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Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Opera Review: She's Not Dead...Yet

Robert Wilson presents The Life and Death of Marina Abramović.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Marina Abramović sits. Antony sings (eventually) in The Life and Death of Marina Abramović.
Photo by Lucie Jansch for DeSingel © 2013 Robert Wilson/Watermill Institute.
The director Robert Wilson is known for his signature style: dark costumes, white Kabuki makeup and stylized movements in front of moving bars of light. Last night at the Park Avenue Armory, Mr. Wilson's style was placed in service of another uncompromising figure: performance artist Marina Abramović. Tuesday night was the second of a series of New York performances of The Life and Death of Marina Abramović, the collaboration between these two artists which premiered in Manchester in 2011.

Born in Belgrade in 1946, Marina Abramović refers to herself today as "the grandmother of performance art." For forty years, she has been unafraid to use her body as a canvas to create uncompromising, imaginative works that often frightened and repelled audiences but drew critical acclaim. She rose to fame in 1970 with Rhythm 10, where she played the "Russian game," stabbing knives between her fingers, recording the cuts (mistakes), recording the results and attempting to replicate the same results. Another piece involved the ingestion of non-prescription drugs to cause seizures and even blackouts. Her most recent New York show  (Her most recent New York exhibition was The Artist is Present where she sat immobile for 736 hours and 30 minutes, with visitors invited to sit opposite her at a table.)

This focus on immobility dovetails neatly with the unique visual aesthetic of Robert Wilson. And indeed, stillness or a near-approximation of it is crucial in this performance. The show opens with Ms. Abramović and two other cast members lying still on coffin-shaped slabs as live Doberman Pinschers prowl a boneyard. Onstage dance or action is often stopped dead by a loud noise, with dancers frozen mid-action like trapped flies in amber. Other scenes involved shifts between slow and sped-up motion, giving the viewer the sensation that time accelerated, slowed down and ultimately became meaningless.

Ms. Abramović is a star of this show, playing her own imposing mother in the first act, and herself in the second. As the mother, she stalked onstage, her high heels sounding a menacing tattoo amplified over the PA. Her own performance included spoken word and even song, with her Slavic accent profoundly molding and shaping each utterance. But the most disconcerting part of the show is the realization that the artist is once more, sitting still, waiting for some reaction from the depths of the darkend theater.

Much of the kinetic energy in Life and Death comes from its narrator, played with gravel-voiced gusto by the actor Willem Dafoe. Mr. Dafoe arrives stage left, on a sliding platform that serves as a second stage and a bully pulpit. Surrounded by stacks of newspapers, he barks out the critical dates of Ms. Abramović's life, including incidents involving an attempt at auto-rhinoplasty (she wanted to look like Brigitte Bardot), a disastrous encounter with a primitive washing machine and a creative use for brown shoe polish. (She smeared it all over the inside of her childhood bedroom, an act that repelled her mother's intrusions.) Mr. Dafoe's narrator is gentler in the second half, transiting down from guttural shout to his normal, gravelly speaking voice. The change is very welcome, but less so when he sings.

Sound design is crucial to the performance, played on speakers mounted to surround and overwhelm the audience. The speakers carried the amplified voices of actors and instruments, thundering out pure noise, carrying piano-driven cabaret numbers (sung by the imposing, but sweet-voiced Antony in a long cocktail dress, wig and white mask--sometimes walking a pet lobster.) These lullabies gave way to Slavic folk songs and  stentorian marches with Mr. Dafoe and other cast members shouting repeated phrases ("An artist never repeats herself!") through a bullhorn.

The three-hour show is part opera, part cabaret and part circus. There are films, projections, dancers and aerialists on and above the simple acting surface. Its text serves as both retrospective and introduction to the strange world of Ms. Abramović. Throughout, the script stresses Ms. Abramović's independence and self-expression, first as a lone voice crying in the streets of the city of Belgrade and later as an exhausted touring artist. She and Mr. Wilson do not spare a critical eye for the wear and tear of that lifestyle, and it is best summed up in the final scene. Surrounded by crucified angelic figures, the great lady turns to her public and says "Bye-bye. Bye-bye. Bye-bye." Even those simple, banal syllables become...art.
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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.