Oscar Wilde once said something. What exactly, I can’t remember, but it would have made a perfect epigraph for this review.
The classical didactic tool, perfect quotation via rote memorization—whether a poetic aphorism, a dated painting or the quadratic equation—has been in large part called into question by the promise of the internet as world brain. Why memorize anything when you can simply Google it later? And yet, as with most utopian projections, at the moment, the blueprint proves more stirring than its execution. I am left sans exact quotation, so allow me to paraphrase.
Oscar Wilde once said something like, "People don’t go to the theatre to see a play. They go to see each other." Spotting Work of Art’s @JerrySaltz (not to mention his new-to-Twitter partner-in-crime, and other critics about town) as we waited to take our seats for Ryan McNamara’s MEƎM: A STORY BALLET ABOUT THE INTERNET, I may have been thinking about this Wilde-ism before even sitting down. Waiting in a humble antechamber filled with dynamically dressed New Yorkers (when did long chains over buttoned-up dress shirts become a thing for men?), I was filled with that uncanny sense of imperfect recognition. I was reminded what a small town even the New York art world is. I knew I was looking at someone, but I wasn’t quite sure whom.
Several minutes later, the performance well under way, an admirable young woman in a maroon sweatshirt and grey sweatpants was carting me, still seated in my assigned seat, up a ramp and onto the stage of the Connelly Theater, whereupon a trio of three svelte young men in black tanks and royal blue spandex leggings were decorously gyrating, I most certainly was thinking Wilde thoughts.
McNamara’s ballet promised to be "about the internet," but what, pray tell, about it? How about society of spectacle, party of…everybody? Presenting an overwhelming amount of dance simultaneously, across an immense space, MEEM emulated the Internet’s hyper-saturation of pleasure-principled content, but also the mechanisms through which users must make themselves visible in order to gaze upon this content. In addition to a diverse troupe of highly qualified dancers evoking the moves of a grab bag of sources from Janet Jackson to Mark Morris, McNamara’s cast calls for fifteen "People Movers." They progressively move the audience from their point of origin, in highly traditional theatrical rows facing the proscenium arch and stage, to various points around the venue, including the stage itself, dicing the theater into a series of smaller venues and vignettes. This central conceit creates an intimate, extremely uplifting twelve-ring dance circus of styles and narratives that is as much about watching the dancers as one’s fellow audience members. Did someone say #artselfie-surveillance? No matter how captivating McNamara’s dancers are (they are! they are!) the audience cannot help but become incorporated into the show’s many vistas.
Some of McNamara’s sources were more obvious than others. Indeed, recognition of them as citations at all certainly depends on one’s connoisseurship of modern dance, or possibly more precisely, YouTube. The two serious women in grey and black, emoting all the way to the hem of their full skirts, were dead ringers for Martha Graham (but then again, is Martha Graham always so funny?). As for the rest, your guess is probably better than mine. Dare I say, Balanchine?
This question of quotation, exact source, original origin brings us back to Wilde (not to mention postmodernism) and as such highlights what may be MEEM’s primary point of inquiry: What’s the difference, and the distance, between quotation and paraphrase? The internet, MEEM suggests, makes an empire of deferred meaning and lost origins. Twitter, Instagram, YouTube clips that digitize analog tapes that, once upon a time, indexed human agency. In an act of optimism and levity, MEEM grooves to the logic of the search engine. Instead of projecting the computer screen onto the stage as I expected, it bathes its audience in the auratic glow of live action and the pleasure of human bodies in motion. Its style is one of recurrence, without repetition. There is throughout MEEM a sense of familiarity, that comfort of having seen it before, without the traumatic shock of exact replica, the monotony of exact quotation and endless repetition.
This may account for why I felt it could go on forever, but also was sad to see it end. The project highlights its distance from postmodernism’s anxieties over the empty simulacra by making itself about rather than of the internet, and keeping the digital at the door. For though the internet may allow us to conjure up and live exact recorded quotations over and over on loop, MEEM forswears this life, opting for the sweaty attempts of human flesh. For although the contemporary capitalist world may largely be a mass-produced place, and the internet its newest conduit for the commodification and distribution of desire, lived experience generally fails to quote itself, exactly. Life, like MEEM, is largely an act of paraphrase, not quotation.
Grant Johnson is a 2013 Performa Magazine writer in residence.
Photos: Ryan McNamara, MEƎM: A STORY BALLET ABOUT THE INTERNET, A Performa Commission, 2013. Photos by Paula Court.