Walking to work this morning, I saw a woman in front of me wearing one of those pairs of pants with something written across the derriere: PINK. Now, her pants were mustard and the lettering fanned across her fanny was green, so the question naturally arose: to what is the PINK referring, besides the fact that it’s not written in pink? Was the designer of these colorblind culottes taking a cue from Magritte’s The Treachery Of Images (La trahison des images), that classic Surrealist painting of a pipe with the legend, “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” (This is not a pipe)? It would seem that the pranks of 20th-century avant-garde movments have trickled down to casual streetwear...
That's a somewhat forced preamble for my report on The Wooster Group's take on Dada poems, anecdotes and documentary texts, cheekily titled Who's Your Dada?! I caught it last Saturday night in MoMA's Agnes Gund Garden Lobby (a lovelier name for an ad-hoc theater you'll never see). The actors, including the always transfixing and surprising Kate Valk, Ari Fliakos and Scott Shepherd, were seated behind a long table, a la the Group's 1983 work L.S.D. (...Just the High Points...). A small camera mounted on wheels rolled back and forth along the downstage lip of the table, "documenting" the event. Behind the audience, facing the actors, were two large video screens which cued the actors and supplemented/contradicted their movements in video that appeared to be pre-taped and re-mixed. On the table were piled books, a video monitor (showing footage of an actor who apparently bailed on the project) and name plates of Dada's founding fathers: Ball, Huesenbeck, Tzara and others. There were four older male performers (including the sainted Alvin Epstein) who were, I suppose, the spirits of Old Dead White Guy Art Stars. Who's Your Dada?! had only been rehearsed for about three weeks (an anomaly for a company that routinely constructs its highly layered productions over months and years), but it was still a tight, engaging hour of cultural riffing...informative, even. Control was an issue that came to mind. Was the Group being deliberately perverse by re-contextualizing Dada texts in its particular system? Sure, the actors were interrupting each other, performing simultaneously, reciting texts fed to them through earpieces and generally creating a weird collage of sound and fact that had the veneer of Dadaistic zaniness, but there was never any doubt that director Elizabeth LeCompte had scored it with utmost care. She even jumped onstage at one point to remind Shepherd and Fliakos about a segment they have skipped over. Dada performance, as far I can tell, is all about spontaneity and chaos, or at least creating a system in which chaos is privileged over craft or seemly structure. It's certainly about introducing an element of shock and even vertiginous nauseau into the arena of art. But here is LeCompte & Company, taming the madmen (yes, mostly men) of Dada with an attitude of mixed affection and amused disdain.
That, as any Wooster watcher knows, is the standard attitude they adopt toward the sources they scramble (Stein, Chekhov, O'Neill and, soon, Shakespeare). Of course, the event could be read as the Group's response to the whole curatorial impulse behind exhibitions such as MoMA's Dada. At any rate, it was refreshing to see the Group pay homage to the original deconstructionists. High point: Epstein's hilarious "recitation" of a poem that consisted entirely of loud barked gibberish, and the climactic dance, inspired by African tribesmen. It was a neat example of demonstration, explanation and critique.
A last thought: My immediate reaction to the Group's cultural appropriations and mock-recreations is a misplaced sense of protectiveness for the original creators. I felt this knee-jerk indignance most keenly at the work-in-progress of Poor Theater. In one section of the show, an excerpt from Jerzy Grotowski's Acropolis was playing on video, and Ari Fliakos was imitating the particularly grotesque and stenuous singing/moaning/screaming of a performer. Part of me thought: Grotowski and his insanely dedicated actors worked for months to achieve these effects, and you just run the video and re-create it, movement for movement, sound for sound. Fuck you! They sweat their nuts off, and you just postmodernly appropriate it. That feeling faded, of course, when I realized that this was homage as much as taking the piss out of a theater icon. With Dada, of course, the violent appropriation and collaging of source texts is not only fitting, it is aesthetically unavoidable. Ultimately, we owe The Wooster Group thanks for making Dada—at least for one night—ultra-fashionable once more.