Under the Radar Underwhelms

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??