Los Angeles

The Interruption

L.A. Expanded: Notes from the West Coast
A weekly column by Catherine Wagley

Eleanor Antin as Eleanora Antinova in Before the Revolution at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, 1979.

“At this moment, my iPad is totally f–ing me up,” said Eleanor Antin last Sunday at the Hammer Museum, in Act V of Before the Revolution, a remaking of her originally one-woman ballet. Act V was actually called “The Interruption,” because the performers were slated to stop performing and the artist to come up on stage and muse about meaning and ownership. The iPad f-up was not scripted, however; the machine really was interrupting the planned interruption. “There’s something here that says ‘undo or cancel,’” she announced. “I don’t want to do either.” She could’ve played it off and attempted to finish her monologue without the script, but, instead she waited until a technician and, I think, her son had made her screen functional again. Then she continued.

Before the Revolution was first performed in 1979, and Antin played all the roles–12 in total–with the help of life-size, two-dimensional Masonite dolls. It told of an imaginary black ballerina (Eleanora Antinova) dancing in Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, and evoked the great hope that modern art could break down walls that, of course, never quite fell. Antinova, the talented black ballerina hopes to play the real, iconic roles, but is instead offered primitive ones (“For you we will re-stage Pocahontas,” Diaghilev says). Antin has always been interested in the self being more than just one thing, so, in 1974 when the modernist idea of the single identity still festered, impersonating a fictive character that couldn’t have existed felt radical.

Eleanor Antin as Eleanora Antinova in Before the Revolution at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, 1979.

Reactions to the original performance were apparently mixed.”I guess [people] wanted actors who were smooth and effortless, seamless, what they called professional,” Antin wrote in the program notes for the new Before the Revolution. This one, co-directed by Alexandro Segade of the collective My Barbarian, was, in some ways, seamless. It included a “professional” cast. Daniele Watts, who played Eleanor Antinova beautifully, has guested on network television. Matthew Henerson, who played Diaghilev, appeared in A Christmas Carol. They traveled across the stage and interacted with trained, practiced intentionality that isn’t often found in performances by artists who took “Theory and Practice” rather than, say, “Advanced Movement.”

Rehearsal for Eleanor Antin's Before the Revolution in 2012. Courtesy The Getty Research Institute.

But still, the whole program played out like an interruption, of history, of professionalism, of artistry, of expectations. It starts out with Antinova learning to curtsey, to defer to her audience while still upholding her veneer, then follows her as she tries to wrangles for real, “white” roles (but “we love you because you are black,” Diaghilev protests) and as she impersonates Marie Antoinette and tries to rewrite the history of another woman trapped in misunderstandings and circumstances beyond her control. It was the tone of the performance, though, that made all the difference. Antinova, who remains optimistic though less and less naive, never lets go of the idea that her enthusiasm could change the system (of the Ballets Russes). And Antin, who during her “Interruption” said that she was going to make this ballet, the one about the ever-misunderstood Marie Antoinette, “her ballet, my ballet and fill the stage with credit, my credit,” never lets go of the idea that a self could become a multitude that together takes back history.