“Titles are always appropriate and … usually very important. …They become a metaphor, part of the image of the piece,” claimed Robert Whitman, referring to his 1966 performance Prune Flat.1
Maria Hassabi’s STAGING and STAGED? are a diptych. The basic definition of “staged” is planned, organized, or arranged in advance, and “staging”—among many definitions—refers to the act, process, or manner of presenting a play or performance. “Staging” is an active, non-finite verb form, and “staged” is a passive, finite form. Hassabi’s “live installation” STAGING was created for a gallery context, while her performance work STAGED? was conceived for theaters.
Witnesses to STAGED?, first presented at The Kitchen in New York in the winter of 2016 (at that time it had not yet acquired its question mark), enter into a theater space where four dancers are already in position, entangled in a tense, colorful pile on a vividly pink carpet. A gridded light structure, exaggeratedly bright, is on. As audience members take seats surrounding the dancers, the performance begins. The piece indeed appears staged, with precision. Every detail has been carefully considered. Yet the question mark of the title seems to express doubt or uncertainty about something. It becomes a haunting presence.
Comparatively, the viewer of STAGING at the Walker Art Center encounters a series of solo performances throughout the gallery spaces of the Merce Cunningham: Common Time exhibition and in the Cargill Lounge, a public in-between space, where the same bright-pink carpet from STAGED? becomes a site for a choreographed quartet segment that over the course of four hours completes itself only to begin again. It starts with a solo, continues with a duo and a trio, eventually forming a quartet, but then falls apart every time the quartet comes together, restarting from the solo. The action seems endless. Continuously in progress.
STAGED? has evolved since its premiere in New York. The addition of the question mark calls into question the very life of the piece, perhaps undermining the idea of something planned and organized in advance. It acknowledges the subversive power of unchoreographed moments—moments that might not be controlled, that go beyond choreography. Just as John Cage understood silence, Hassabi understands uncontrolled moments, and makes them the backbone of much of her work.
The titles of Hassabi’s previous works also boldly address theater and art conventions, for instance her diptych SOLO and SoloShow (both 2009), SHOW (2011), Intermission (2013), PREMIERE (2013), and PLASTIC (2015–2016). But her practice is less invested in deconstructing the theatrical apparatus than in destabilizing it and peering into its constitutive elements—time, space, audience, performers—through her own lens, as well as considering how to stage the performing body across disciplinary spaces.
Arguably, one of the most inspiring sources of transformation in dance performance since the 1960s, particularly in the past twenty years, has been the field of visual arts. Yet as fruitful as the expansion and relocation of dance to museums and galleries has been, it hasn’t happened without certain tensions. Whereas dance performances are traditionally presented on a “stage,” at a given time, for a fixed duration, in front of a seated audience, exhibitions are mounted in spaces that are accessible during regular gallery or museum hours, over several weeks or months, and allow visitors to move about and come and go freely. Hassabi is one of the rare choreographers who moves with ease between the two modes, not only embracing their contradictions and conventions, but game to mobilize, shift, and extend those tensions.
She has developed a distinct movement language punctuated by stillness and what she calls the “velocity of deceleration.” In the aforementioned works, including STAGING, the performers sustain movement over such a lengthy span of time that we have the impression of facing stillness. But, as she says, “It’s never still.” As we confront each moment of the unfolding of the movement, our own experience of looking evolves. It becomes intense and challenging, but also more perceptive. Breath, tears, twitching, and trembling become visible. This demanding choreographic pursuit emphasizes the radical corporeality of the body and complicates a series of binaries—still versus moving, animate versus inanimate, dance versus sculpture, theater versus gallery.
When she was working on Intermission—set in a former sport hall that housed the Cypriot and Lithuanian Pavilion as part of the 55th Venice Biennale—the artist coined the term “live installation” to indicate a work shown in an exhibition context whose duration depends on the institution’s opening hours. Thus, STAGING is not Hassabi’s first “live installation,” and not the first to be presented in a museum space. For PLASTIC, Hassabi and her performers infiltrated a few different museums—the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, the Stedelijk in Amsterdam, and the Museum of Modern Art in New York—moving at a barely perceptible pace in interstitial spaces such as staircases. With this work the artist shaped her choreography in terms of the practices and protocols of an exhibition as opposed to following the conventions of theater. There is no stage, no set, no frontality, no beginning nor end, and the public can move freely around the dancers.
STAGING was created in response to institutional exhibition structures similar to PLASTIC and Intermission, whereas STAGED?, its counterpoint, challenged the hierarchies of the theatrical apparatus. The presentation at the Walker expanded and deconstructed the elements of the theater piece both spatially—the dancers perform simultaneously in different galleries—and compositionally—by organizing the material in a series of loops. The loop is a core structural element of Hassabi’s “live installations.” The artist notes that “stillness [in STAGING] is held much longer than in my theater works … because we need to sustain the ‘loop.’”2
Specifically, in STAGING four performers enact individual loops in gallery spaces while the quartet performs elsewhere on the pink carpet. The bodies of the performers are curled or extended, heads twisted, arms or legs in air, creating a solo or an amorphous sculptural mass in sustained motion, caught between seemingly passive poses and active resistance. While in previous pieces the dancers appeared distinct, in STAGING: quartet the bodies meet and press against one another. Their movements suggest fragility and uncertainty, yet the imagistic quality of Hassabi’s choreographic material manifests a three-dimensional sculptural physicality.
In Hassabi’s theater pieces, including STAGED?, audience members are pushed to confront their own kinaesthetic and attentive limits and become more aware of the act of looking; they are invited to slow down and notice moments of the choreography they might otherwise miss. The slow pace also exposes their own “choreography,” from distraction and disengagement to intense engagement (often involving social media).3
Like Intermission, STAGING operates within other exhibition projects, such as the Walker’s Merce Cunningham: Common Time and documenta 14 in Kassel. Thus STAGING is an itinerant “live installation,” not necessarily responsive to the surrounding exhibitions and even less an homage (for instance, to Cunningham). STAGING exists independently. What Thomas J. Lax noted in his reading of PLASTIC can be extended to STAGING, specifically that the work “sits uncannily between multiple mediums—photography, sculpture, the digital loop—as it circulates charged and associative images inspired by the world.”4
In the process of developing STAGED? and STAGING, Hassabi explored the various possibilities of that shift. Consider for instance the powerful theatrical lighting grid from STAGED?, which is turned vertically on the gallery walls in STAGING as a two-part installation entitled Lighting Wall #1 and Lighting Wall #2. Situated at the entrances of two different galleries in the Cunningham exhibition, physically removed from the dancers, the shifting lights reflect the spatial and temporal configurations of the choreography performed by the dancers. “The long fades of the lighting design reflect the temporality of my dances: long, slow fades with long-hold darkness and brightness treated the same way,” Hassabi explains.5 Lighting is a recurring element in her practice. PREMIERE, consisting of two walls of floor-to-ceiling theater lights, actually creates such an overabundance of light that it obstructs vision; in STAGING, the artist reverses this: the theater lights evoke the presence of the dancers, even in their absence, and emphasize the work’s continuous and never-ending process.
To return to the quote that opened this essay, in Whitman’s Prune Flat he is exploring the relation between flat projected images and three-dimensionality, or between reality and the representation of it. He juxtaposes the live actions of the performers with filmed sequences of the performers in the same costumes. Whitman’s “poor” props and stage settings are brought to high illusionary effect while never concealing their true nature; they present the inversions of an outside reality and celebrate the ephemeral and the eccentric. Whitman also said: “I conceive of each piece as one image, and by the end of the piece the image is revealed through exposure of its different aspects.” Hassabi’s practice deals with the relation of body to images, of the production of images itself. Her performers extend two-dimensional images into three-dimensional space.
If a title can become a metaphor, part of the image of the piece, then STAGING and STAGED? are indeed meaningful titles.
1 Quoted in Susan Rosenberg, Trisha Brown: Choreography as Visual Art (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2017), 19.
2 Quoted Claire Bishop, “Death Becomes Her: Maria Hassabi at the Museum,” Parkett, June 2016.
3 For more on this subject see ibid.
4 Thomas J. Lax, “Maria Hassabi: Glances,” in the brochure “Maria Hassabi: Plastic” (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2016)
5 Email exchange with the artist.