leaving the performance of "Invisable Atom", I joined other festival audience members compelled to discuss the brilliance, discipline and emotional impact the breathtakingly precise and visually thrilling work (often using nothing more than Black's hands and virtuoso lighting cues to telescope human scale). The many surprisingly funny moments were met with howls from an audience, and the bomb in the office tower passage includes a theatrical choice as imaginative, simple and unsettling as any theatrical moment i've ever seen in my life of theater-going.

Claudia La Rocco's description of "Invisible Atom" as "a tedious, predictable monologue" strikes me about as imprecise and unreliable a critical analysis as i have read in some time. This morning, interviewed on WNYC when she again went out of her way to 'dis' the work, i now wonder if La Rocco's bias as a reviewer are too limited for the huge range of performative approaches to be considered at Under the Radar, especially if she is going to carelessly dismiss the 'quality' of the artistic intent of a work as clearly considered as "Invisable Atom".

The audience i was among clearly saw – or was perhaps looking for – a different work than La Rocco was able to see. We found an exquisite theatrical voice, and thanked Anthony Black (and creative team) with three rounds of cheering curtain calls.

Jan. 09 2010 10:01 AM

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Open to everyone, the Performance Club is a freewheeling conversation about New York performance of all kinds, from experimental theater to gallery installations to contemporary dance. We go, we talk (online and at bars and cafes, with artists and amongst ourselves), we disagree and, sometimes, we change each other’s minds.


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