City of God

Jeff McMahon

at the Dance Center of Columbia College, March 3-5

Performance in this country is in trouble. I’m not talking about the repeated calls for dissolving the NEA or the attempts by various “official bodies” to censor “offensive” work. These external threats, while undeniably serious, pale next to an apparent collapse at performance’s very center: artists have nearly run out of metaphors. Or, more precisely, they seem to have forgotten the importance of metaphor. Much of contemporary performance lacks significant metaphorical space–that sphere in which the viewer’s imagination can turn an artist’s offering into a personally affecting experience.

Without this space, art tends toward the literal and prescriptive. Instead of images that speak for themselves, we get endless explanations of images. Instead of suggestion, we get declaration. Instead of possibility, finality. This sledgehammer approach certainly makes an artist’s message accessible; audiences can leave the theater satisfied that they have understood everything perfectly. But the truly meaningful artistic experience often begins precisely where understanding stops. Who “understands” the Mona Lisa, or Hamlet?

Nowhere is this problem more apparent than in the New York dance/performance scene. The work I’ve seen in New York, as well as those pieces that have recently toured to Chicago–Ann Carlson’s Animals, Bill T. Jones’s Last Supper at Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the various works in the P.S. 122 Field Trips–generally rely on obvious theatrical gestures, a lot of extraneous text, and extensive program notes. Jeff McMahon is clearly a product of this scene, although the subtlety and sophistication of the first half of his new solo work, City of God, suggest that he may be able to get beyond it. As a whole, however, City of God feels like a staged op-ed piece lamenting the collapse of the traditional structures that have given us a sense of identity.

McMahon’s quest for utopia in this piece parallels his search for a genuine self in a world he holds at arm’s length. He repeatedly describes himself as a spectator of his own life, as though his experiences were being captured in a low-budget Hollywood film that he watches safely from the back row of the theater. Authenticity and meaning are always out of reach. During the last half of City of God, McMahon illustrates these ideas in broad, generic, and repetitive sweeps. He states that he has lost his heroes and most of his hope. Even God has abandoned his never-attained-but-always-hoped-for city. He tells us half a dozen times that he can’t stop seeing his life as a problematic script. His riffs on urban alienation ultimately become so saturated with standard-issue angst that he ends up actually dragging himself across the floor, helpless before the postmodern void.

This gloom and doom is not only utterly familiar but disappointingly adolescent. Presenting a list of contemporary ills–whether psychological or cultural–is too easy and safe a tactic for an artist as clearly intelligent as McMahon. After all, who’s going to argue his point? Certainly not the fashionably miserable crowd that haunts the performance scene.

What is of interest is the first half of City of God, when McMahon eloquently presents the images he unfortunately explains away later. McMahon is a skilled technician; his voice and body are both wonderfully expressive instruments he has clearly worked hard to master. During the first half, he uses these instruments to create simple, precise, open-ended images. Accompanying a nearly uninterrupted monologue with deliciously supple movements, he follows an intuitive path, telling stories of his grandmother, of his high school adventures in Los Angeles, and of an addictive fascination with anything foreign. These intertwine to suggest a deep-seated need to find a genuine self. But wherever he goes, he’s unable to truly experience anything because he judges everything in aesthetic terms. During his first romantic encounter, for example, he imagines the camera angles he’d use to capture the moment. Looking back, he confesses he wasn’t really present at all.

All this is funny, clever, and pointedly sad but without sentiment. McMahon faces his loneliness honestly and with some savvy; the pain is there, but so is the creativity that will get him through. Most important, his images reveal a variety of emotional tones. In the second half of the piece, he takes the same loneliness and wrenches as much anguish from it as possible, reducing it to a caricature of itself.

City of God ultimately refuses to evolve. McMahon presents a beguiling, richly detailed, idiosyncratic world, but then instead of letting his ideas develop, he simply recasts them in broader, less personal terms. The imaginative journey that the opening promises never happens. If McMahon can learn to fully trust his own images–and if he can learn to trust his audience to appreciate them–he’ll take an important step forward, and perhaps help revitalize a performance scene that is certainly in need of inspiration.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo/Robert Flynt.