Performa 13: So Much to “Like” in Ryan McNamara’s Ballet About the Internet

Artist Ryan McNamara’s performance for Performa 13, “MEƎM: A Story Ballet About the Internet,” is a surprising and fun take on the much-trafficked art material of the online world. We had no idea what to expect or how the subject could be treated by choreography. But his intention to explore “our sense of what we do when we copy, steal, appropriate, create, repeat, plagiarize, mine, or tweet,” as touted in the program notes, was deftly met.

McNamara is a pro at blending dance with pop culture and historical references, and for audience engagement. For a work at MoMA PS1, “Make Ryan a Dancer,” he took five months of dance lessons in public. His 2010 in-boutique performance at Louis Vuitton’s flagship store on 57th Street, had men in white shirts, bow ties, and “LV” aprons dancing in the window and throughout the space with McNamara’s pop-culture-inflected moves, which involved, among other things, McNamara making out with a handbag.

“MEƎM” opened with a seemingly traditional dance performance on the Connelly Theater’s stage, which was interrupted when a team of people carting dollies began scooping up audience members, in their chairs, and wheeling them off to different locations around the theater. As the audience seating arrangement was broken up and moved around, the performance became fractured into 10 or so performances that were dispersed across not only the stage, but also the space where the audience would have been, as well as several side rooms, and the balcony. The audience was newly configured around each makeshift stage — one demarcated by bright Klieg lights, and another by strips of LED lights laid along the floor to create a catwalk where two dancers were already dancing. On the actual stage, three spaces had been carved out as well, each with its own dance happening. Our delight, which began with this sudden turn of events, never quite died down. Every five to 10 minutes, the audience members were each picked up again and carted off to another dance.

It was a move that could have easily fallen into the realm of a gimmick had it not so entirely transformed the experience. Not only did our view constantly get refreshed, but each time you were deposited in a new spot, you wondered what you would see, you noticed new people sitting around you, sometimes you’d strike up a conversation with one, and if you got bored, you only had to turn your head slightly to check out another dance.

The dances varied from stage to stage. In one, a young man in a yellow top and floral tights danced by himself, as if he were alone in his room, to emo music while at times looking playfully or seductively at one or another audience member. In another, a woman in a grey dress did a solemn and intense solo with a chair until she departed only to be replaced by another female dancer. In a side-room, a young man danced erratically to seventies music while two back-up dancers — in tight dresses printed with images of Cleopatra — flicked on a mini strobe light before joining in with a comically lethargic side-step.

It wasn’t necessarily a group of polished performances, but then again, it was “a ballet about the internet,” and like that portal, this too was governed by a loose, DIY, self-involved, sometimes boring, often-entertaining, hodge-podge-like aesthetic. Even the music, which was clear in each of the dance areas — and shifted dramatically from techno to easy-listening — bled into the other music from the different performances, engulfing the larger space in white noise.

It’s a testament to McNamara’s piece that none of the dances particularly seared itself into memory above the others, though what remained until long after the dance ended was the pleasing buzz of its improvisatory nature, the excitement of change, the physical enjoyment of being engaged in the performance, and the desire for it not to end.

— Rozalia Jovanovic (@Ruschka)

(Photo courtesy Job Piston)