Whitney Museum of American Art
New York, NY
March 29–April 8, 2012
Performance reviewed: April 7
Michael Clark's Who's Zoo?, a lively 40-minute production that consistently entertained, temporarily occupied the fourth floor of the Whitney Museum as part of the 2012 Whitney Biennial. While it exemplified the spirit of collaboration that no doubt was a curatorial imperative, the larger issue was its prominence at the Biennial. What is the role of concert dance performance in this context, and was it the best use of so much space in a show whose core mission is to sample contemporary visual art?
Clark's bold and geometric choreography for his company of seven dancers evoked by turns Cunningham, voguing, and back-up singers’ rhythms and postures. The music, by Darren Spooner and Wayne Marsden, included five taped and live rock songs, whose edges were softened in the lofty museum setting. Charles Atlas' lighting and video schemes were projected onto the vast wall—a blue line morphed into a falling curtain, white rhomboids shape-shifted, and text scrolled at increasing speeds. The costumes (by Stevie Stewart and Clark, known for his brazen fashion sense) included sleek black or sunset-ombre unitards, and a series of jail-striped separates, plus Clark in grungy gym wear. The final elements were dozens of NYU Tisch students and non-professional dancers who formed a corps, as much 3D texture as movement support.
Thus there was much to compete with the dance, and halfway through, the corps sat down in a line directly in front of the audience seated on the floor, largely blocking our view for a spell. If it meant to simulate a chaotic public gathering, it succeeded. However, Clark's movement was strong enough to command attention, even in the cavernous space. Particularly striking were a lithe Harry Alexander, carving elegant, soaring grand jetés; Kate Coyne, a very strong, very feminine presence; and Julie Cunningham, missed from Merce Cunningham's send-off tour last year, but here demonstrating that troupe's signature polish. Rather than fight the pace dictated by the rock-song format, Clark accordingly shifted the dynamic of each dance section. The big space necessitated a lot of running on and off, but also freed up the dancers to let loose in unfettered leaps. And deploying the corps in platoons helped break up space and rhythm.
Clark's glossy, fast-changing punk variety show balanced out the narrow conceptual and technical dogma of Sarah Michelson, the other choreographer featured earlier in the Biennial. But the question remains: Why should serious dance, in contrast with more conceptual performance art, be given so much real estate in what is essentially a visual art showcase, when it has the chance to be regularly shown in dance venues throughout New York? Whatever the reason, dance's inclusion has raised the volume of discourse on the subject.
All photos: Michael Clark's Who's Zoo? © Paula Court, courtesy Whitney Museum
Dancer pictured at top: Oxana Panchenko