WARPED THEATRE: "It's a nontraditional presentation of facts or emotion," says Herb Stratford.
"It's a type of experimental theatre," says Jeff Falk.
Annie Lopez gets right to the point. Performance art, she says, is "warped theatre."
Warped, experimental or nontraditional, performance art is making a resurgence around town these days. Stratford's Cabaret Magritte is finishing up its first full season of every-other-month performances this Saturday night, with Phoenix artists Falk and Lopez imported for the occasion.
In its relatively short life, Cabaret Magritte has delivered the angst-ridden monologues of classic performance art and witty, urbane sketches. It's provided dancing from tango to belly (dancer-choreographer Annie Bunker, Stratford says, had hoped to swing from her trademark trapeze through the Bowler Room, but it never worked out). Poetry has been recited, torch songs have been sung, and musicians representing just about every taste have played. It's iffy and it's different every time, but its regular schedule and venue have brought it about the closest performance art can come to an institution.
Dennis Williams stands at the other end of the spectrum. Tucson's elder statesman of performance protest art, Williams still operates in back alleys, in front of government buildings and, during the last year, in the homeless encampment at the base of A Mountain. He uses his haunting poetry and his weird art installations--like a grass-seed-and-mud man on a bike--to decry the assaults of a money-mad culture on our basic humanity.
Another longtime Tucson performance artist, Ned Schaper, has been performing as Mat Bevel, his nom de shock. Garbed in his own clinky, kinesthetic sculptures, and intoning surreal poetry of his own devising, Schaper administers art attacks to his audiences. And in the last year, art grad student Gregory Sale has been bringing in performance artists to work the UA's Joseph Gross Gallery. Bunker and her Orts Theatre of Dance have danced close to performance art in some of their multimedia concerts, particularly at the Valley of the Moon; and last weekend Bunker delivered her own stirring poetry along with movement in her solo performance Interiors.
So what's going on? Why performance art and why now?
The short answer, at least for what's happening in Tucson, is that artist Joyan Saunders arrived a few years back at the UA Art Department and started up the New Genre program. Her students study video, installation and performance art. Stratford, a student in the program, points out that his Cabaret grew out of an end-of-semester performance given by one of Saunders' classes. Many of the performers he's recruited are also Saunders alumni.
But performance art is going strong around the country, even if, as Lopez says, the audiences who flock to see it are a "subculture in the art world." Lopez and Falk, a husband and wife team, regularly perform in Phoenix, offering up weirdly humorous sketches like "Pain," in which Falk plays a masked man in a polyester sport coat and Lopez manifests as the Virgin of Guadalupe. Falk just got back from the Cleveland Performance Art Festival, a national roundup of performers. It ran the gamut, he says, from a "woman dragging a dress that weighed 50 pounds and kissing names of her lovers on telephone poles to the usual angst-filled, let's-wear-black" pieces.
A lot of performance artists--including Falk, Lopez, Stratford, Williams and Schaper--come out of other art forms, especially the visual arts. In a way, performance art is just another way for them to break old art boundaries and mix their media. Interestingly, as the scholarly Falk points out, the first performance art was developed early in the century by "anti-art" visual artists such as Marcel Duchamps.
"It has its roots in Dadaism. The Dadaists did absurd plays, had gatherings in cafés. When people asked them, 'Why are you acting crazy?' they would say, 'The world is insane.'
"In the '60s there were protest marches with people wearing gas masks and death heads. That was political performance art.
"Now people are motivated by the renaissance of storytelling. On the Internet there are wells of storytelling. We have a salon revival. It's happening as a response to mainstream mechanization."
Falk makes a good point about the mainstream. Nowadays, a smaller and smaller number of megacorporations increasingly control the culture outlets--movie studios, television networks, publishing companies and newspapers. In a world of mass culture and mechanized laughtracks, performance art celebrates the eccentric, the individual, the uncontrollable.
"The performance artist," as Falk puts it, "is the director, the writer and the performer."
Cabaret Magritte begins at 9 p.m., Saturday, May 27, at the DPC Café, 546 N. Stone Ave. Performers include Annie Lopez and Jeff Falk, Sarah Allen, Amanda Ralph, Leslie Epperson and Black Ploughmen. Admission is $2. For more information call 628-1650..
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