American Realness Festival and the Boundaries of Subversion

By: Elisa Davis

What does it mean to be subversive in the dance world today? For the past few weeks, the New York City dance scene has been embroiled in an impassioned debate on this very question, triggered by this year’s American Realness Festival that took place at the Abrons Art Center from January 9-19. The controversies surrounding this fringe and obscure gathering stirred a discussion with unexpectedly wide participation that challenged the extent to which experiments with form are subverting power structures within performances and in the dance community at-large.

American Realness is a renegade festival of sorts:, a “stronghold of forward-thinking, category-defying performance” is how the website describes it, and to be sure, it aspires to be a counter-platform to APAP (Association of Performing Arts Presenters)– a global performing arts conference that takes place in New York City at the same time. The festival’s curator, Ben Pryor, has stated that he created American Realness to exhibit some of his favorite performance artists whose work he thought was relevant, but would not normally be shown to (or accepted by) mainstream presenters and audiences.

Now in its fifth year the festival is much more well-known among the downtown crowds who are loyal followers of the experimental scene, and perhaps in part as an explicit statement against the politics of APAP that tend to exclude fringe artists and take advantage of dancers’ schedules. For example, choreographers have to pay for the opportunity to show work, most don’t end up getting work from this conference, and companies that get the most attention from presenters are those who get attention already.  Moreover, dancers have grueling schedules and get paid very little. Essentially, this makes a supposed platform for visibility a system of reification of those already visible.

Proof of the significance of American Realness in the New York City dance scene, it was reviewed by New York Times critic Alastair Macaulay: notoriously dismissive of the more radically experimental works of the new generation. Macaulay described the performances he attended as “silly and inconsequential.” He went on to comment that despite the festival’s claim to feature cutting-edge and interdisciplinary works,

[M]uch of it is twee, stale, labored and amateurish, with various kinds of anodyne music as accompaniment. Those hoping to find the subversive and the challenging are instead confronted with the slack, the coy, the mimsy. To greet this stuff as interestingly experimental is to clap your hands because you believe in fairies. (Read the review in its entirety here.)

Rather than challenging the closed circuit of acceptable (accessible?) aesthetics, American Realness showcases self-referential work for its own small community, thereby reiterating the frustrating politics of the mainstream dance world. As a result, Macaulay argues, “rather than enlarging the world of New York performance, it shrinks it.”

Unsurprisingly, a wave of backlash from furious dancers, choreographers and performance enthusiasts was unleashed against Macaulay through various social media outlets. What happened next is most fascinating. Andy Horowitz, a writer for the performance blog, wrote a lengthy post entitled “Defending Alastair, Questioning Realness” whereby he redirected the anger against Macaulay and validated his critique of the “clique-ishness and self-satisfaction of ‘downtown’ dance/performance, particularly as embodied by American Realness.” (read the full text here.)

Horowitz argued that there was legitimacy to the argument that American Realness lacked the self-criticality that it perhaps considered absent from APAP in terms of the intended audience of these works. He argued that the festival promotes a performance culture “aggressively insular and proudly uninterested in the public at large, or really anyone other than themselves.” He pointed to the irony of the delight in small audiences, obscure style, and self-indulgent subject matter. In other words, American Realness merely reasserts the same values that it claims to counteract.

Although I did not attend American Realness this year, I have seen the works of several of the artists presented and have been to similar counter-culture festivals. I have seen how festivals that advertise themselves as subversive and challenging can end up being self-referential, exclusionary, self-referential, and trite. While promoting the “real” they can manage to make many feel alienated from the subject matter of the work. After all, how much more responsible can American Realness claim to be when it doesn’t pay artists properly or advertise outside the community for the sake of maintaining its marginal(ized) status?

The controversy, which clogged my Facebook feed for days, was a fascinating microcosm of the politics of presentation and participation that plague the dance world today. Bloggers, journalists, dancers, and choreographers all contributed to this virtual dialogue about the economics of presenting work and the reiteration of exclusionary systems in general. It emerged that American Realness does not give choreographers a performance fee but rather only pays them a small cut of the box office.

Another aspect of the dialogue was a slew of comments about a controversial incident involving performance artist Ann Liv Young. While watching American Realness newcomer, Rebecca Patek, present a work about rape and sexual assault, Young reportedly startled both audience and performers when she stood up in the middle of the performance and began screaming out her discontent about the work. She briefly left the room, only to return with a bullhorn and continued her tirade, leaving the young performers on stage in tears. The fact that the festival staff allowed this fiasco to unfold as it did, Horowitz argues, suggests that they have as little concern or respect for their performers as do the dreaded APAP presenters.

What is funny about this event is that the affective interaction with the audience that Ann Liv Young “performed” is just one of the ways in which these new “radical” forms of performance seeks to set themselves apart from the mainstream. The bullhorn controversy, and the American Realness Festival as a whole, calls into question whether challenging the norms and conventions of artistic form truly has no boundaries.

In a recent article in the Dance Research Journal, Alexandra Kolb argues that immersive theater has in fact a long seated history and may not be as radical a force as some contemporary performers would wish. In its modern reincarnation, however, this trend is clearly forcing our understanding of what it means to be subversive and rebellious.  After all, it is hard to imagine anything more disrespectful than sabotaging a fellow artist’s work. But in a work designed to challenge the limits of participation and produce an affective community, what defines what is acceptable? If a performance is a call for action, is there a wrong way to respond to this call? And more broadly, is there a ‘right way’ to have a subversive dance festival?

One thought on “American Realness Festival and the Boundaries of Subversion

  1. Thanks for writing this Elisa. I think the continued discussion is useful. I don’t think there is a right way to have a subversive dance festival but I think there is a wrong way. The wrong way would be to think that subversion or provocation are goals in and of themselves. For instance, it is subversive to take away the rights of someone to speak openly in a public forum without violating the law. But why would that be desirable. The “Sherryvention” does not make me think about what constitutes performance. But it does allow me to see something I already know. Interrupting a performance in order to silence an artist is oppression. Yes, it’s provocative, but I don’t think that provocation is in the service of anything valuable and its cost is high. It provokes by silencing another artist.

    On a political level, I would say that advocating for gay marriage is provocative and subversive (more so ten years ago than now) but it is in the interest of equality not in the interest of simply provoking.

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