For the Carrack Modern Art, it's a great way to fill the gallery in a fallow holiday week. But for dance artists Tommy Noonan, Murielle Elizéon and Anja Müller, it's a cross-continental reunion.
Noonan and Elizéon, who direct the arts organization Culture Mill in Saxapahaw, developed What Doesn't Work while they were living in Berlin in 2013 and '14, around the same time Müller, who performed in the piece, also debuted her La Mula. Both pieces were responses to the insular bustle of the Berlin performance scene. Both performances are part of Durham Independent Dance Artists' second season and grow out of Müller's current residency at Culture Mill.
Recast in Durham at a moment when consumerist hipsterism threatens to price out cultural producers, the pieces take on new political layers. Though Durham is much smaller than Berlin, Noonan sees some similarities. There's more going on in the arts than one can keep track of, and the population is increasingly transient, dispersed and diverse. That's exciting, but it can erode the substance, leaving only the flash behind.
"People love visiting Berlin, especially artists or hipsters or those who fashion themselves lovers of culture and creativity," Noonan says. "It's a bit of a wonderland because it's so oversaturated with stuff. It's a great place to be fed with ideas. But a lot of my friends there were starting to ask 'What is this really about? Who am I making work for?' Everyone's competing for funding and attention, but for what, really?"
That self-examination led to the creation of What Doesn't Work, a playfully subversive rejoinder to the highly conceptual Berlin performance scene. Physically rigorous improvisation is presented with bare staging and no soundtrack, forcing the audience to meet the performers as living, breathing bodies in real time—and to recognize themselves as such, too.
Although Müller joined them in the original version of the piece, Noonan and Elizéon will stage it as a duo at the Carrack. They hope the audience will relate to their work in the same way that they bring their own memories and emotions to a piece of music, instead of looking for coded meaning, like in a text.
While What Doesn't Work seems to reject an analytical Berlin scene, Müller's La Mula exaggerates and parodies it. The garish one-woman show crosses music with performance art to critique the commodification of cultural expressions, all with a hip-hop inflection.
"As an artist in Berlin, you are really underpaid, but everyone's still going to very fancy, hip restaurants, wearing great clothes, moving in glamorous circles. Really, in Berlin, artists are more like workers, but they still keep this shininess up," she says—sentences in which "Berlin" could easily be swapped with "Durham."
Müller describes her La Mula persona—sweaty and scowling in a black T-shirt, ball cap and masses of gold necklaces—as a version of herself that is free to embody a contradictory attraction and repulsion. She revels in the thumping beat from two large speakers onstage while recognizing that the fantasy has been manufactured and sold to her.
"I wanted to create an alter ego, someone who comes from the streets, not so reflective in what she's saying, bolder," Müller says. "She's daring in terms of putting all her desires on the stage and not being afraid of failing in front of the audience. She really wants to entertain and bring people together in that moment."
Müller's movement ranges from dancing to gestural acting, occasionally approaching visceral body art. As choreography, it draws on cinematic and advertising traditions at least as much as dance.
"I'm eating gold and I'm puking it out," she says, "and the way I'm puking it out is choreographed."
Ultimately, Müller hopes that the work will prompt viewers to examine their relationship to "this entertainment industry that's a desire machinery." In one sequence, La Mula sings that she'd like to be a golden hoofprint on the ceiling of people's minds. It's a tangled, impossible wish that her persona's relative freedom allows, and Müller appreciates La Mula for that.
"I'm too controlled sometimes," she says. "I have to work hard to be not that controlled in that character. Maybe La Mula is my movements and thoughts that I stop before they come out of my mouth. For me, it's liberating. I hope that the audience will think so, too."
This article appeared in print with the headline "First they take Berlin, then they take Durham"