Text: Jennifer Piejko
Relâche: the theater may have gone black, but the lights flashed on again last Thursday evening, as Performa held its fundraising gala Relâche—The Party. The visual art performance biennial transported guests back in time to 1920s Paris, re-imagining the night of the original Relâche, the groundbreaking ballet by Francis Picabia, which was choreographed by Jean Börlin, performed by the Ballets Suédois, scored by Erik Satie, featured René Clair’s short film “Entr'acte,” and performances by Marcel Duchamp and Man Ray. The ballet, rejected by incensed critics and audiences at the time of its premiere, is now considered the beginning of the Surrealist movement.
On opening night in 1924, the word relâche, a theater term loosely translated as “no performance,” or “canceled,” covered the front door of the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées. The principal dancer was ill, and the performance was postponed for a week. Ironically, Relâche—The Party also had to be postponed, this time due to Hurricane Sandy. Guests included artists Cindy Sherman, Dustin Yellin, Adam Pendleton, Mickalene Thomas, model Arizona Muse, and downtown legends AndrewAndrew.
Guests were handed sunglasses upon entering Relâche—The Party; attendees of the original Relâche were handed sunglasses as they came into the theater, as the set was blindingly bright. The set was re-created by Performa for the gala using hundreds of vinyl records painted gold with a lightbulb screwed in the center of each one.
The invitation requested black and white haute couture attire from its guests, but even though the evening was inspired by such history, most attendees decided to go the decidedly modern route: Maria Cornejo, one of the evening’s hosts, also outfitted Performa founder RoseLee Goldberg, host Cindy Sherman, and 2012 breakout artist Liz Magic Laser (a star of Performa 11 and Commissioned Artist for the 2013 Armory Show) in high-contrast, sculptural dresses from her line, Zero. Designer Lika Volkova also set up shop in a corner of the space, offering a variety of most unusual accessories (Styrofoam heads, ruffles, abstract layers shaped from heavy fabric) to guests looking for that extra Surrealist spark.
Ryan McNamara hit the highest note of the evening, so to speak, in presenting Re: Re: Re: Relâche, a 2012 Surrealist ballet of his very own: Eight dancers posing as gala guests emerged from their seats and climbed onstage, stripping down to white unitards while writhing on the floor and jumping in the air to the operatic highs of Air’s “Dead Bodies,” while the suit-and-tie-clad artist and surprise performer, arts patron Laura Skoler, snaked their way around them, affixing polka dots to the dancers’ costumes as they worked their way up and down the stage, in a nod to 1924’s Relâche costumes of polka-dotted bodysuits . Transitioning into the Orb’s electronic disco at full blast in under 15 minutes, McNamara, slyly centered in the middle of the crowd onstage, was quickly rigged and raised to the ceiling, left suspended far after the music ended and the stage cleared below. Re: Re: Re: Relâche left everyone startled, uncomfortable, and totally ready to dance.
Luciano Chessa led the Furniture Orchestra through a program of Satie’s works, while nearly 300 guests sat down to a darkly Surrealist feast: “Ceci est vraiment pas une pomme” (a bright green Magritte apple waiting on each plate); root vegetables served buried in mushroom soil; and Peacock a l’imperiale, served directly from a birdcage on each table, its feathers falling all over the tables and floor, later making their way into the outfits of inspired revelers.
Dinner was followed by a highly spirited auction, raising money (and voices) in a matter of minutes, and Dr. Todd Colby was slated to give a short tribute to Picabia and Satie, the artists to which the evening was dedicated, but instead gave a shocking performance of his own. The poet and musician had two bios planted in the printed program: one as Dr. Todd Colby, Director of the Institute for Pataphysical Studies at St. Germain College, Paris; and one as poet, performer, and musician. Guests expecting a dry history lesson between refills of their champagne flutes couldn’t believe the scene, as the “professor” pulled a torn slip of paper out of his pocket, claimed that Picabia had written a poem on it decades ago, and announced that he was going to tear it up into little pieces and sign all of them to sell in the auction. The outrageous performance proved delightfully confusing, and surely would have made those celebrated Dadaists proud.
Guests were also entertained by a three-ring circus of activity, with artists leading Exquisite corpse drawing sessions on the ground floor; and photographer Jonathan Hokklo snapping black-and-white photos of friends old and new, with some polka-dotted dancers and bearded ballerinas thrown into the mix, in the photo booth upstairs. Picture-posers decorated themselves with an array of absurd props, fabrics, costumes, and sunglasses. Sia finished the entertainment for the evening, singing “Soon We’ll be Found” and “Breathe Me.”
At the stroke of midnight, the act was over: Guests were ushered out of the playful grayscale fantasy and back out to the streets of midtown Manhattan.
Performa 13 will take place all over New York next November, and Surrealism will serve as a historical point of reference for the biennial. Relâche—The Party supports Performa Commissions and the biennial.