Way out East

A dose of American Realness amid the NYC festival season

Caden Manson/Big Art Group's world premiere Broke House riffs on Chekhov.

THEATER The shows have been as varied and changeable as the weather this January in New York City, where the annual conference of the Association of Performing Arts Presenters (APAP) acts as catalyst for, by now, no less than four new-work festivals in the realms of theater, dance, and contemporary performance.

Near the beginning of the month, it got cold enough at night to make your nose hairs chime like little Christmas tree bells. "Every time you sneeze," a friend explained to me, "a whole shitload of angels get their wings."

This cheerful seasonal exchange took place in the Lower East Side during a frigid tromp to American Realness, a three-year-old festival offering a vital focus on contemporary dance and performance. Spread across three stages at the Abrons Art Center, American Realness is the brainchild of Ben Pryor, the festival's 29-year-old curator and producing director, and once again features an eye-catching list of leading and emerging artists.

Indeed, 2012's 11-day program (Jan. 5-15) is really pulling out the stops. Performances I've seen thus far have run a wide gamut, in every way, but have consistently attracted capacity houses to American Realness's intriguing blend of the known, infamous, and brand new.

In addition to full-blown productions, the festival has added a new free series this year, "Show and Tell," offering an opportunity to hear artists discuss their work or to glimpse work-in-progress. One recent afternoon was given over to a three-way discussion among songwriter and performance-maker Holcombe Waller, Cynthia Hopkins (at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts recently with The Success of Failure (Or, the Failure of Success)), and Miguel Gutierrez (last seen locally in July at the Garage with his solo, Heavens What Have I Done) about contemporary song-based performance. The Bay Area's Keith Hennessy was on hand a couple of days earlier to discuss his collaborative project, Turbulence: A Dance About the Economy, which just had a two-night showing in December at CounterPulse. (Hennessy also premiered Almost, a "spontaneous performance action," during the last week of the festival.)

American Realness opened with an evening lineup that included other San Francisco favorites, namely Laura Arrington Dance and New York–based Big Art Group. Arrington offered the New York premiere of Hot Wings (a piece born of her 2010 CounterPulse residency) to a sold-out house in the Abrons Art Center's 100-seat Experimental Theater; while Caden Manson/Big Art Group debuted Broke House, a purposefully chaotic, multimedia camp meltdown loosely based on Chekhov's Three Sisters, which sprawled across the proscenium stage in the 300-seat Playhouse Theater. The 99-seat Underground Theater, meanwhile, a cozy, brutalist semi-circle carved into the concrete basement, saw a U.S. premiere from Eleanor Bauer and Heather Lang (The Heather Lang Show by Eleanor Bauer and Vice Versa).

Those three initial shows together sounded an eclectic key that has been sustained throughout. The cold weather not so much. A few days later it was unseasonably warm. People tried to act concerned about it. Surely this was another sign of impending climactic collapse. But it was just too nice to care very hard about why it might be wrong.

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