January 10, 2012 5:25 pm

American Realness, Abrons Arts Center, New York

Bowdlerised punk, plastic-bag Chekhov, spirituality for shoppers – performing arts festival gleefully plays fast and loose with cultural categories

In January, performing arts programmers from all over the world descend on New York to scope out future works of theatre, dance or weird hybrid for their venues. Until a few years ago, they were treated to showcases – one 20-minute excerpt after another until the mind went numb. Finally theatres got the idea to reprise the year’s best work – and invite everyone.

Young impresario Ben Pryor has taken the obvious next step from festive mood to straight-out festival. In its third season, American Realness presents productions day and night for 10 days (until January 15) and features such bright lights as experimental choreographer John Jasperse, scandalous performance artist Ann Liv Young and Brooklyn multimedia-maniacal thespians the Big Art Group. Best of all, it lays out an aesthetic.

In drag culture, you achieve “realness” when you pass as what you evidently are not: a dame, for example, or straight. At American Realness the seepage of one category into another extends beyond gender and sexuality. Chekhov is dressed in plastic bags and streaming video. The middle-brow kitsch of 1950s garden ornaments mixes with 1960s nudist spiritualism. And bad taste, as it used to be known, is everywhere.

The festival’s aesthetic may reflect our infinitely shuffle-able world, but it hardly guarantees good work. That depends on the sense the artists make of the disparate elements. On the opening weekend, Heather Lang as Ebonics-speaking Spiritual Connector Duana Reade and Eleanor Bauer as posh Public Intuitions Expert Simona Simonson hosted Destiny’s Realness, an Oprah-cum-shopping-channel show for the 99¢-store set; lucky shoppers (aka audience members) could receive a special recession “something-from-nothing” brand of Realness when they signed up for a “clarification” toothbrush and “reclaim your vanity” mirror. The comic mash-up succeeded because we all recognise this American confusion of spiritual aspiration and consumer hunger.

The off-limits caricatures rampant in today’s performance art – here, Lang’s bug-eyed, thick-tongued rapper – are harder to understand. Artists seem to keep the butt of the joke – is it the crude stereotype or the real-life target? – murky on purpose, as if moral blur were one of the only transgressions left to them.

Choreographer Daniel Linehan came up with another, however. In Zombie Aporia, a minimalism-meets-karaoke suite of dances, he bowdlerises the Sex Pistols’ ferocious “Anarchy in the UK”. So maybe banality is the final frontier.

3 stars

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