Today we look back and celebrate the work of Maria Hassabi who has presented two pieces with Performa. On the occasion of her MoMA commission PLASTIC, we uncover her pieces Solo & Solo Show (2009), Premiere (2013) from the Performa Archives.
PREMIERE is a Performa Premiere(2013) Co-presented with The Kitchen.
by Nikki Columbus
It was after curtain time. The lobby of The Kitchen was packed, but the house remained shut. At last, the double doors opened to choreographer Maria Hassabi’s Premiere (2013), and the crowd was faced with a striking tableau: a line of five dancers, staring back at the audience. Arranged in the center of the black-box space and illuminated by walls of bright lights to the left and the right, the performers—Hassabi, Biba Bell, Hristoula Harakas, Robert Steijn and Andros Zins-Browne—stood, sat or reclined, remaining motionless as theatergoers walked around them, through the brilliant heat, to the bleachers along the opposite side.
When the viewers were seated, the sole element of stage design became apparent: The footprints of audience members, tracking their routes from the entrance, stood out starkly on the bare dark door and framed the dancers in a circle. After a long, still silence, the group of performers started to shift and turn; their movements were minute, precise and excruciatingly protracted, occasionally punctuated by the squeak of a rubber sole. Nearly ninety minutes later, the dancers had rotated only 180o; in this literal about-face, they confronted the audience from the same positions in which they had begun—in a sense, ending the performance with an encore.
Premiere belongs to a series of works by Hassabi that emphasize arresting images and sculptural poses. If these words seem to come more from the realm of the plastic arts than from dance, that’s no accident. Born in Cyprus, Hassabi studied at CalArts in the early- 1990s, and she frequently collaborates with visual artists, such as Scott Lyall, her longtime dramaturge. Today, she is among a handful of choreographers who perform as often in galleries as in theaters. Yet Hassabi remains dedicated to the theatrical dispositif. She expresses this commitment, however, by challenging the limits of what is needed to create theater: What is the minimum required to fill a space, make a show, hold an audience?
Hassabi’s brand of minimalism is very different from that famously practiced by Judson Dance Theater in the 1960s, in particular, choreographer Steve Paxton. In his Satisfyin’ Lover (1967), forty people simply walk across the performance space; in State (1968), they just stand still. Critic Jill Johnston famously described these works as celebrating “the any old bodies of our any old lives.”1 But while Hassabi’s Premiere foregrounds the performers’ bodies, showing how stillness is disrupted by every breath and quiver, there is nothing “ordinary everyday” about it.2 The piece is highly theatrical in appearance, from the dramatic lighting to the dancers’ denim clothes (styled by threeASFOUR); each movement is carefully choreographed and technically demanding.
Explicitly avoiding the adjective slow, Hassabi has said that her choreography is “about paring things down” and bringing “precision and clarity to each action.”3 It is a technique that she has been developing over the past five years—initially on her own, then steadily expanding to duets and, subsequently, to ensemble pieces. In Solo (2009), a Persian carpet serves as Hassabi’s only prop and partner; a companion piece, SoloShow (2009)— first presented at Performa 09— was danced by Harakas in a few early performances. Two years later, Hassabi and Harakas performed together in SHOW, an augmentation in cast that is echoed in the enlargement of the performance area: The choreographer removed the seating, eliminating the distance between the audience and the performers, who move among them. This device is inverted in Intermission (2013), created for the joint Cyprus-Lithuania pavilion at that year’s Venice Biennale; in the original “live installation,” three dancers gradually rolled down the risers in a gymnasium, again sharing the same space as spectators—exhibition visitors who came in and out over the course of the day.
Although Hassabi had previously reimagined pieces for presentation outside the performance space—both in museums and out of doors—Intermission was her first work designed for gallery viewing: performed on a loop for the entirety of exhibition hours, neither timed nor ticketed. Its title makes clear, however, that the theater was never far from her mind. And indeed, after this “break,” the choreographer returned to her chosen forum with Premiere.
At a moment when the visual arts and performance are struggling to incorporate the latest digital technologies and make allowances for viewers’ increasingly dispersed attention, Premiere strips everything away and asks audiences to sit and focus—a concentrated stillness that parallels that of the performers. While this can be a challenge, it is also a luxury: a pause, when we have time to observe and absorb every movement.
1 Jill Johnston, “Paxton’s People,” Village Voice, April 4, 1968; reprinted in Jill Johnston, Marmalade Me (New York: Dutton, 1971), 135—37. 2 Ibid. 3 Maria Hassabi, quoted in Lauren Grace Bakst, “Scott Lyall and Maria Hassabi,” BOMB Daily, February 11, 2014: http://bombmagazine.org/article/1000022/scott-lyall-and-maria-hassabi.