Performa 13: Shana Lutker Restages Dada’s Last Stand

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“You can pick your nose, and you can pick our friends, but you can’t pick your friend’s nose,” Shana Lutker (pictured) said while introducing her Performa 13 commission “The Nose, The Cane, The Broken Left Arm” at its premiere Tuesday night at Theatre 80, signing off before the lecture-cum-play began. “And you can blow your nose, and you can blow your friends…” continued the performance’s narrator, artist Joey Frank, trailing off as the action began. The 70-minute performance art piece — with film and live piano by Denise Fillion and Julia Den-Boer — is a kind of irreverent art historical re-enactment, a dramatization of sorts of “The Night of the Bearded Heart,” the July 6, 1923 Dada cabaret at Paris’s Théatre Michel that, following violent disruptions by André Breton and Edouard Vuillard, would go down in art history as the night that Dada died.

In addition to honing in, however humorously, on the evening that marked the beginnings of  a paradigm shift within the European avant-garde from Dada toward Surrealism — and Tristan Tzara losing ground to Breton as a leader of the Paris modernists — the performance also features a surprising amount of historical detail, from the Man Ray and Hans Richter short films that were screened at the actual 1923 event, to excerpts from the original musical program of Igor Stravinsky, Erik Satie, and others. This is partly due to the fact that Lutker has been researching this less-than-amicable torch-passing moment in modern art history, and the performance was adapted from an essay she published earlier this year on the subject. But its copious use of original scrips and texts doesn’t bind Lutker’s commission to rote recapitulation. Rather, she and her performers take up their subjects’ playful attitudes toward performance all the while offering a kind of parody of an art history crash course.

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The piece features three actors — Adrian Jevicki, Jennifer Kraus, and Maarouf Naboulsi — re-enacting the events of that fateful evening with, we have to imagine, some level of historical accuracy. They sport matching outfits of black and white stripes and solid reds, and tote props fashioned from cardboard, as well as a giant nose costume. (Props to prop master Emily Kohl-Mattingly.) Frank spends much of the performance at a podium, or pacing the stage, reciting a text that seems to be largely based on Lutker’s essay, narrating the absurd re-performance unfolding behind him while embarking on more than a few tangents. We learn about Vuillard’s incredibly high regard for Pablo Picasso‘s “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” — “It is the most important event of the 20th century” — which prompted him to storm the stage in 1923 when the Spanish painter was disparaged by a Dadaist. There are also some leaps forward in time: To a mock trial of Breton over the attack, from which he emerged victorious; to his lecture at the Sorbonne years later, by which time Tzara had regained the upper hand.

As an art history lecture borrowing heavily from the stage stylings of the movements it covers, “The Nose, The Cane, The Broken Left Arm” is a lot of fun. As a stage production it is charmingly amateurish, with the actors wheeling rolling scaffolding across the stage and unfurling curtains and screens between scenes as Frank narrates. Its unpolished and playful presentation, whether intentional or not, seems perfectly in keeping with its subject matter. The only thing that seemed lacking, finally, was some explanation of why this particular night in 1923 was worthy of dramatization right now — aside from the fact that, with Surrealism being one of Performa 13’s main themes, it fits the biennial’s bill perfectly. One can only hope that the Dada-Surralist showdown’s timeliness — which was also the subject of her show earlier this year at Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects — is covered in Lutker’s essay, “The Bearded Gas and the Blowing Nose.”

The second and final performance of Shana Lutker’s “The Nose, The Cane, The Broken Left Arm” takes place at Theater 80 on Wednesday night at 8:30pm.

— Benjamin Sutton (@bhsutton)

(Photos: © Paula Court, courtesy of Performa.)