While I was seated on the second floor of the Salt Lake City Public Library, staring at paper shapes suspended from the railings of the “bridges” in the library’s main Urban Room, Joseph Ravens approached me and asked, “Do you mind if I join you? I need to just sit for a minute!”
I had just watched Ravens travel from one end of the third floor bridge to the other with a playful energy, flirtatiously peering down, his fingers dancing across the railing, with a yellow dunce cap on his head. He now sat in the chair across from me, dropping turkey feathers that had been painted black over the edge of the balcony, one by one.
“These were originally attached to my elbows but they came off. Sometimes I put them on my toes but that would have made it too hard to go up and down these stairs.”
I took notes as he continued to tell me that repetition of simple tasks, like ascending and descending staircases, is a frequent device he uses in his art, that performance art is very popular where he lives (Chicago), and that he made the piece that I’d been admiring with children’s responses in mind. He eventually asked, “Anyway, are you here for the Performance Art Festival or are you just hanging out?”
I was shocked that he’d told me so much about himself and his art, unaware that I was taking notes for this review. Such an interaction reveals several qualities of an experienced performance artist: the ability to be adaptable and responsive to the present moment (He needed a break so he took a break! His feathers malfunctioned so he repurposed them!), the confidence to interact with strangers, and the awareness that some spectators of performance art want more information about what they’re witnessing so that they can “get it.”
Is making sense of what you’re seeing always necessary? Isn’t it invigorating to stumble upon the unusual in the midst of your predictable library experience, regardless of whether or not you understand what’s going on?
I wondered this as I watched a group of University of Utah School of Dance students and alumni improvisationally dance to a soundtrack I couldn’t hear (they were wearing headphones) while a speaker intended for the audience’s ears played NPR’s “Wait Wait, Don’t Tell Me.” Seeing the smiles on the spectators’ faces as the dancers eventually took off their headphones, turned their attention to the crowd, and playfully bombarded us with countless balloons filled me with delight.
As a choreographer and performer myself, I am keenly aware of how premeditated and alienating (and sometimes pretentious) dance performances can be, leaving spectators (or myself, at least) longing for inclusion, spontaneity, and surprise. This group provided just that. My favorite part of this performance was one of the dancer’s closing remarks: “It’s never over! Take a balloon!”
Which brings me to one of the pillars of performance art: the exploration of time.
I am a sucker for durational performance pieces that you will inevitably catch less than half of, because it’s rare to have six free hours to spend watching someone rearrange piles of glass-like particles. This was Chelsea Coon’s task. By the time I saw her, she had made three large circles of glass on the floor and was sitting in the center of them, transferring handfuls of leftover glass into clear bowls. A pool of sunlight illuminated the entire scene magically. Though I was mesmerized by her concentration and the calmness of the display, I knew I needed to catch a few other pieces that were scheduled to end soon.
In a nearby room, Marilyn Arsem sat behind a table, poised like a fortune teller but helping passersby to recall their pasts instead of intuiting their futures. My love affair with all things nostalgia couldn’t resist her invitation to calculate how many days I’ve been alive (11,684 in case you’re curious) and then trying to recall the events of one of those days, which was selected blindly by pointing to a date in “101 Years: A Calendar Book.” I was very surprised that, with a series of calculated questions, Arsem was able to help me recover some very forgettable details of a Tuesday during my senior year of high school. I departed just as a child, born in 2013, exclaimed, “I’m old!” after being told his age in days (there was a collective cringe and then giggle from the adults in the room) and once again I found myself entranced by Coon, who had begun placing a fifth circle of glass around herself, just as focused and meditative as before.
Other performances I saw, too many to describe each in detail, included asexual alien creatures performing reproductive dances, women dressed as men reciting poetry in soothing voices, and a woman taping blank sheets of loose leaf paper onto a wall as a reflection on dyslexia. To supplement this piece, I encourage you to visit the Festival’s lineup while it’s still available and to find the websites of all participating artists. The Festival’s founder and curator, Kristina Lenzi, has her finger on the pulse of some exciting artists and, as this is an annual event, I look forward to seeing what she puts together next year.
Alexandra Barbier is a dance artist and performance-maker. She is a modern dance MFA candidate at the University of Utah and has taught courses on creative process, queer performance art, and dance in culture.