It’s a Mystery

by Martha Sherman

Neal Medlyn is such an odd artist – always has been. With his mix of musical gifts, movement, story-telling, visual intrusions, and personal humor, his work is often an artistic pot of “stone soup.” The ingredients come from everywhere and are often hard to follow, but somehow the dish ends up nourishing, if unnervingly personal. In his mash-up homage “I <3 PINA,” by the time the work (sort of) ended, the audience didn’t know what to do. Instead of applauding, everyone accepted an invitation to come onstage for a drink.

There was plenty of Pina Bausch to be found in the dance pastiche that Gillian Walsh created, dancing around the stage in accompaniment to Medlyn. There was more, though, of Siobhan Burke, a dance critic who focuses on downtown dance. It was one of Burke’s personal tweets about online dating and Bausch that triggered Medlyn’s meanderings in this creative process; one that had started with a promise of a Bausch-related work for a German dance festival.

A doctored video clip from ABC’s “The Bachelorette” set the scene, a maudlin romance, broken hearts between strangers: the kind of themes that resonate in Bausch’s work – and that Medlyn drew out in a long text dialogue that scrolled along the back wall, distracting and directing our attention. Starting with a Burke posting he’d seen about one of her online dating prospects, who mentioned but misspelled Bausch in his profile, Medlyn began a dialogue with Burke that was touching, personal, and odd. Courageously, Burke offered the language of her loneliness as scrolling wallpaper for this piece, as we read her describe dates with men who “have no idea about all that I know about dance,” and have “no idea what I’m talking about.”

On the experimental stage upstairs at Abrons, it’s easy – almost natural – to be more casual than theatrical. In addition to the non-stop visuals projected on the back wall, the stage had a triangle of sites, a small platform with a standing microphone, a cabaret table, and a fully stocked bar each claiming a corner of the space. Medlyn’s primary site was at the microphone; Walsh commanded the stage and sat with him for a scene at the table. Dance artist Maggie Cloud alternately staffed the bar and sat in the audience (after opening the show by rushing into the dark theater with a flashlight and rushing out again). None of it was for any obvious reason. Maybe Medlyn needed a trio onstage to credibly claim to do a work about romance and heartbreak.

Gillian Walsh in “I <3 PINA.” Photo © Ian Douglas.

With the background of Medlyn’s crooning and the scrolling texts, Walsh spent the hour wafting across the stage with her Bausch-like long silky hair and red dress, in movement most recognizable from “Café Müller.” She danced alone in long swooping diagonals across the stage, and periodically in duets with Medlyn, who wore an awkwardly formal suit – very night club, very Uptown. He wasn’t Champagne Jerry – Medlyn’s rapper performance artist persona – but a close cousin. The dance scene that drew the most titters was Walsh’s version of the Café Müller girl repeatedly jumping into her lover’s arms, only to slide down to the floor when he failed to hold on to her. This Bausch motif also ran through Medlyn’s stories, projected texts, and torch songs.

In a long final scene, Medlyn and Walsh stood center-stage, like a Lower East Side American Gothic, and together they mimed Rihanna’s “Stay,” their arms and hands rotating “round and around and around and around we go,” in parallel, dizzying circles. As the song ended, the stage went abruptly black. As the house lights came up on the silent audience (all unsure of what was next), Cloud invited us down to the stage bar for a drink. The performance never quite ended; we just moved on.

In his program note, Medlyn wrote that he felt “weird” about Bausch, about dance, about romance, and about “being a fan.” I can identify. Like many others, I’m a big Medlyn fan – but it definitely feels weird.

Copyright ©2018 by Martha Sherman

“I <3 PINA” – Neal Medlyn
American Realness 2018
Abrons Arts, New York, NY
January 16, 2018

Cover: Neal Medlyn in “I <3 PINA.” Photo © Ian Douglas.

Got something to say about this? Sound off here.