Violating the No Manifesto: ‘Grimm,’ ‘Sherlock Holmes,’ ‘PositionMax Beta’

David Giuntoli and Russell Hornsby star in NBC’s “Grimm”/NBC

Yvonne Rainer was in town for a lecture at Pacific Northwest College of Art last Thursday, and she managed to change the way I looked at art all weekend. Such is the power of an interesting idea.

Way back in the 1960s, Rainer was part of the Judson Dance Theater, an informal group of choreographers who conducted far-reaching experiments into the nature of performance, specifically dance. Trisha Brown, Lucinda Childs, Steve Paxton, David Gordon, Meredith Monk, Deborah Hay and many others created dance/performance pieces that challenged just about all the existing performance conventions.

During that time, Rainer issued her famous “No Manifesto,” a radical reduction of the trappings around dance and an assertion of the “neutrality” or “objectivity” of the performer. Here it is:

No to spectacle.
No to virtuosity.
No to transformations and magic and make-believe.
No to the glamour and transcendency of the star image.
No to the heroic.
No to the anti-heroic.
No to trash imagery.
No to involvement of performer or spectator,
No to style.
No to camp.
No to seduction of spectator by the wiles of the performer.
No to eccentricity.
No to moving or being moved.

What was left? Dancing pure and simple — and an audience whose independence and intelligence were honored, without tricks or tickles or sugar-coating. And that’s what Rainer tried to make. I don’t think she was trying to make the case that ALL art should be this way, just that some of it should, and the part she made at the very least.

So, that was on my mind as I encountered the world of art and entertainment this weekend.

“Grimm,” NBC: There’s absolutely no chance that I would be watching this new NBC show and its supernatural doings if it weren’t set and filmed in Portland. But it is, and I’ve been tuning in via On Demand and Hulu (because its time slot is Friday night). I love the familiar Portland locations (a bed and breakfast in my neighborhood just figured prominently) and the idea that the city is teeming with various weird creatures who’ve take human form. I just KNEW you guys weren’t normal!

I also like seeing Portland actors popping up. In the most recent episode, I suddenly exclaimed to no one in particular, “Hey, that’s Tim True!” And then a few minutes later, “Isn’t that Casey McFeron?” Yes, I think it was. I love when a network TV show pumps some much-needed cash into the local acting community.

Not that True and McFeron got to do very much real acting. No one on “Grimm” does, not even the star, David Giuntoli. (My wife saw him standing right outside her window at work, which was exciting, because, you know, he’s VERY cute.) Mostly he acts amazed and perplexed by the strange characters he encounters, such as Hexenbiests and Blutbads, and then has to overcome his fear and/or revulsion and muster the courage to keep them from harming humanity. Hey, piece of cake for screen heroes in training.

“Grimm” violates several of Rainer’s principles. In fact, maybe it’s not going too far to say that it operates on the opposite end of the spectrum, where spectacle, stage wiles, make-believe, heroic posturing and camp are what the entire enterprise is about. I’m not saying that’s bad. Sometimes a little escape, a little make-believe, is a good thing. But, let’s face it: “Grimm” isn’t likely to change your weather in any significant way, reorganize your priorities, lead you to a catharsis of any sort. But then, you knew that (even if you ARE a Hexenbiest in disguise).

“Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Christmas Carol,” Artists Repertory Theatre: I’m not much for holiday entertainments. I’m just not. In fact, I’m the Scrooge of holiday entertainments, and it has nothing to do with Yvonne Rainer. I just always feel, “been there, done that,” and if you’re writing about this stuff (as opposed to joining into the community of audience and performers), that’s deadly.

I decided to take a run at this one, though, because — Sherlock Holmes! So many of us are Sherlock Holmes fans: If every Sherlock Holmes fan was really a Hexenbiest, we’d all be in a lot of trouble. And that’s a problem for anyone attempting to employ Holmes for his own purposes, like say John Longenbaugh, who wrote this play. You can’t get anything “wrong” or go “too far.”

Michael Mendelson as Sherlock Holmes in “Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Christmas Carol”/ Photo by Owen Carey courtesy of Artists Repertory Theatre

Logenbaugh doesn’t (at least not as far as I can see). His play with Arthur Conan Doyle’s material is heartfelt, gentle and smart. He gives the detective a twist, an anti-social twist, which he explains in psychological terms (it involves his mother, or lack thereof). This Holmes has finally given up on humanity for the exactitude of science. He ignores his true friends and his crime-fighting impulses, and he plunges into his experiments to avoid them.

Of course, it’s Christmas when these impulses start to come to a head. And yes, suddenly, we find ourselves in the middle of “The Christmas Carol,” another Victorian creation. And I don’t have to tell you what that means, do I? Ghosts of Christmas past, present and future? Indeed. So, yes, a clear case of magic, transformations and make-believe.

Longenbaugh does not violate Rainer’s rule about camp, though, which must have been difficult. I was sure I was going to see Sherlock and his magnifying glass examining a ghost or two. But for the most part, he’s serious about this show. When Gary R. Powell, Nathan Cosby, Vana O’Brien or Tobias Andersen (who all play multiple characters) do occasionally go for a laugh, it’s a pleasant counterpoint to the serious approach Logenbaugh lays out for Michael Mendelson as Holmes and Todd Van Voris as Watson.

Midway through, I found myself wishing that Longenbaugh’s Holmes was less psychologically “realistic” and more inventive. As it is, he feels reduced to a symbol of the limits of the rational mind, given to bitter pronouncements about the silliness of love or the necessity of war. “I am what I am, a creator of conscious choices,” he says at one point. Of course, those dang ghosts are about to give that idea a good whacking. Which should be a lot more fun than it is, given Mendelson’s ability to splinter into a variety of human possibilities. So, yes, maybe I found myself wishing for a violation of Rainer’s no camping rule.

By the way, one of the ghosts is a Steam Punk creation, and that suggested a potential alternate reality for this production that seems loaded with possibilities, though yeah, “spectacle.”

“PositionMax Beta,” Place: Determined to see something more in line with Rainer’s manifesto, I dropped in on “PositionMax Beta.” As creator Jason King wrote, “PositionMax has been designed to simultaneously anchor and suspend two joints (with particular emphasis on the elbows and knees), allowing the body to assume positions that the body’s natural distribution of weight would normally not allow.” Not a bit of camp or trash imagery there.

When I arrived, I saw three women and one man on the floor each partially covered by a cloth, sitting or lying in uncomfortable positions. Most of them looked blankly, neutrally, ahead, except for the man, who moved his head about and smiled at you if he caught your eye. At first I stood and got my bearings. Very few people were watching the performers, and I explored a couple of art shows in the same room, keeping my eye on the performance. Yep, they were still sitting!

Finally, I sat on one of the eight seats around the little performance area. And now, I’ll simply transcribe my notes…

“I’m looking at people in the audience as much as the performers, and I’m disappointed when someone interesting looking leaves. The smile guy is kinda creepy. Those of us seated are in it for the long haul. The standers shift several times over a few minutes and move on to look at the other exhibitions or just leave altogether. It’s exciting when one of the performers shifts position. Well, maybe not “exciting,” maybe just “thank the gods.”  They ARE remarkably inert.”

When the performers shifted, I could see little pads they were using to support themselves in uncomfortable positions. And gradually, I settled into a different state myself, meditative, though I continued to take notes, to which I return now:

“One woman’s glasses have fallen down her nose. I’m committed to note taking. Two couples across the way suddenly are touching each and for one couple that’s a wordless sign to skedaddle. I’m wondering if the performers are wondering what I’m writing because two of them can see me. The other couple leaves. The woman sitting next to me sneezes. One audience member smiles back at the smiling guy. I want to holler: “Don’t encourage him!” I shift in my chair and several people look at me. The woman who smiled back at the guy leaves.”

And then it was over. All of this writing (which is a reflex for me at this point) obscures something important: The way the performance turned the tables on me, left me to my own resources, slowed me down and changed my expectations, because I’m just as conditioned to the rules and rituals of “entertainments” as anyone else. Suddenly, I was relating to the “neutral” performers in an entirely different way, more human and more basic.

King had indicated that in “PositionMax Beta” “the practical demonstration of a technological device is cultivated as a site of meditation, a thoughtful exploration of the essential characteristics of technology and its comportment toward the human being.” But the “technology” was so simple, the little pads, that the human being was pretty much left to her or his own devices. Which left me to my own devices, my own sense of endurance and possibility.

Now, was this “better” than “Grimm” and “Sherlock Holmes”? Well, it depends on what you need at that particular moment, doesn’t it? Need a little different way to get into the holiday spirit? “Sherlock Holmes” might be perfect for you. And “Grimm” might allow you to connect to the whole vampire/zombie turn the culture has taken, without all the gore — it’s network TV, after all.

But Rainer is onto something, too. What are we really looking for when we turn to art? It can be pretty complex, and sometimes it helps to think about it directly.

NOTES

This post appeared first on Oregon Public Broadcasting’s Arts and Life page.

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