Sometimes art is about art. Perhaps when created in a space as white-walled as Art Cake, a formerly industrial venue founded in 2019 in Sunset Park, it inevitably absorbs artiness. Named for the patisserie that once inhabited the 1920s-era building, Art Cake has taken the gallery aesthetic to the extreme with white floors, white curtains, white track lighting. Though seemingly designed for visual rather than performing arts (the floor is cement), this year’s second ever Dance Series featuring six artists showed its potential as a home for experimental dance.
The first work of the night was Vinson Fraley’s Seeds, a video projected in the lobby prior to curtain. Most of the audience missed it, too busy sipping wine and filling the extremely echoey space (acoustics that would prove relevant in many of the evening’s works) with chatter. Their loss: this documentation of Fraley performing outdoors at Lincoln Center managed to be intensely intimate despite its very public setting.
In many of the pieces performed live the choreographers took up art as subject and object. The program’s only non-solo pummeled its way into the lead of this category. Kristel Baldoz’s Set, Standard matches her up against visual artist and editor Bryan Fernández. A program note explains it as “a constantly evolving piece where Kristel fights a visual artist with live commentary from people who are seeing the piece for the first time.” After a fake-out beginning in which Baldoz (trained dancer) and Bishara (not as graceful) conduct a bit of postmodern walking, rolling, and gesturing, the two have a brief conversation about “that artist who fabricates all his work” (Jeff Koons? Damien Hirst?). Then, they wreck each other.
Their fists don’t connect and the slabs of clay they dramatically smash over each other’s bodies are clearly relatively painless, but their thwacks, bangs, and shrieks bounce around the space with such intensity that the audience gasps and grimaces. There are laughs, too, as the performers trade trash talk and mockery. As promised, an audience member closes the work with some moving, if rather cliché, observations on the nature of violence (“those who fight others are usually fighting themselves.”) Though it is unclear whether he’s a performer planted in the audience or, if not, how he was selected, he doesn’t seem very prepared. One can forgive heavy handed morals more easily when they’re said off-the-cuff than when as planned-for theses. As far as Baldoz’s point, it seems to be more specifically about the art world’s persistent factions and hierarchies.
Described in the program as inspired by Art Cake’s space and the materials within it, Sayer Mansfield’s new skin is a meditative and naturalistic slow burn. Mansfield’s supple spine ripples impossibly as she crawls across a long, beige piece of fabric in a downward-dog-like shape, a strange fish in a slow current. The sound created by her sliding four large cement blocks across the floor could be a breakthrough in ASMR and the effortless execution of taxing balances and liquid undulations is riveting. Mansfield’s decade of performing with Pilobolus benefits her in the ease with which she creates a natural landscape within the very sterile gallery space.
Morgan Griffin’s A dance, in three parts and Raymond Pinto’s Sharawadji round out the art on art. In many ways opposites, these two works seem less developed than their peers. The former, created and performed by Art Cake’s dance co-curator, is a three-part exploration of the power and danger of the stage. Images that resonate: high kicks, booming music from the ballroom scene of Sergei Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet, and Chekhov’s pink satin curtains floating upstage which Griffin dutifully bursts through in the final section of the piece. In stark contrast, Pinto’s work is best described by one of the John Keene texts the artist spends much of the piece reading mechanically at a podium: “A radical simplicity, which could be taken or mistaken for art.” Much of the text alludes to Black art, history, and poetics, and the monotonous drone of his voice fills the high-ceilinged room with a hypnotic, somewhat impenetrable aural landscape.
Bucking the trend of art-themed art, the standout of the evening was Grace Yi-Li Tong. Her solo FREE RANGE YOLKY deftly combines vaudevillian antics with ritualistic divining. Tong invokes the latter right away by opening the piece with slow, evenly paced hums, which radiate through the venue in the pitch black. A single flashlight beam suddenly catches her as she creeps across the back wall, the simple melody she hums like a secret spell. After some ceremonial gestures evoking the stirring and pounding of ingredients, a series of overplayed, slapstick facial expressions and pantomimes (hugging a pillar, waving to an unsuspecting and suddenly illuminated audience member). The solo climaxes in a vanity-less display; Tong appears to crack an egg (imagery induced through a repetitive, recorded sound of an egg crack) with her wide, well-utilized mouth and then with every muscle of her face. From there, the dance gets more dance-y and the projection—up to that point a blurry, egg-reminiscent composition of white rectangle with yellow circle in its center—progresses into other abstractions. Tong’s dancing is superb, but her artful ability to collide ritual and ridicule make this solo sizzle.
Art Cake’s dance curation could benefit from a bit of aesthetic diversity; a scan of the artists’ bios and websites reveal that all six have received or are pursuing degrees in dance or art from NYU, and it showed in their shared approach to obliquely narrative yet non-literal form. Many of the artists seem to be processing new ideas, perhaps not yet ready to be standalone dances. Lucky for us, it is joyful in its own way to experience art, still a bit gooey in the middle, but promising to become something delicious.