Cally Spooner: And You Were Wonderful, On Stage
Performa 13, New York City, 1 - 24 November 2013
Performances 8 - 10 November
Review by Binghao Wong
When we think of Broadway musicals, hyperbolically theatrical, wildly optimistic performers come to mind. Whether leaping and bouncing across the stage, or singing and acting, Broadway performers always seem to possess an inordinate amount of pep and conviviality. Choruses play second fiddle to these leading actors, and are usually marginalised on stage. Nobody wants to be in the chorus line if they aspire to stardom.
Cally Spooner’s ‘And You Were Wonderful, On Stage’ inverts this performative hierarchy by foregrounding the usually overshadowed group. There is no lead actor in this performance, and thus no individualised psychology, character development or sympathy of any sort for her chorus. Instead, the group of expert singers share and fracture the lead role. Dressed in shapeless grey tunics and matching trousers and heels, the women are also unable to express themselves sartorially, blending into an amorphous, impersonal mass reminiscent of Nietzsche’s dithyrambic chorus. With deadpan faces, Spooner’s all-female chorus delivers their lines with sarcasm and wit, hardly ever breaking out in emotion. The women’s stoicism borders on boredom, refusing the clown-like smiles customary to Broadway performers, thus failing to mimic their unbridled enthusiasm.
Failure can prove to be a site for productivity, and Spooner’s chorus uses their mechanical attempt at Broadway performance to highlight recent events in pop culture that have failed in live delivery and authenticity. From Beyoncé lip-synching the National Anthem at President Obama’s inauguration to Justin Bieber’s appalling tardiness for his concerts, the chorus rehashes and comments on embarrassing public misfortunes with steely, blasé dispositions, often inciting laughter within the audience. Contrary to choruses in Greek theatre, as in Aeschylus’ ‘Prometheus Bound’ where the chorus laments and soothes Prometheus’ suffering at the hands of Zeus, Spooner’s chorus does not sympathise with its subjects. Instead, with robotic gesticulations and sonorous, enigmatic humming, the women curtly usher audience members along the aisles of the National Academy Museum, transiting from one movement to another like ephemeral spectres.
Yet, the often comedic public shaming of celebrities is also indicative of tragedies of contemporary life. Corporate correspondence, cyber relationships, and other digital phenomena have begun to bureaucratise and professionalise our lives, reducing once intimate social relations to a faceless existence of online typography and dematerialised bodies. Spooner’s deliberate decision to choreograph her chorus as lifeless and nonchalant reflects this chasm between intention and authenticity, while simultaneously exposing the failure of performance as a medium capable of preserving its spontaneity.
Ironically, no matter how much it rehearses and practises, the chorus can never perfectly replicate its deliveries. Especially in a large group (of 18 performers), harmonies, oration and choreography are susceptible to slippages in synchronicity. In the coda, Spooner’s chorus repeatedly chants bureaucratic phrases of finality in an act of desperation. As with other performances in this edition of Performa (see Noé Soulier and Maria Hassabi), Spooner addresses the frustration at performance’s inability to manifest and concretise immaterial ideas and movements. Yet this lacuna is an open space, allowing for the formation of new ways of thinking about and expanding performance as a medium through such means as including marginalised performing arts, disembodied dance, and absurdist theatre.