Saturday, January 18, 2014

Being There: LaDoMA

The Life and Death of Marina Abramović
Directed by Robert Wilson
Park Avenue Armory, December 14, 2013
Marina Abramovic and funeral mask. 
Photo credit: BAM
Biography is not a genre that typically ends up getting played out on the stage. Yet, over the last year several biographical pieces have found their way to New York theaters. In early 2013, the Nature Theater of Oklahoma’s Life and Times: Volumes 1-4 brought to the Public Theater a 10-hour musical epic, based on the verbatim transcripts of a series of phone interviews with an ordinary Williamsburg resident, one Kristin Worrall, that recounts her journey through youth and young adulthood in minute detail, unabridged of all the likes, ums and ahs of colloquial speech. Over the summer 2013, biography on the stage came in the form of a dense and stimulating one-woman show, Sontag: Reborn, based on the early journals of Susan Sontag, that chronicles her creative, intellectual and sexual coming-of-age. New York City Opera staged the lives of two salacious female subjects: Margaret Campbell, the dirty Duchess of Argyll in Powder Her Face, late last winter; and the notorious centerfold in the eponymous Anna Nicole, this fallFinally, by the end of the calendar year, the Park Avenue Armory brought us Robert Wilson’s magisterial The Life and Death of Marina Abramović (LaDoMA), which purports to give us a biographical sketch of its eponymous protagonist, but, nevertheless, winds up delivering that and so much more.
Billed variously as a free form or “quasi-opera” in the manner of Robert Wilson, under the spell of whose Einstein on the Beach I fell earlier this year as well, The Life and Death of Marina Abramović (LaDoMA) was most thrilling for its musical eclecticism. Experiencing it live, I was reminded of the fact that there is no reason why opera has to maintain slavish attitudes towards its traditional roots. Like so many of his theatrical collaborations, Wilson and his collaborators draw on just some of the many musical vernaculars that are available to a contemporary opera composer. In the case of this avant-opera, the soundscape consists of an intermingling of pop music, the rock ballad, Balkan folk music, electronica, modern minimalism, simulated orchestral music, and an assortment of other Dadaist noise experiments, like the sound of a snare drum rolling through the woods down a steep hill. As ever, Wilson runs the gamut.
The Balkan folk singer Svetlana Spajić. 
Photo credit: Robert Wilson website
Collaborators on the project are listed as Antony Hegarty (of Antony and the Johnsons); the experimental electronic duo, Matmos; the Balkan folk singer Svetlana Spajić and her group of traditional singers; and three other musicians performing live from the orchestra pit; with additional musical elaboration credited to Nico Muhly, among his myriad projects, of recent Two Boys fame.
Against such a variegated musical texture, Svetlana Spajić’s Balkan folkloristic singing really stood out. Her exotic Eastern European-tinged chants were phenomenal. The closing number of the first act – Scene A8, “The Green Apple” – featured a seemingly endless repetitive call-and-response arrangement of a traditional Balkan folk song that droned on beautifully with a small chorus of gypsy-looking women dotting the stage, standing virtually motionless, who sang with such feeling. I could have listened to them forever. They stood so still within Wilson’s choreography that it was hard to tell if the voices we were hearing were actually emanating from the bodies adorning the stark minimalist composition of Robert Wilson’s signature staging.

Robert Wilson's signature staging.
Photo credit: Joan Marcus
In classic Robert Wilson fashion, the lighting effects were immaculate from the moment you arrived. As the audience filed in to take their seats the stage was already impeccably illuminated and on full view. Three gorgeous long-legged dogs were seen wandering languidly between a trinity of bodies laid out on coffins as though at a wake, with their funereal-masked faces brightly lit. Patterns of three, as well as other Christological imagery, run through the show from beginning to end. Life, Death, Resurrection is the basic trajectory that it follows, as it proceeds in trinities and recurring trios of Marina Abramović figures.
After the show opened with Marina’s funeral times three, it became clear that this was not going to be your typical biographical stage show, but rather biography done Robert Wilson’s idiosyncratic way – the song sung by Antony in the first Kneeplay is, in fact, entitled Your Story, My Way. The life of the great performance artist, who also stars in the show, is broken up in his treatment. Rather than a monolithic chronicle of a “great woman,” he gives us the fragments of a life with its daily trials, doubts, insecurities, its familial struggles, phases of youthful rebellion and tireless search for selfhood amidst the domestic din of a life really lived like any other.
A chorus of ghoulish hospital patients. 
Photo credit: Lucie Jansch
“The Story of the Big Nose,” Scene A2, is just one such moment that elevates the particular to the universal. While Marina Abramović’s nose does play a particularly prominent role in her unique beauty, it is precisely this kind of formative memory that most of us have to carry around with us as part of our baggage. Part of growing up and finding ourselves includes an ongoing process of recognizing and accepting the idiosyncratic imperfections that make each of us unique. An intentional head injury is how Marina went about tricking her mother into finally seeking out a medical solution to her insecurities, though her plan was foiled. She winds up in an eerie bureaucratic hospital room, which is staged by Wilson as a hauntingly systematic game of leapfrog over lines of miniature hospital beds played by a gaggle of ghoulish in-patients, but her broken nose never procures the plastic surgery her heart so desired, much to her chagrin. The story is at once devastating, heartwarming and humorous.
The devilish MC.
Photo credit: Lucie Jansch
There were other moments of humor too, like the first full-fledged narrative reminiscence in Scene A1, “The Story of the Washing Machine.” Narrated by the demonic Willem Dafoe who played the overlord and MC for the entire evening, the scene was acted out with the exaggerated gestural visual language of mime, like many of the rest of the acting performances – that is, anytime the actors were not just standing still, or rolling down the stairs naked, backwards, and in slow motion, the dominant acting style was mime. In “The Story of the Washing Machine,” we are given a glimpse of a surreal domestic world from the point of view a child who is intrigued by the magical activity of the one big household appliance that spins and spins. She loves watching it spin until one day she gets stuck in it. Beyond the initial shock of the adults who were present for the accident, she only really seems to remember how her mother scolded her for her carelessness – a big theme in this portrait of an artist is the problematic and tension-driven relationship she had with her mother.
Close encounters with a washing machine. 
Photo credit: Robert Wilson website
Much of the show has an artifice heavy self-consciousness to it, a signature Bob Wilson stiffness to it that bespeaks the great master’s attention to detail, his perfectionism, his indulgence in the illusion of theatrical experience. There are moments where Mr. Wilson’s theater of endurance for his actors comes vividly into contact with the Abramović method – in one incarnation or another. At least that’s what I made of the highly meditative, though physically exhausting exercise Willem Dafoe put himself through in Scene B3, the disintegration loop, as he runs back and forth at an angle on the stage while counting out the rhythm of his actions, referring to himself in the third person. It was intense though uniquely imprecise in its choreography and so the fatigue of the human body shined through, the fallibility of the flesh. This seems to be an approximation of just some of what Abramović has put herself and her pupils through over the last several decades in order to achieve the incredible feats of endurance she has accomplished.
Willem Dafoe singing Willem's Song. 
Photo credit: Robert Wilson website
This brief repetitive running interlude then served as a transition into the series of scenes that set up for her death. What came next – in this my experiment in “being there,” namely, my attempt at conjuring in writing an experience I lived in the flesh – was the scene in which Marina was rolled out on her pedestal, lying recumbent on something like an elevated Roman triclinium. As she reached the center of the stage, a glorious low-lying layer of smoke seeped majestically out from either side of the proscenium. At first the layer of smoke looked like the sea flowing violently with all the force of Mother Ocean onto the stage to engulf our fearless freak of a narrator, Willem Dafoe. Then as the two sides of the fog cover collided and combined into one uniform but still dynamic undulating body of smoke, it looked like a view of the clouds from above, as though we had somehow ascended with Marina up above into some level of the heavens. The effect seemed so simple yet it was so profoundly perfect, so neat, so clean, so beautiful. It was a glorious moment of repose, despite the slightly grating off-key singing of our narrator. This is his big musical number, where he gets to sing Willem’s Song. Needless to say, he’s not a great singer, though it too does have a haunting off-kilter beauty to it. 
And then there’s the seeming non-sequitur interlude about the Wolf Rat.
The cold detachment of the surreal surface of Robert Wilson’s abstraction cracks dramatically when Antony comes out in the show’s emotional climax, and sings with such feeling: “My skin is a surface to push to extremes... But when will I turn and cut the world.” The sensation is a tingle that pierces the soles of your feet, runs through the body and up the spine leaving in its wake a trail of goose bumps on your arms and down your neck.
Sorting through the scattered fragments of a life. 
Photo credit: Robert Wilson website
The narrative thrust of the fragmentary piece, which builds in fits and starts according to the familiar Wilsonian alternation of “Scenes” and what he calls “Kneeplays,” slowly falls apart over the course of its nearly three-hour run time. Dates and facts are eventually presented out of order as Willem Dafoe’s surreal narrator figure begins to give up even trying to keep things in order by the end. Death and resurrection take over, universal biography is subsumed by the hagiographic impulse, and everything is swept away by the transcendent musical image of a volcano of snow. Antony’s angelic voice taking us into the snowy ether, as those three familiar Abramović figures hover over his head, like a trinity of transubstantiated Virgin Mary statuettes, and he sings: “I want white breath. I won’t ever rest. I’ve become a volcano of snow.”

Marina's funeral prologue (times three).
Photo credit: Park Ave. Armory

The assumption of a trinity of Marinas. 
Photo credit: Joan Marcus
It was a cold and blustery night when we were released from the show’s spell. Back out on streets of the city the gorgeous volcano of snow that had been erupting all afternoon to the tune of some six inches of accumulation had given way to a more unpleasant sleety rain that was threatening to transform prematurely all that snowy white crystal powder into big puddles of messy, wet slush. Fortunately we had the depth of vision and perfectionism of Robert Wilson’s genius to keep us warm even as we struggled to keep dry. The Life and Death of Marina Abramović, if nothing else, is a reminder of the variety of musical vernaculars available to the composer of contemporary opera: folkloristic singing, pop music, minimalist modernism. And that is a lesson that I cannot emphasize enough. Robert Wilson and his variegated team of collaborators told her story, his way.


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