by Leigh Witchel
Walter Dundervill is playfully obsessive. He views a show like a to-do list, and his performance-installations are a cascade of rags on top of fabric wrapped around cloth: equal parts Henry Darger, Halloween, and “Buy the Bag” sale at Housing Works.
Dundervill’s “Skybox,” like his “Arena,” was as much installation as performance. Pioneer Works, a converted factory in the Red Hook section of Brooklyn, is a stunning space, stripped down to its support structure of red brick and exposed beams. The show began as an exhibition. The cast was lying on the floor in the entryway as we walked past towards the performance area farther down.
The staging and preparation areas were on display: a table with layers and layers of fabric, either heavy as draperies or sheer as veils. As we found seats on three sides of the performing space, the music began with a low rumble and the dancers entered, dressed much as they had been in “Arena” in a variety of cloths, some actual clothing, some just shmattes.
The cast of 15 wildly diverse people, largely dancers, walked in slowly, somnambulistically, their gazes fixed like zombies: “Night of the Living Dress Up.” The outfits were unisex, and there was a strong element of drag: men with cherry-stung lips.
The ground rules for the movement in “Skybox” were also similar to Arena: the models would move about the space with what looked like predetermined parameters that were loosely applied; Dundervill (dressed all in black except for metallic gold sneakers) and two assistants would dress or undress them. Lying down, getting up and crawling twisted the models’ outfits and made things fall off, which was what was supposed to happen. Dundervill would occasionally pick up after the cast.
A platform lived at first on the performance floor, then was pushed around its perimeter. It was lit with fluorescent lights, and unexpectedly disgorged Mylar sheeting from the back like a rolling saran wrap dispenser. The models cleared out of its way, but also got on it to ride it.
Lying and shuffling on the floor, the models piled towards one another with two large belts of black webbing. Dundervill grabbed the belts and held them up, bracing them against the models at the other end; part puppeteer, part charioteer. But one of the slack areas of “Skybox” was loose follow-through: Dundervill handed the belts off to a model and the moment was forgotten.
A writhing mass of models at the center of the space looked like an orgy in a playbox. All throughout, Dundervill and his assistants were adding and subtracting from the models: cloth tied on their bodies with ribbons, wigs affixed loosely to their heads, black objects (bouquets and such) sometimes held and sometimes attached.
The performance was not formally divided into sections, but you found yourself making mental divisions. The cast’s movement accelerated into triplets and other simple combinations. The soundscape morphed into a a female voice hitting a sustained, looped operatic note. The stage then went dark, except for a lurid glow on the floor. As the music modulated to fuzzy rock and roll, the cast started to kick their legs high, and let their feet fall heavily to the floor.
Before the end of the performance, the theatrical tension started to sag; as the cast started to march from one side to the other, it felt as if the idea was becoming exhausted. But Dundervill always manages to include one song in his collage towards the end that sticks in your head for days after; this time it was Liza Minnelli singing “The World Goes Round.” He got involved in the performance as more than a dresser: Dundervill lay down dead center and lifted his feet up, and a model, supported by two other models; the group looking like Picasso’s saltimbanques, stood on Dundervill’s feet, and walked in midair.
The sound modulated back to a low rumble and the models slowly piled on the platform. It drifted, like the raft of The Medusa, with one person standing sentinel. We heard something like the noise of an engine trying to turn over, then silence. Dundervill walked through the space, undoing ribbons and allowing cloth to drop from the dancers. There was no clear end, except that he walked off and clapping started.
“Skybox” was a performance and an anti-performance. After seeing both this and “Arena,” it’s easy to imagine Dundervill somehow living like this, in a cramped apartment with mountains of cast offs and changing 90 times a day. With all the meticulous preparation you could tell that Dundervill went to all that trouble just for us – and yet you couldn’t help but think that had no one been there to see it he would have done it all anyway.
copyright © 2017 by Leigh Witchel
“Skybox” – Walter Dundervill
Pioneer Works, Red Hook, Brooklyn, NY
October 20, 2017
Cover: “Skybox.” Photo © Maria Baranova.
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