Review: The Reduction

August 31, 2015

by Alexandra Oliver

Whatever else The Reduction is, or might be, or might be about, it is not reductive. Quite the opposite. Although the performance begins quietly enough with the artist alone on stage, the first few minutes are a feint, a few breaths of calm before a long stretch of uninhibited, celebratory maximalism. This piece has everything: dance, video projection, live and recorded music, poetry (in the form of a voiceover), crafted objects, found objects, machines, audience participation, and three photographers who do not stand by discreetly but roam about the stage, following their moving subjects in pursuit of the right shot. Time and space become so densely packed it’s hard to know where to look.

All of which is typical of David Bernabo, who created The Reduction for New Hazlett Theater’s 2015 CSA series. A talented musician, visual artist, choreography, dancer and filmmaker, Bernabo has long pursued “thick” multi-media experiences. This is no accident: Bernabo has expressed his admiration for Merce Cunningham and John Cage, both notorious anti-purists, and has referenced the Judson Dance Theatre in his sculptural work and interviews. In his first solo show, at Pittsburgh’s Modern Formations in August 2007, Bernabo decorated the walls with paintings and nails joined by lines of string. Calling this a “score,” he and the violinist Ben Harris “played” it for a live audience. With The Reduction, Bernabo continues his engagement with this avant-garde legacy, which is actually less a dialogue and more a form of friendly banter.

The Reduction is divided into three acts. As I noted, it begins quietly. In Act I, as the audience enters the theatre and settles into their seats, Bernabo is already standing on stage, supporting a long wood plank on his shoulder. He has 20 minutes to wait in this posture until the theater’s Executive Director launches into a welcome speech. The lights dim. Then, slowly and gingerly, Bernabo begins to walk about the stage, carrying the plank. As he walks his body parts appear to expand and contract, each moving independently of the others, until his hips and torso threaten to detach and go their separate ways. In this bit and later, when performing a sequence of gestures that mime practical tasks, Bernabo is equally mechanical and graceful—a mesmerizing mix.

In the second act Bernabo is joined by three dancers (JoAnna Dehler, Ru Emmons-Apt and Lauryn Petrick) and shortly after by three photographers (Heather Mull, Mario Ashkar, and Stephanie Tsong). They are all outstanding; Emmons-Apt danced with a leg brace, which impacted her performance not at all. In one of the most terrifying segments their bodies became rigid and began vibrating, as if possessed or violently ill. The Reduction is not without a curious darkness, which was enhanced by a hollow shrieking sound, periodically produced by an apparatus of brass mouthpieces and tubes that musician Darin Gray amplified through his upright bass.

Each of the acts is intercut with another formal welcome speech, variations on the one given by the Executive Director before the show. In the final act the dancers build a barrier of props at the front of the stage, and Bernabo addressed the audience directly, explaining that we had just been reorganized into a new society with a new social hierarchy based on our seating location—which of course, was as arbitrary as the social circumstances of our birth. The audience chuckled, suggesting that if Bernabo had intended this as a Verfremdungseffekt, it had missed its target, sailing over the audience’s heads

In a printed artist statement Bernabo indicated that these self-conscious conceits were designed to explore the relationship between reality and simulation. In an email to me, he elaborated:

What I’m hoping to achieve would be the audience’s awareness of the different ways reality can be perceived. When the audience enters the theater, I will be on stage. Is my presence onstage part of the performance’s environment or is part of the theater’s day-to-day operation? … I’m hoping that the piece can use some of the tools of a theater and performance to question what systems are real, what are simulations.

In framing his work this way Bernabo situates it in a larger artistic field occupied by artists as diverse as Hito Steyerl, Cindy Sherman, Omar Fast, Duane Hanson and the people behind the Museum of Jurassic Technology. In that past 15 or so years, this growing field has largely been theorized as a response to the advent of mediation in our (affluent, Western, urban lives), as typified by virtual currency, Second Life, reality TV, drones and Twitter bots crashing the Dow Jones. How can anyone tell what’s real anymore? One answer, by far the most radical, was proposed by French post-structural philosopher Jean Baudrillard. On his view, there is no reality, only a simulacrum. “The simulacrum is never that which conceals the truths—it is the truth which conceals that there is none. The simulacrum is true.”

To understand The Reduction in these terms seems plausible enough. For example, consider the photographers. Are they actors, or photographers, or both?  Clearly they are acting as photographers but also, in some non-trivial sense, are also acting as photographers. They follow the dancers with their cameras, matching their location and pace, becoming photographers as “virtual” performers—the shadow of the reality they hope to capture. In the process of “performing” their role, they also create photographs, a second version of the performance, which is “virtual” in a different sense, since it is a trace of a past event that has yet to be experienced as a trace. In recounting how he became involved in this production, Ashkar, an experienced photographer, joked, “To play a cameraman as a cameraman was a great opportunity. I’ve been practicing a long time for this.” Photographer Heather Mull added, “Really, I have no idea what just happened.”

I would add to this, though, a distinction between how this idea is expressed at the level of content and the technique. Where Bernabo focuses overly on the content, the technique seems less successful: in one segment Bernabo grasps a shrouded object, and holds it out in front of him, gradually pulling back the white cloth dramatically to reveal a mask of his own face. Better are moments of raw technical experimention. One of my favorite moments came in Act I, where Bernabo is throwing a ball against the wall; as it bounces back he catches it and repeats. Finally he misses one catch but just then, another ball comes flying towards him in the same direction, thrown by someone off stage. The sudden appearance of the second ball was totally unexpected; it had a hint of slapstick, an echo of countless gags in which normally inert objects suddenly display an unexpected agency. In the context of the overall work, this feels so fresh because it both catches us off guard and still fits tightly into the rhythm of the scene. I was less concerned about whether the gesture of bouncing a ball on stage exists as a real gesture (it does) or a simulation (it also does), than in the artful way a second ball jolted my expectations and pull me—if only momentarily—into a new register of attention. Indeed, I would argue that this is what characterizes Beranbo’s work at its best.

Consider, once more, the photographers. Following the dancers’ movements and are isolated from the surrounding reality of the performance by their viewfinders, the photographers become intensely absorbed in what they see. On one level this dramatizes spectacle of the dance, since it intensifies our awareness that the dancers’ bodies are on display. At the same time, it also intensifies the spectacle of the photographers themselves, who by virtue of their narrow fields of attention are unaware of the audience’s gaze—and that much more vulnerable to it. Much of the intensity of the piece derives from the amplification of visuality achieved through the photographers’ presence, and long stretches of improvised dance would probably be much diminished without them.

In a way, Bernabo’s interest in the relationship between reality and simulation, however, sincere, may be less important to the final work than a good intuition about audience attention. When it comes to changing how we see and how we feel when we see, there is no possible simulation.