The Spectacle Of The Spectacle

Courtney Moreno and Chinchin Hsu in “Le grand spectacle de l’effort et de l’artifice” Photo by Christy Funsch
In societies where modern conditions of production prevail, all of life presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation.
Guy Debord, The Society of Spectacle

This year is no stranger to spectacle. On the national scale, the 2016 presidential race has unfolded in the vein of reality TV shows and become what National Public Radio’s chief political correspondent Mara Liasson called in a recent lecture at the JCCSF an “extraordinary, mind-boggling, unpredictable election, certainly the most unusual that I have covered in my career.” (Liasson who was NPR’s White House correspondent throughout the Clinton administration has covered the last six presidential elections.)

It is not the spectacle of this year’s election that is at stake in Bay Area choreographer Christy Funsch’s new piece, Le grand spectacle de l’effort et de l’artifice, which opens this Friday at ODC Theater. Yet the political landscape coincidentally serves as a meta backdrop, heightening some of the artistic choices of a piece which questions artifice and spectacle in performance and life. In a recent conversation, Funsch explained: “Le grand spectacle is a critique of those exaggerated ways of being in performance and of being in the world. And it is a critique of the media this past year in this US election cycle. One thing that certainly happened in the work is that there are these energetic states that are very tense and very dark and I feel they are a direct reflection of the state that I personally have been in -and I know a lot of people have been in [this past year.]”

Funsch’s piece functions at the confluence of several questionings, one of which is raised by dancer and choreographer Daniel Nagrin’s choice to create the solo Path in 1965. Often called “the Great Loner of American Dance,” Nagrin studied modern dance and went on to perform on Broadway before starting a career as a solo maker. In Path, the performer executes repetitive steps -forward, sideways and backwards- tracing a geometric diagram in space while holding a 3 by 6 by 11 feet-long board. An intensely stark piece, Path points to workmanship, and represents a departure from Nagrin’s former works, which were largely informed by his Broadway experience and tended to be more entertaining and accessible.

Funsch studied with Nagrin from 1992 to 1994 while in graduate school at Arizona State University and also mentored with him before he passed away in 2008. Nagrin never talked about the making of Path but it is likely that personal events in his life influenced the creation of the piece. “It turns out that several people were very ill in his life and he was also considering leaving New York at that time,” Funsch shared. “He didn’t end up leaving New York but he started his improvisational performing company, the Nagrin Workgroup. It was a pretty big shift [for him] to stop performing to pursue that. It was also 1965 and although he was not part of the Judson Church, he was affected in a powerful way by the experimentation and tearing down of formal structures that were going on at the time.”

Embedded in Le grand spectacle, Path acts as an intermission, a parenthesis of sort, in a dance that consists of five sections and is performed by 5 women and a man (Arletta Anderson, Christy Funsch, Chinchin Hsu, Courtney Moreno, Karla Quintero, and Nol Simonse). “Path functions as a break, as this complete departure to another way of being in the body and another way of organizing choreography,” Funsch explained. She performed Path last year at Ocean Beach in San Francisco. “Path is very simple and yet it isn’t. I’m 5 feet so the board [that the performer has to carry in the piece] is more than twice my size. In the beginning I couldn’t hold it for more than a few minutes. It is about what you are doing but it’s also and mostly about the place where it brings you mentally. That has been the richest part of it.”

For Funsch, Path also raises questions around task, ritual, and practice. “What is self practice? How does practice change as we get older? I usually like to work with pretty big contrasts in my work. The contrast came up between the task and this other way of being in the body, which is very performed and agitated.” The piece also contrasts artificial and natural ways in performance, whether is through the performers momentarily stepping out of the work and addressing the viewers, or through a score that allows the performers to precipitate a change in light and in sound, and vice versa.

Le grand spectacle also questions the performance of gender in concert dance. Funsch is the first woman to perform Nagrin’s solo. To earn the permission to perform it, she had to write a proposal and submit repeated video footages of herself rehearsing Path, over the course of 8 months, before the Daniel Nagrin Theatre, Film & Dance Foundation authorized her to perform the piece.

Funsch also mentions observing the way some of the women dancers she collaborates with are often cast in works by other choreographers: “I see Chinchin in particular in many other people’s work as a diminutive woman being thrown around a lot and being partnered in a way that I sometimes find disturbing. So we decided to flip the dynamics of that.” In the piece, shorter women carry taller ones, a woman carries the man, Funsch carries the board, reversing traditional gender paradigms and pointing to the loads that women have to carry both on and off stage.

In the making process of Le grand spectacle, Funsch also played with the dancers’ agency and with choreographic instability by having the dancers “wreck the piece from the inside, so they are exercising choice in it.” Developed in 1995, Wrecking is choreographer Susan Rethorst’s model for re-imagining dance and provides an opportunity for the perspectives and choices of other makers to work their way into the creative process. Funsch, who has participated in Wrecking as choreographer, wrecker, curator and facilitator, mentioned that she tries to cultivate a Wrecking sensibility during her creative process: “I try to locate places where there is a chance to do that. For example, last weekend, we had a few different treatments of a moment and they all worked. That was pretty exciting to take the time to be with them all. Ultimately I had to decide, but it has opened me to not settling on just one treatment for a particular event.”

As for the French title of the piece — a “joke,” Funsch points out- it speaks of the irony and the difficulty of self-producing. It also echoes the theory of French Marxist deconstructionist Guy Debord, author of The Society of The Spectacle: “Half way through [the making of Le Spectacle], I became aware of Guy Debord, who was going further than Marx and looking at social constructs as being spectacle, and at what capitalism sets up, not just in terms of economics but the social structures that arise –suburbia for example. As performers, we are in the business of artifice and effort, so there is for me this parallel of life as being a performance, and life as being completely overblown in terms of the efforts we have to give just to get through it.”

Le grand spectacle is both a reflection and a critique of the constant spectacle of this day and age –think how reality TV or social media have amplified our modes of (self) representation. It subtly points to ways of resistance, one of which might lie in the solace of practice. As Funsch states about her interpretation of Nagrin’s Path: “It’s about being stable, it speaks to the longevity of practice, and that we don’t necessarily get somewhere, or do this vertical rise with our career, but we just keep going.”