Neal Medlyn in Why Won’t You Let Me Be Great!!!, photo by Zack Brown
Welcome to PS122, where several downtown artists and choreographers performed this weekend in Why Won’t You Let Me Be Great!!!, an evening-length show inspired by and featuring the songs from Kanye West’s 2008 pop album 808s & Heartbreak. Contrary to the common belief that downtown artists dismiss popular culture for being too shallow, insincere, and inconsequential, WWYLMBG!!!, conceived by Brendan Kennedy and presented by Catch and Neal Medlyn, suggests that the show’s artists recognize the cultural significance of West’s album. They’re taking West seriously, attempting to engage with his work, and for the most part, their interpretations – many of which included nudity – of 808s & Heartbreak’s twelve songs reflect the dark, cold material that is the subject of West’s lyrics.
Although the songs were presented in the same order in which they appear on the album, with a different artist for each song, the show didn’t feel like a disjointed showcase. Transitions from one song to the next were seamless, with the artists often overlapping and interacting with one another.
Karinne Keithley’s animated film “Say You Will [Kanye West at the scale of my household]” featured miniature figurines and an impossible relationship between a toy horse and a dried seahorse, which was followed by Neal Medlyn’s powerful, stripped down rendition of “Welcome to Heartbreak”. He showed off his double-jointed thumbs to the song’s opening beats, and later rapidly shook his hands and flailed his limbs, all the while remaining deadpan. Later, Medlyn gave a heart-wrenching performance of “Pinocchio Story” with fireworks on the screen behind him. Belting out lyrics like “Real life, what does it feel like? I ask you tonight, I ask you tonight…I just want to be a real boy”, the audience detected the sadness and irony of West’s song.
According to MTV, West, who was in the audience on Thursday night, was so moved by Medlyn’s performance that he approached Medlyn after the show. Ann Liv Young, another one of the show’s artists, also got West’s attention, but she did so by confronting him during her performance of “Love Lockdown”. Young reportedly smeared pork on her crotch and told West she didn’t think 808s was his strongest album. However, at Friday’s performance (when I attended), she apologized for offending West and announced that the song actually made her feel like urinating, vigorously rubbing granola on her crotch, and pouring her urine over her naked body, all of which she did as she spoke to the audience. She also explained that she’d “like to see more colored people here”, so she placed a black baby doll on stage before collecting her things and exiting. Even while “apologizing” to West, Young proved that she can make a provocative, unapologetic statement.
Jennifer Monson in Why Won’t You Let Me Be Great!!!, photo by Zack Brown
In a film set to “Paranoid”, Myles Kane conducted live video editing of footage from “RoboCop” and “Black Cobra”, smartly manipulating shots from the films to stop and start with the music’s beat. Kane illustrated the films’ themes by showing similar shots that convey male power, loneliness, and sex – all subjects of “Paranoid”, as well. Laying face down on the floor in underwear and hoodies, Dance Gang’s Kennis Hawkins and Will Rawls performed an overtly sexual interpretation of “Bad News” that was interspersed with rapid spinning and a simple duet. Jennifer Monson’s solo to “Amazing”, in which she wore black spandex, a short gray wig, and sunglasses, featured clawing, monster-like movements and subtler, delicate shifts in her legs and feet. One of the less effective performances was Varsity Interpretive Dance Squad’s cheesy, literal interpretation of “RoboCop”, which seemed out of place as the seven dancers mocked a cheerleading team and frolicked in circles. It was the only performance of the evening that seemed to dismiss the impact of West’s music without attempting to engage with it.
Why Won’t You Let Me Be Great!!! was sold out on Thursday and Friday, and a late-night performance was added on Saturday night due to demand. The majority of attendees were supporters of the downtown dance scene who were there to observe how a group of downtown artists respond to an influential contribution to pop culture. So what will it take to get mainstream culture consumers and artists into seats and interested in this type of work? Kudos, Kanye, for stopping by. Next time, please bring your legions of fans.