BY BRIAN MCCORMICK | In a packed house at St. Mark's Church on January 19, a large, cropped portrait of an ear in extreme close-up hung above the altar, a striking signifier of things to come in Richard Siegal's “As if Stranger,” presented by Danspace Project.
Siegal and his company, the Bakery, are based in Paris and Frankfurt, but he was born in the US and has danced with Elkins, Zvi, and Janis Brenner before joining the Frankfurt Ballet in 1997, where he performed until its end in 2004.
The dancer/choreographer and his collaborators – composer Amaury Groc, dramaturge Christine Peters, lighting designer Antoine Seigneur-Guerrini, and video artist Philip BuÃƒmann – created a remarkable work that seems to keenly understand and appreciate the dialectic and dissonance between European and American thought.
Richard Siegal gets technical in more ways than one.
With the audience seated on the altar and along the adjacent wall along Second Avenue, the space was dressed on opposing sides with black tarp hanging from balcony to floor. Three large TV screens faced the audience, two of them playing the image of a pulsing pink light, an indicator from an audio board housed within the wire medusa that made up the set.
Siegal's design, hard to discern in the initial darkness, evoked the cyberpunk movie “Johnny Mnemonic,” a gigantic bundle of black cables pouring over the railing of the upper level down into the sanctuary, a monstrous electronic umbilical cord terminating in scattered decks and monitors, with two major arteries, each snaking through a distressed motorcycle helmet lettered with RIP Daft Punk.
A close-up of his hand. His own distorted voice. A recording of a woman speaking with the circuitous semantic logic of a French philosopher. Like Forsythe, Siegal forces a close inspection of the distinction between live and mediated, even while integrating them, compelling the audience to focus into a tiny box away from the live source, creating a new, hybrid observation.
A Zen-like call and response of yellow candle lights at opposing ends of the space's diagonal accompanied by loud static pulses illuminated the illustrious French cellist, Eric-Maria Couturier, sitting in quiet meditation.
Then, Siegal, dressed in dark green khakis, black hat and hoodie, and dance socks, slithered out into the space from the gorge of cables, pop-locking on his belly like a hip-hop slug, a broken break dancer traveling low across the floor. He folded and unfolded his limbs, taking on the appearance of a double-jointed crab.
A large video projection of Siegal's distorted face accompanied more self-reflexive text. The cartoonish inflated head of the artist was both funny and true, given the context of the supercilious, circular logic. Siegal was now upright. The movement, mostly in place, was a manic mash of gestural spasm, quick pulses of energy that spark outward, and momentary stops signifying presentation, as of an object or idea, with recognizable hand motions.
Vertical text scrolled up and down the short wall, accompanied again by the female voice, streaming universalistic maxims in various permutations. Using a distorting microphone, Siegal sang conceptual artist statements, such as “Irrational thought should be followed to its rational conclusion,” and other intellectual BS, all which arguably contribute to “the fluctuations of human identity” the artist is exploring.
Strains of Brian Eno emerged. Video images evoked the seminal work of Vito Acconci or Bruce Nauman, as when Siegal created the illusion of his ear speaking, synching an extreme close-up of his fingers squeezing his lobe and outer ear together, with narration. This pre-recorded image was projected onto Siegal's naked torso, which he revealed to a TV screen lying face down at the terminus of one of the wire batches.
Later, like another dream or moment of clarity, Couturier took a place centrally, and played his electronified cello in a brief conversation with the dancer.
Finally, on the long wall, a montage of performance-based video clips intermingled, swirling rhythmically, eventually streaming right to left with accumulating speed, as Siegal danced against the current until he was overcome, driven under and behind the curtain by the incessant flow.
More aphorisms, accompanied by verbatim text scrolling in red on an electronic ticker, eventually blurred and rose up into nothingness.
Vertical text returned, streaming upwards, but was touched away with a soft burst of red from behind the tarp by Siegal, only the hint of the edges of his figure registering on the surface, like a fingerprint's luminescence made visible by laser light.