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A guide to New York’s explosion of performance festivals in January

Written by
Helen Shaw

Every year, January in New York brings a storm of experimental performance festivals. Suddenly, the downtown arts scene seems like a frantic bazaar: Everybody’s wares are on display, with artists and companies hoping to catch the eye of curators visiting NYC for the annual conference of the Association of Performing Arts Presenters. If you coordinate your schedule right, you can see a year’s worth of avant-garde work in two weeks. Let us hold your hand and guide you through this frightening and exhilarating time.

RECOMMENDED: Full guide to the best of 2018

Under the Radar (Jan 4–15)
The Public Theater’s smorgasbord is the mama bear of the January fests, with the biggest budget and reach. Its international offerings in 2018 include the Italian company Motus and a Cuban Antigone by director Rogelio Orizondo, but it’s also the place to catch big downtown names like Split Britches, Nature Theater of Oklahoma, shock-cabaret star Erin Markey (doing a collection of greatest hits) and the deft Andrew Schneider, whose AFTER blends technology and performance with his customary precision. Roger Guenveur Smith returns with a tribute to Jimi Hendrix; Toshi Reagon’s soon-to-be-blockbuster opera Parable of the Sower is already sold out, but there may be standby seats available. My top pick, though, is Julia Mounsey and Peter Mills Weiss’s terrifying [50/50] old school animation, a rattlesnake-fast two-hander about female betrayal; give them 50 minutes and they’ll take a year off your life.

The Exponential Festival (Jan 4–31)
As is just and right, there’s a thrilling lack of polish and opportunities for commercialization in this multivenue “best of BK” explosion. It’s the theater equivalent of eating raw cookie dough: risky, sure, but so delicious. I would not miss anything by Ikechukwu Ufomadu, so check out Ike’s Wonderful World of Leisure; other good bets include the radiant Julia Sirna-Frest, who performs and co-composes Welcome to the Gun Show: A Chekhovian Song Cycle, and nearly everything at the Parlour, including Title:Point (devisers of some of the zaniest theater in New York), Bailey Williams and Trish Harnetiaux.

American Realness (Jan 9–16)
Based at Abrons Arts Center and Gibney Dance, and dedicated to avant-queer and post-postmodern hybrid works, the festival presents two major looks backwards: Glam nerd Neal Medlyn’s I <3 PINA is dedicated to the late dance-theater genius Pina Bausch; Variations on Themes from Lost and Found: Scenes from a Life and other works by John Bernd, directed by Ishmael Houston-Jones and Miguel Gutierrez, revives the great works of a choreographer lost to AIDS in 1988. Other pieces that stand out in the crammed schedule are Adrienne Truscott’s memoirish THIS and Nora Chipaumire’s #PUNK, inspired by punk icon Patti Smith and Chipaumire’s own life in Zimbabwe.

Coil (Jan 10–Feb 4)
P.S. 122 has announced that this will be the last Coil ever (cue Wilhelm scream), so scamper around to see what it has programmed in farewell. This year is a relatively small and dance-oriented installment, with only six shows on offer. Top picks among them include singer-songwriter Dane Terry’s Jupiter’s Lifeless Moons, a musical storytelling work about a zoo job that turns uncanny, and David Thomson’s he his own mythical beast, a dance-theater piece that blends influences such as James Baldwin and Alfred Hitchcock.

Prototype Festival: Opera/Theatre/Now (Jan 9–20)
The opera and music-theater festival, presented by Beth Morrison Projects and HERE, returns for a sixth season. Its intriguing offerings include Fellow Travelers, an operatic adaptation of Thomas Mallon’s Lavender Scare novel, and The Echo Drift, a talent-stuffed multivalent project about the mind of a woman in solitary confinement. If I could only see one, though, it would be Acquanetta, a revival of Michael Gordon’s horror opera about the golden age of Hollywood, directed by of-the-moment director Daniel Fish.

American Realness: #PUNK
Photograph: Courtesy Jesús Robisco

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