by Ariel Osterweis

[I like to write about/with Narcissister. I shared this short paper at the Performance Studies International conference at the University of Leeds on June 28th, 2012. Anna Fisher and I invited Narcissister, Ann Liv Young, and Barbara Browning to join us on our panel, “Self-Gratifiers: Feminist Appropriations in the Performances of Narcissister and Ann Liv Young.”]

I was introduced to Narcissister by dance-maker Trajal Harrell, who recommended my services as a performance theorist. While flattered, I was a bit hesitant to meet with her, given my feeling that dance and performance dramaturgy in recent years had resulted in performances at New York’s Dance Theater Workshop that I referred to as the let’s put on layers and layers of clothing, walk around, remove layers and layers of clothing, slither around naked, and try to get a smart review in the New York Times series. However, because Narcissister was introduced to me as a performance artist (and not a choreographer), I decided to meet with her, come to find that she was someone I had studied modern dance with at the Alvin Ailey American Dance Center. Thus, this introduction was a re-introduction, allowing me to re-imagine the dancing body in contexts not typically reserved for dance. Because I felt Narcissister’s performances already did their own theorizing—inherently and intentionally—I felt my job was to place words around her work, as opposed to dictating her work through the likes of Deleuze, Benjamin, or Lepecki. In fact, many of our discussions have no direct impact on the work itself, allowing us instead to explore everything from the black feminist body in visual culture to how exactly did you get that dress into and subsequently out of your crotch?

Needless to say, there is an accidental dimension to my reunion with Narcissister, just as there is an accidental dimension to the ideas I’m putting forward here at this conference. Barbara Browning and I were asked to produce an epistolary essay for the journal Theatre Survey. While we have only recently begun to think about her work in academic terms, we decided to write to each other about Narcissister. In our discussion, we focused mainly on anthropological theories of the gift and the secret, and only touched upon what now seem more important to us in terms of her work, namely the related concepts of racial kitsch and the disavowal of dance and virtuosity.

Browning pointed me to Tavia Nyong’o’s essay, “Racial Kitsch and Black Performance.” Nyong’o expands Clement Greenberg’s proposition that kitsch is failed seriousness to include the idea that racist kitsch, from historical ceramic figurines of black children to the self-conscious curating of such imagery in the Spike Lee film Bamboozled, generates in the African American and anti-racist viewer shame and oppositional spectatorship. Nyong’o’s hope is to locate a way to transform the shame of feeling less than human that comes with racist kitsch’s oppositional spectatorship into an experience of racial kitsch that escapes scapegoating and instead engenders self-recognition. He wonders if there is a way for the African American spectator to regain innocence without the bloodletting of—and identification with—the scapegoat in black performance.

I find Nyong’o’s provocation important when thinking about the way Narcissister calls upon the objecthood of racist kitsch, then complicates it with the performance of the moving body. By donning hard masks and placing doll-like heads in various orifices, Narcissister places the brittle surface of the racist kitsch object (such as that of Nyong’o’s figurine) onto—and into—the mutable, muscular surface of a live fleshy body. Her performances in masks and merkins are costumed (and un-costumed) in a way that questions the fluctuating status of objecthood and subjectivity in performances that cite racialized and gendered figures such as the mami, Topsy, Josephine Baker, even Marie-Antoinette and Whitney Houston. By reappropriating cultural stereotypes, Narcissister relies upon a combination of what Nyong’o refers to as the oppositional spectator’s reaction of disgust in the face of racism and, as you will see momentarily, abject humor.

I want to suggest that Narcissister’s refusal to linger in any one character or style provides a way for the spectator to circumvent the scapegoating to which Nyong’o refers, ultimately drawing attention back to herself, yourself. Just as Narcissister avoids embodying a character for the entirety of a performance, she also avoids embodying a single dance technique or performance genre. Just as characters are cited, dance techniques are also cited, only to be effaced by a glimpse of something else. Such citation functions as what I am calling the active disavowal of majoritarian modes of subjectivity and expression. In other words, dominant references in theater, art, literature, and dance often reiterate racist images of the black female body, and we are expected to locate a sense of freedom or release in the limited tropes of overcoming found in the likes of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater; by fragmenting and citing both racist kitsch and the Ailey aesthetic, Narcissister enacts an active disavowal of the imagery mainstream culture has reserved for the black female body.

As Nyong’o reminds us, Manthia Diawara has put forth a concept related to (but different from) racist or racial kitsch, namely that of “afro-kitsch” or the “kitsch of blackness,” defining it as the “‘imitation of a discourse of liberation’ in the service of ‘mass identification.’” At least between the late 1980s and 2011, I would place the Ailey company’s aesthetic of liberation within Diawara’s framework. Choreography initially committed to politics of the Civil Rights movement became, over several decades, performed as an imitation of itself. If traditional notions of western high art are associated with value, kitsch is thought of as mass-produced imitation of high art, therefore lacking in value. I would argue that the Ailey aesthetic, while implicated in the kitsch of blackness, is not devoid of value in its recent iterations. Rather, value is transferred to its announcement of a certain kind of racialized virtuosity, epitomized by the dancing of Desmond Richardson in 1990. While my current monograph focuses entirely on Richardson’s virtuosity as both uniquely developed and ever-imitated (in fact, he just guest starred on So You Think You Can Dance last night), my subsequent work suggests that Narcissister and artists such as Trajal Harrell and Yve Laris Cohen merely cite such dance-based virtuosity in a way that points to virtuosity’s excess while denying us access to its excellence. As a term popularized through newspaper journalism, virtuosity is a term of critical judgment and public taste-making. I am more interested in observing the way the term is actually deployed over time to describe soloist performers than in creating novel ways of expanding its use. As such, we are able to locate the racialized and gendered dimensions of virtuosity’s supposed excess, or that which surpasses critical standards of excellence in technique. Without lingering for too long on the term, I’d like to remind us of virtuosity’s alternating celebratory and derogatory designations, and most of all, of its tendency to define boundaries between high art and mass-produced popular culture.

We find in Narcissister’s active disavowal of dance-based virtuosity—always delivered in a mask—an eerie ambiguity, one devoid of facial expression or stylistic stability. Such performance functions in stark contrast to the virtuosity of Desmond Richardson, one of technical versatility and individual expression. In Richardson’s dance, often teeming with facially and corporeally legible joy or angst, we are urged to feel with him. Narcissister provides no instructions for how or what we should feel. Certainly not devoid of affective fodder, however, her performances rely on the spectator’s cultural knowledge. In any single piece, Narcissister will cite references ranging from Uncle Tom’s Cabin to Chaka Khan to gangster rap to yoga to earlier feminist performance art to porn to tropes of burlesque performance. Narcissister is astute in citing moments of Ailey choreography that epitomize virtuosity’s dual quality of popular appeal and difficult execution, while withholding our access to more than a snippet of “excellent” movement. And if Richardson’s versatility is one that hybridizes multiple dance techniques, Narcissister’s is one that lays bare moments of various forms of art and performance: the feminist craft of homemade costumes meets the running man, which subsequently rubs up against g-stringed merkins and female body-building. Artistry is eclipsed by art-making: the pursuit of generating pleasure for the audience—that found in “artistry”—is abandoned for glimpses into the uneven terrain of process, making the audience privy to the hangnails of pastiche. Insisting on the handmade, Narcissister’s pastiche lies just outside the realm of the smooth, mass-produced sampling we find in commercial hip-hop and also outside of Richardson’s seamless combining of popping and locking with ballet.

Narcissister cleverly alternates between the activation and disavowal of her Ailey dance training. On the one hand, she is always sure to mention in publicity materials that she trained at the Ailey school; but on the other hand, the only times she makes reference to such dance technique in her performances is when she makes almost mocking use of movements typically reserved for frenzied, climactic sections of choreography. We find that in her hand dance (which she performs in a larger-than-life wedding-banded hand costume), she inserts a series of turns from the Horton technique, the kind in which the dancer extends her arms in a vertical overhead parallel position, tracing a circular right-back–left-front circular pattern. The arms and upper body are circling through the air as the legs execute traveling turns.

Alvin Ailey choreographed a series of these very turns in his piece Memoria, an homage to the Horton dancer Joyce Trisler. This type of traveling turn (with arms circling overhead) is a favorite one to use when mocking the Ailey aesthetic, especially because it looks ridiculous when executed haphazardly. It is also the type of movement that those of us who trained at Ailey might use to parody the extreme nature of our training. To reference such a turn sequence is to comment on expectations and imperatives for popular black performance to be presentational, outwardly directed, and deliberately kinetic. To dance those turns in a mask is fascinating: we can read the mask as a minstrel “mask,” an allusion to European modernism’s obsession with African masks, or as a sign of anonymity. I find the latter the most interesting, as Ailey’s choreography epitomizes a certain popular black aesthetic linking “body” and “soul” such that we are urged to believe that the dancer in question is baring her soul, offering up her emotion in the service of both the audience’s pleasure and a higher spiritual power. Unlike contemporary dancers influenced by the Judson Dance Theater’s pedestrianism—after Yvonne Rainer’s imperative “No to virtuosity”—you would seldom find an Ailey dancer pairing Horton turns with a masklike gaze.

I find Anne Cheng’s discussion of mutability—as the reading of the versatile dancer or performer through surface quality without assuming her subjectivity—very relevant to Richardson’s dancing, but such theory ends where Narcissister’s probing of her various orifices begins. During such insertions of, say, dildos, and removals of, say, cellphones from her vagina, we are asked to consider the abject, the penetrability of the feminine in the face of the impenetrability of Narcissister’s gaze, ever-hidden by the neutrality of the mask. As her subject consumes its object, we are left to wonder when and how the object will speak.