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Go Forth
Photograph: Maria BaranovaGo Forth

January festivals dispatch 2: Unwinding at COIL 2016

Written by
Helen Shaw

How do you have a festival when you don't have a roof? For P.S. 122, still refurbishing for the umpteenth year in a row, the answer is partnerships—and it's a boon for those of us who want to dash around the city. This year, COIL has all kinds of wonderful places to insinuate itself: Invisible Dog, La MaMa and now the sprawling, block-long Westbeth. It's a fortunate collaboration. Westbeth's knockabout glamour, its snaking subterranean corridors and Sandy-drowned boiler rooms, elevate two of the shows happening there: Niv Acosta's dance event Discotropic and Kaneza Schaal's Go Forth.

Discotropic is a queer Afrofuturist fantasia. As we wander around a disused basement space, bass soundtrack thumping, we act as voyeurs: Four scantily clad aliens are assembling for some sort of multipart ceremony. A man in micro-shorts and goggles stamps through a room full of black sand; a woman in a space-onesie and a twinkle-lights crown stalks along a catwalk. Thanks to the staticky video projections, neon-pink lighting and the many potted ferns, we seem to have stumbled into some homemade sci-fi movie, videotaped in the '80s and long forgotten. It's often knowingly bad and deliriously awkward, but also charged with weird energies, which reverberate after the silliness is over.

Go Forth has cleaner edges but less panache. Schaal has created a series of handsome vignettes based on the Egyptian Book of the Dead: three men (Justin Hicks, William Nadylam and David Thomson) perform rituals, say opaque things about boats and offer us beer. Thanks to a savvy use of the low-ceilinged, many-columned cellar room, we do often find ourselves looking at what feels like a gorgeous “other shore,” but the design can't rescue the underwritten, under-conceived scenes. There is feeling here, but despite the show's long gestation, it still seems somehow undeveloped.

More assured (but less sincere) is Chris Thorpe's solo show Confirmation, in which the Manchester-born performer tries to get inside the head of white supremacists. Thorpe, directed by Rachel Chavkin, ping-pongs around a central playing space, flinging himself into intense emotional states (he keeps snatching up his chair like it did something) and telling us about his encounters with “Glenn”—an avowed Nazi whom Chris has sought out to test his own liberal certainties. The stated intent is to talk about confirmation bias—the tendency to only look at evidence that backs up our preconceptions. It's obvious that this is an irrelevancy from the get-go: Thorpe hasn't chosen someone who will make him question himself; he's picked a Holocaust denier. The show thus loses its provocative power, since Thorpe (and we) won't be swayed, nor will we need to examine ourselves to stand firm. Thorpe does discover that Glenn has some nice ideas about re-nationalizing British Rail, but on such small discoveries, it's hard to hang a show.

The perfect chaser for a day of shows that ask much of you turns out to be Annie Dorsen's Yesterday Tomorrow, one of the director-conceiver's “algorithmic” works. It's enormously simple in concept: A computer program transforms the Beatles song “Yesterday” into the Annie song “Tomorrow” over the course of an hour, and three (astonishing) singers must sight-read the results. The sound is bewitching, a lovely secular motet, and the way it simultaneously delays and promises resolution feels somehow restorative—and the work becomes an enforced meditation period to prepare for the day ahead.

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