Saturday, March 17, 2012

Douglas Messerli "On Credit" (on Eleanor Antin's Before the Revolution)

on credit
by Douglas Messerli

Eleanor Antin Before the Revolution, Hammer Museum, Los Angeles, January 29, 2012 / I saw the matinee performance of this work

Of all of artist Eleanor Antin's numerous personae, Eleanora Antinova, the Black American dancer attempting to be a leading ballerina in Diaghilev's famed Ballets Russes, is the most endearing. Somehow the very idea of the somewhat short, dark complexioned Antin—a woman who makes no claim to being able to dance in "real" life, and certainly has not trained for ballet—joining the tall "all-white machine" of Diaghilev's company goes beyond absurdity into the world of a touching fantasy, when Antin as Antinova plays out again and again her several Eleanora Antinova Plays, performances enacted by the artist from the mid-1970s through the next decade, works that my own Sun & Moon Press collected into a book of 1994.

    Of these works, perhaps the most significant was the 1979 Before the Revolution, in which, performing numerous characters—from Antinova, Diaghilev, Stravinsky, Nijinsky, to balletic beings such has Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI—Antin develops her "Historical Prophecy and an Interlude and an Interruption." Although I have seen most of Antin's performances when they first appeared, I did not witness the 1979 premier of Before the Revolution at The Kitchen in New York and its later manifestation at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art. So I was delighted to be able to attend what she has described as a  "re-performance" of the piece, this with several actors, on January 29, 2012.

     The work is divided into six sections: I. The Lesson, II. The Argument, III. The Vision, IV. The Rehearsal, V. The Interruption, and VI. The Truth, each loosely connected with the actions conveyed in their titles. The overall arc of this disjunctive narrative is Antinova's insistence that she dance a major role in the Ballet Russes instead of playing merely ancillary and exotic figures such as Pocahontas, etc., her arguments with Diaghilev, Stravinsky, and others about permitting her these roles, her insistence on choreographing her own ballet—wherein she plays a ridiculously overstated Marie Antoinette—her rehearsals for that performance, and her personal relationships with other figures of the company, particularly the disturbed Nijinsky.
     At the heart of this work, however, is Antin's personal "Interruption," wherein Antin states the major themes of her piece, and argues for an art that not only "borrows" or builds upon the past, but, in a Brechtian manner, creates a space between the artist and the figure she portrays, that must be joined through the imaginations of the audience. Beginning with a discussion of Diaghilev, accused by several as being a borrower, Antin brings several of these issues together in a monologue that might almost be stated as a kind of manifesto of her art:

And who is not a borrower? Didn't we get our face and our name from our parents, the words in our mouths from our country, the way we say them from the children on our block, our dreams and images from the books and pictures other people wrote, painted, filmed? We take from here, from there and give back—whatever we give back. And we cover what we give back with our name: John Smith, Eleanora Antinova, Tamara Karasavina, Sergei Pavlovitch Diaghilev, and somewhere each one of us stands behind that name, sort of.
     Sometimes there is a space between a person and her name. I can't always reach my name. Between me and Eleanor Antin sometimes there is a space. No, that's not true. Between me and Eleanor Antin there is always a space. I act as if there isn't. I make believe it isn't there. Recently, the Bank of America refused to cash one of my checks. My signature was unreadable, the bank manager said. "It is the signature of an important person," I shouted. "You do not read the signature of an important person, you recognize it." That's as close as I can get to my name. And I was right, too. Because the bank continues to cash my checks. That idiosyncratic and illegible scrawl has credit there. This space between me and my name has to be filled with credit.

     What of me and Antinova? I borrow her dark skin, her reputation, her name, which is very much like mine anyway. She borrowed the name from the Russians, from Diaghilev. I borrow her aspirations to be a classical ballerina. She wants to dance the white ballets. What an impossible eccentric! A Black ballerina dancing Les Sylphides, Giselle, Swan Lake. She would be a "black face in a snow bank!" The classical ballet is a white machine. Nobody must be noticed out of turn. The slightest eccentricity stands out and Grigoriev hands out stiff fines to the luckless leg higher than the rest. So Antinova designs her own classical ballet. She will dance the white queen Marie-Antoinette. She invests the space between herself and the white queen with faith...."

      This profound statement of the separation of art and artist who must be given credit by both the artist herself and the viewer to make meaning, is at the heart of Antin's oeuvre, which, like a Kiekegaardian leap into faith, transforms simple desire into an almost sacramental act.

     The "Interruption" was even more poignant at the Hammer Museum performance I witnessed because Antin read these words on a small I-pad whose images disappeared as she spoke them, forcing her to ask her son Blaise to help her recover the message she was attempting to repeat.

     It was also interesting to have Eleanor Antinova played throughout by a Black actress (Daniele Watts), who certainly frees Antin from being seen as a white actress in Black face which some critics accused her of being the first time round.

     Actor Jonathan Le Billion was also very effective as the slightly mad Nijinsky railing against  Diaghilev, as the great dancer did in real life. But overall, the acting was mixed, with some figures unable to completely realize their roles. In part, that is simply due to the fact that in life these personalities were exaggerated and that Antin's work is not, at heart, a drama. To say what Before the Revolution is, exactly, is difficult. Perhaps it is easier to say what it isn't: it is not truly a play, an historical performance, a monological statement, a ballet-in-the-making, a personal encounter with a Black ballerina. It is all of these, but in its radical genre-bending elements, it is so much more!

    Although, as I mentioned previously, I did not see the original, it seems to me it is essentially a work for one person. Eleanor may not have been a greatest of actresses in that original, but given the "credit" we must grant to bring her art into life, the slightly mad ramblings of a single person, sometimes hiding behind cut-outs of her characters, seems the most appropriate rendering of this fascinating performance. Despite the separation of name and character, Antin becomes Antinova, becomes even the figures inhabiting Antinova's imagination in the original, and that, it seems to me, is the true miracle of this art. What we witness is a kind of madness, a madness, like Nijinsky's, that becomes transformed into something of significance. The artist in this work is almost like a child, a child so intent upon imagining other existences, that she truly creates them, bringing viable others into that envelope between the creator and the creation. If that act demands credit, it reflects back upon the audience for their commitment to the creative act, coming as a kind of unexpected reward for their faith. Art, for Antin, is almost always—despite its seeming focus on the various aspects of self—a communal act. Her King of Solana Beach could never have been a king without willing (even if unknowing) subjects. Antin's Nurse Eleanor Nightingale could not have survived the Crimean War without her imaginary patients, just as Eleanora Antinova is nothing without her willing claque. So too did the audience of Before the Revolution enthusiastically applaud this dramatic presentation of the dilemmas of Antinova's life.

     I was at Eleanor Antin's side after the 1981 performance, Recollections of My Life with Diaghilev at the Museum of Modern Art, when an enthusiastic attendee, with great reverence and respect, gushed, "Tell me, being so close to Diaghilev, what was it really like?" Eleanor was a bit abashed; she would have had to be in her mid-70s (she was currently in her 40s) to have actually performed with Diaghilev's company. Yet I perceived that never before had "credit" been so innocently and completely proffered!

Los Angeles, March 15, 2012

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Douglas Messerli "Survivors" (on Lorraine Hansbery's A Raisin in the Sun)


Lorraine Hansbery A Raisin in the Sun / the performance I saw was February 18, 2012 at the Kirk Douglas Theatre, Culver City, California
by Douglas Messerli

I had not previously seen a stage performance of the original Lorraine Hansbery play, A Raisin in the Sun, although I had long ago seen the film version with Sidney Poitier and Ruby Dee, and I had read the play some time in college, as well as seeing the sentimentalized musical version in its premiere on May 30th, 1973, my 26th birthday at Washington, D.C.'s Arena Theater. So I thought it only fitting that I check out a new stage production at the Kirk Douglas Theater in Culver City, just a short drive from my Los Angeles home.

     Although the well-made play of political and social concerns is not generally my kind of theater, I thought it might be interesting to see how the play has stood, to use a tired cliché, "the test of time." And the fact that my previous physician, with the strangely appropriate name of Dr. Redcross, was married to a niece of Hansbery's, who was very involved in her aunt's estate and interested in theater, made the visit an even more appropriate event.

     When I mentioned my attendance of this play to an intelligent and highly esteemed friend, her response was: "I couldn't possibly ever see anything so sweet. If that makes an elitist, so be it."

     Although at times A Raisin in the Sun may be bittersweet, I would never characterize anything in this gritty story of the Younger family as "sweet." Even the mother, Lena (Kim Staunton), played to type as the sort of reaffirming, religious center of family life, is rarely joyful. And the rest of the family, Walter Lee (Kevin T. Carroll) and Beneatha (Kenya Alexander), particularly, battle it out in a Chicago ghetto world that has little room for anyone but survivors. The youngest of the Younger family, Travis, is forced to sleep on the couch, and is sent out of the house to play whenever there is a serious family discussion or argument—which occurs at regular intervals throughout the play.

     Walter Lee's wife, Ruth (Deidrie Henry), is again pregnant, and given the condition of their apartment and the family squabbles, is considering having an abortion. Her husband, an incompetent dreamer, is so belittled by his chauffeur job that he is near the level of despair suggested by the title's quote from the Langston Hughes poem, "A Dream Deferred."

     The family's major battle is over money, the insurance left by the death of the father. For Lena the decision over the money is an obvious one: a part of it will go for Beneatha's education as a doctor, the other for a new home in Clybourne park. But her son's loss of manhood and despair forces her to hand over some of the money so that he may play the role of the family head. Without even depositing the amount, he invests it in a shoddy deal with a friend to open a bar, only to find that the crook has absconded with the whole sum.

     What struck me as particularly interesting in this play is the fact that the issues it raises are still current. The most interesting character of the drama is Beneatha, a strong young woman determined to make a success through education, an opinionated being who is also fascinated by her lost African roots. When her education money goes missing, she is still determined to travel with her friend, Joseph Asagi (Amad Jackson) to his homeland in Nigeria, in order  to experience new worlds and sights.

      The final straw that breaks this family is the racist reaction of the "welcoming" committee to their new home, represented by the white Mr. Karl Linder (Scott Mosenson), who tries to skirt the issue of racism by describing a sense of community difference from their own: this community is even willing to buy the house at a higher price than they have paid! At first, all family members join in their disdain of the proposal, quickly showing him the door. But the saddest moment of the play comes when, having lost the remaining money, Walter Lee, completely giving up their dreams, decides to capitulate, agreeing the Clybourne community's offer.

      No sweetness in these choices, I can assure you. That these troubling issues were spoken in a play of 1959 by a Black woman, moreover, is startling. Hansbery may not be an adventuresome writer, but she is certainly a forceful voice and a strong social conscience.

     The only problem with the version, directed by Phylicia Rashad that I attended was some of the character's attempts to play to the obviously sympathetic audience. The character of Walter Lee, in particular, was often played for humor. There is indeed irony, if not outright humor, in many of Hansbery's lines, but to milk that in a role centered upon despair defeats the playwright's purpose. Since Beneatha, in her more sophisticated thinking, is almost an outsider to her own family, she was saved from these winking asides, and was the stronger figure for it.

      Yet overall and over all these years, Hansbery's A Raisin in the Sun remains a strong American statement of faith and strength against the daily travails of inner city life. If that means these characters or this play are somehow "sweet," then call me a populist—something no one has ever described me as being before.

Los Angeles, March 14, 2012