by Douglas Messerli
Eleanor Antin Before the Revolution, Hammer Museum, Los Angeles, January 29, 2012 / I saw the matinee performance of this work
Of all of artist Eleanor Antin's numerous personae, Eleanora Antinova, the Black American dancer attempting to be a leading ballerina in Diaghilev's famed Ballets Russes, is the most endearing. Somehow the very idea of the somewhat short, dark complexioned Antin—a woman who makes no claim to being able to dance in "real" life, and certainly has not trained for ballet—joining the tall "all-white machine" of Diaghilev's company goes beyond absurdity into the world of a touching fantasy, when Antin as Antinova plays out again and again her several Eleanora Antinova Plays, performances enacted by the artist from the mid-1970s through the next decade, works that my own Sun & Moon Press collected into a book of 1994.
Of these works, perhaps the most significant was the 1979 Before the Revolution, in which, performing numerous characters—from Antinova, Diaghilev, Stravinsky, Nijinsky, to balletic beings such has Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI—Antin develops her "Historical Prophecy and an Interlude and an Interruption." Although I have seen most of Antin's performances when they first appeared, I did not witness the 1979 premier of Before the Revolution at The Kitchen in New York and its later manifestation at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art. So I was delighted to be able to attend what she has described as a "re-performance" of the piece, this with several actors, on January 29, 2012.
The work is divided into six sections: I. The Lesson, II. The Argument, III. The Vision, IV. The Rehearsal, V. The Interruption, and VI. The Truth, each loosely connected with the actions conveyed in their titles. The overall arc of this disjunctive narrative is Antinova's insistence that she dance a major role in the Ballet Russes instead of playing merely ancillary and exotic figures such as Pocahontas, etc., her arguments with Diaghilev, Stravinsky, and others about permitting her these roles, her insistence on choreographing her own ballet—wherein she plays a ridiculously overstated Marie Antoinette—her rehearsals for that performance, and her personal relationships with other figures of the company, particularly the disturbed Nijinsky.
At the heart of this work, however, is Antin's personal "Interruption," wherein Antin states the major themes of her piece, and argues for an art that not only "borrows" or builds upon the past, but, in a Brechtian manner, creates a space between the artist and the figure she portrays, that must be joined through the imaginations of the audience. Beginning with a discussion of Diaghilev, accused by several as being a borrower, Antin brings several of these issues together in a monologue that might almost be stated as a kind of manifesto of her art:
And who is not a borrower? Didn't we get our face and our name from our parents, the words in our mouths from our country, the way we say them from the children on our block, our dreams and images from the books and pictures other people wrote, painted, filmed? We take from here, from there and give back—whatever we give back. And we cover what we give back with our name: John Smith, Eleanora Antinova, Tamara Karasavina, Sergei Pavlovitch Diaghilev, and somewhere each one of us stands behind that name, sort of.
Sometimes there is a space between a person and her name. I can't always reach my name. Between me and Eleanor Antin sometimes there is a space. No, that's not true. Between me and Eleanor Antin there is always a space. I act as if there isn't. I make believe it isn't there. Recently, the Bank of America refused to cash one of my checks. My signature was unreadable, the bank manager said. "It is the signature of an important person," I shouted. "You do not read the signature of an important person, you recognize it." That's as close as I can get to my name. And I was right, too. Because the bank continues to cash my checks. That idiosyncratic and illegible scrawl has credit there. This space between me and my name has to be filled with credit.
What of me and Antinova? I borrow her dark skin, her reputation, her name, which is very much like mine anyway. She borrowed the name from the Russians, from Diaghilev. I borrow her aspirations to be a classical ballerina. She wants to dance the white ballets. What an impossible eccentric! A Black ballerina dancing Les Sylphides, Giselle, Swan Lake. She would be a "black face in a snow bank!" The classical ballet is a white machine. Nobody must be noticed out of turn. The slightest eccentricity stands out and Grigoriev hands out stiff fines to the luckless leg higher than the rest. So Antinova designs her own classical ballet. She will dance the white queen Marie-Antoinette. She invests the space between herself and the white queen with faith...."
This profound statement of the separation of art and artist who must be given credit by both the artist herself and the viewer to make meaning, is at the heart of Antin's oeuvre, which, like a Kiekegaardian leap into faith, transforms simple desire into an almost sacramental act.
The "Interruption" was even more poignant at the Hammer Museum performance I witnessed because Antin read these words on a small I-pad whose images disappeared as she spoke them, forcing her to ask her son Blaise to help her recover the message she was attempting to repeat.
It was also interesting to have Eleanor Antinova played throughout by a Black actress (Daniele Watts), who certainly frees Antin from being seen as a white actress in Black face which some critics accused her of being the first time round.
Actor Jonathan Le Billion was also very effective as the slightly mad Nijinsky railing against Diaghilev, as the great dancer did in real life. But overall, the acting was mixed, with some figures unable to completely realize their roles. In part, that is simply due to the fact that in life these personalities were exaggerated and that Antin's work is not, at heart, a drama. To say what Before the Revolution is, exactly, is difficult. Perhaps it is easier to say what it isn't: it is not truly a play, an historical performance, a monological statement, a ballet-in-the-making, a personal encounter with a Black ballerina. It is all of these, but in its radical genre-bending elements, it is so much more!
Although, as I mentioned previously, I did not see the original, it seems to me it is essentially a work for one person. Eleanor may not have been a greatest of actresses in that original, but given the "credit" we must grant to bring her art into life, the slightly mad ramblings of a single person, sometimes hiding behind cut-outs of her characters, seems the most appropriate rendering of this fascinating performance. Despite the separation of name and character, Antin becomes Antinova, becomes even the figures inhabiting Antinova's imagination in the original, and that, it seems to me, is the true miracle of this art. What we witness is a kind of madness, a madness, like Nijinsky's, that becomes transformed into something of significance. The artist in this work is almost like a child, a child so intent upon imagining other existences, that she truly creates them, bringing viable others into that envelope between the creator and the creation. If that act demands credit, it reflects back upon the audience for their commitment to the creative act, coming as a kind of unexpected reward for their faith. Art, for Antin, is almost always—despite its seeming focus on the various aspects of self—a communal act. Her King of Solana Beach could never have been a king without willing (even if unknowing) subjects. Antin's Nurse Eleanor Nightingale could not have survived the Crimean War without her imaginary patients, just as Eleanora Antinova is nothing without her willing claque. So too did the audience of Before the Revolution enthusiastically applaud this dramatic presentation of the dilemmas of Antinova's life.
I was at Eleanor Antin's side after the 1981 performance, Recollections of My Life with Diaghilev at the Museum of Modern Art, when an enthusiastic attendee, with great reverence and respect, gushed, "Tell me, being so close to Diaghilev, what was it really like?" Eleanor was a bit abashed; she would have had to be in her mid-70s (she was currently in her 40s) to have actually performed with Diaghilev's company. Yet I perceived that never before had "credit" been so innocently and completely proffered!
Los Angeles, March 15, 2012
Reprinted from USTheater (March 2012).