TBA12: Multiple Cecchetti takes for multiple Cecchettis

Both Patrick Collier and Graham W. Bell consider Alex Cecchetti's serial performance art

Alex Cecchetti performs his “Summer is Not the Prize of Winter”/Photo: Chelsea Petrakis

Editor’s note: Alex Cecchetti’s “Summer is Not the Prize of Winter,” with its relay of five performers re-enacting  a “seed” performance by Cecchetti, begged for multiple interpretations. So, we asked Patrick Collier and Graham W. Bell to pile on…

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By Patrick Collier

Near the beginning of Arnold J. Kemp’s second rendition of Alex Cecchetti’s experiment in serial performance, “Summer is Not the Prize of Winter,” Kemp walks around the room and greets each person in the audience by saying, “Thank you for coming. You really didn’t have to.” He sometimes shook a person’s hand, others received a hug as well, and to a few he added additional remarks.

Kemp was the third person to perform this piece. Cecchetti did it twice at the beginning of TBA, Lisa Radon went second, then Kemp, followed by David Knowles and Sara Jaffe.  Wholly unscripted, each performer was charged simply to “see it then do it,” and perform the piece on two consecutive days. As one might readily imagine, Cecchetti’s design had a built-in flaw—two performances were unlikely to be identical. As it turned out, even Cecchetti’s two presentations contained variations.

I heard about Cecchetti’s own performances from Radon, and this little bit of knowledge about what came before, produced some doubt in my mind regarding the sincerity of Kemp’s greetings: Was he just adhering to the “script?” A less generous way to think about such things, for I know Kemp to be a congenial fellow, but so goes the critical mind. The next evening, David Knowles left a good portion of the greeting out of his presentation. No hands were shaken, no person singled out and acknowledged; at least that’s how I remember it. Perhaps he was nervous? Shy? A considered omission?

So, there you have it: second hand information and flawed recall shall not prevent me from speculation. Instead, a more phenomenologically based analysis might better serve an understanding of Cecchetti’s overall intent for the piece.

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The constants, insofar as there were any, related to and relied on the props each performer brought to, and left after his or her own version. Dishware, rocks, pencils, feathers, chalk and fruit acted as visual cues for recitation or improvisation of vignettes that each new performer had watched in the previous performances. Whether these sections were to be strung together toward a larger theme was hard to tell. Some of what was said seemed nonsensical, as if concepts from earlier stagings had been lost or altered beyond recognition, while at other times the presentation was wonderfully metaphorical.

Still, I found myself wanting a consistency between the performances, making it more a feat than a demonstration built on touchstones shared and related, but from which then one must necessarily diverge. I had to let some of my criteria go if I were to find a deeper meaning, and perhaps come closer to what Cecchetti had in mind when he created this piece.

Kemp spoke like a teacher as well as a seasoned performer, repeating himself or coming at a concept from a variety of directions. Knowles was more the student. And had I seen only Kemp or Knowles perform, I would walk away with nothing of this more subtle context of transference and transition. That said, although I saw but a fraction of the series, I sensed that the degree to which each performer reflected on or grasped Cecchetti’s intent influenced the audience’s engagement.

Knowles’ second performance no doubt benefited from his own reflections about his first, as I’m sure holds true for the other performers. And I suppose had this audience member seen all ten performances, a more substantial meditation on the performance might be possible, including a greater insight into each performer. Yet, as performer or audience member, can we mourn what we didn’t know had existed in previous performances? After all, even though the similarities might be few and far between, who can say that Cecchetti’s first performance offered more of the sublime than Sara Jaffe’s finale?

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Objects of ‘Summer is Not the Prize of Winter’/Wayne Bund

We might instead return to the props and consider how all of us relate to objects in the world (including art, of course). Beyond the simplistic notion of the multiplicity of subjectivities that impose themselves on objects, factors such as competencies and preferences are self-limiting. We intellectually and emotionally consist of surpluses and deficiencies, privileges and prejudices, and any certainties and constants beyond the object itself, it must be admitted, remain elusive. Call it the “human element,” yet in that an object — or an idea — has our attention, it is still a process of appreciation, if only a gleaning.

Before there was writing, knowledge was passed by gestures, images and speech. Of course, one assumes that forms of communication evolved from individual grunts to single words that were then strung together as the need for complexity arose. Eventually, words were carefully arranged for even more complex thoughts, and along with these complexities came a need to establish a correspondingly intricate/precise method for transference. Thus, rituals, and similarly, rhymes for relaying these ideas were born. It is only when homo sapiens had a need and found a way to further codify through writing did we emerge from the prehistoric (which, we might keep in mind, did not happen all that long ago). Mind you, I could be wrong in the sequencing, for which I would then refer you back to the aforementioned afflicting lack of certitude (and thereby suggest another history lesson in regards to the phrase “gospel truth”).

I am getting myself into deep water here, not merely to suggest we ascribe our own meanings to things and events, but built upon potential inaccuracies, these often amount to nothing more than belief systems. Then, for better or worse, these observations become stories told time and again, each time with something new added, something seemingly unnecessary left out or simply forgotten; yet, from each telling some residue collects and settles (substance).

Then we take further liberties: We anthropomorphize and make connections that are based on sometimes loose associations, all to drive home what we think the point/lesson is. Hence, the title for Cecchetti’s performance: we do not endure one trying season for the graces of another, yet we cannot resist personalizing, and by that I mean giving a consciousness (perhaps a conscience as well), and therefore greater meaning and purpose to the changes in weather.

We do this because we desire and hope for the same assurances in life that we get from the Earth in its orbit. It is as old as Noah.

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Arnold Kemp performs ‘Summer is Not the Prize of Winter’/ Photo: Chelsea Petrakis

By Graham W. Bell

Arnold Kemp turns away from the chalkboard, laughing: “Who the hell can tell this story?” Then turning back to the board, raising his chalk, he stops and shakes his head, chuckling again: “Who the hell can tell this story?”

It is a difficult for a writer to explain or describe Alex Cecchetti’s “Summer is Not the Prize of Winter” without becoming a performer, too. Each echo of the original performance by Cecchetti is changed slightly, is received differently, becomes as much about the person lecturing as it does the original script or score.

In each iteration, the performance changes yet adheres to the first set of movements, motions and object/narrative relationships set forth originally by the artist. A story unfolds in parts that may seem to be highly scripted or off-the-cuff. Breaks in the action afford the audience a time to start sussing out the situation, but then they’re back in the thick of it. Instead of the traditional audience/stage/performer relationship, an almost Brechtian realization of the space is at play.

You are aware of the stage because you are on the stage. But instead of a singular moment of connection, constant movement of the audience and storyteller make one continually aware of and engaged with the performance. There is no time to sit in one place and think about how your legs are going to sleep. Instead everyone migrates here and there, closer and farther, as the performer instructs and soliloquizes.

 

Sara Jaffe’s take/ PICA Press Corps

 

Entering the room, the performer places a box of objects on the ground. Then he or she  personally greets each member of the audience. This initial connection is important. Drawing each person in and making an actual physical connection to them helps to initiate a mode of thought. One may think, “Here, they’ve taken the time to thank me for attending, the least I can do is give my full attention.” Following this, a series of actions and dialogues are carried out, each tangentially leading to the other. If one performance is witnessed, various associations are formed and an initial understanding is possible. It is only with a second (or third or fourth) viewing (even of the same performer) that you are made aware of discrepancies. Slight ripples in the narrative, mistakes, accidents, additions, subtractions: these all point to the time-based aspect of this piece. Cecchetti is not out to make a repeatable act. He wants each performer to consider the story, to act on the objects and directions, and to convey the performance through their own person to the gathered audience.

In the Visual Arts Salon, Cecchetti kept coming back to the idea of responsibility. It goes both ways. Asked about the audience interacting when they are not asked to, he brought up a portion of the piece where the performer lies down and talks about death. The artist explained that he had things to explain to the audience and their responsibility was to listen to these things and not be on the floor with him, pretending to be dead (because you can’t listen when you’re dead).

Asked what happens when someone changes an object (or if that is even allowed), he explained that things can change as long as the performers understands that they have a responsibility to tell the story in a way that makes sense to them. If they interpret it in one way and tell it as such (even if it is not in the way originally meant by the artist), they are being true to the score. Instead of memorizing exactly how to complete the piece, each actor/performer uses the objects as, in Cecchetti’s words, “elements of memory.” They are visual aids as much as they are the string tied around your finger to remind you to buy apples.

The objects are markers in time (“stop projecting yourself into the future!”). Without the story, they mean nothing. You can tell someone what happens, what the story is, but there needs to be the performative aspect to make each piece active. Going back to the room and looking at the things strewn about is a very different experience for someone who has seen the piece and someone who has read about it or has no idea. There is a moment in the performance (assuming you go after a couple have taken place) when you suddenly realize what all of the other objects represent. They are like chapter markers within a text. They establish a lineage that only makes sense when you see that lineage being added to.

“This is for later,” the performers say as they place a cup or saucer full of water on the floor, slightly spilling. You put it out of your mind, assuming it will be brought up again. It is not. Only upon further investigation of the space, after the story is over or on another iteration of the performance, do you realize that that ‘later’ is when you finally bring to bear the realization of what that cup of water represents. The ‘later’ is outside the performance, outside of the narrative, in your real life timeline, yet very much a part of the story.

The idea of a ‘relay performance’ is a novel one at first, but makes a lot of sense now that the piece has run its course. Each night’s acting was only a piece of the whole. One night alone is powerful, but not the complete work. The handing off of the responsibility from Cecchetti to Lisa Radon, Arnold Kemp, David Knowles and Sara Jaffe each time is an intangible but integral part of the puzzle. And the interstitial time between these handoffs and between the performances is integral, too. It is for reflection, for understanding, for connecting, for realizing.

There are apples, arrows, water dishes, people, imaginary lemons, rabbits, death, berries and rocks. Those are responsibilities.

NOTES

Remnants of Alex Cecchetti’s ‘Summer is Not the Prize of Winter’ are still on view at Washington High School through Saturday, September 29.

More information here.

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