Upon entering the Lehmann Maupin Gallery on Chrystie Street on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, you are greeted by applause. On a small video screen inserted into a large white wall, a seated audience faces you and claps. Most audience members are enthusiastic, while some appear distracted or bored. Nevertheless, you may well feel pleased, gratified, appreciated. It occurred to me that seeing this would be a lovely way to start each day.
The video provides an introduction to Alex Prager’s La Grande Sortie, an installation consisting of work related to the production of the Los Angeles-based artist’s ten-minute film of the same title commissioned by the Paris Opera Ballet. (It may be recalled in this context that Prager’s debut as a filmmaker occurred in 2010 with Despair, inspired by the 1948 film about a ballet dancer, The Red Shoes.) Prager’s film, La Grande Sortie, was released on the Paris Opera Ballet’s digital platform 3eme Scene in September 2015 and has its U.S. debut premiere in this exhibition.
In the downstairs gallery behind the Applause video are large-scale photographs that focus on sections of the audience. As is characteristic of Prager, this is by no means a faceless crowd (Face in the Crowd was, in fact, the title and subject of Prager’s film and exhibition presented at Lehmann Maupin in 2014). Every individual is distinctive with regard to dress, details of hair, make-up, deportment and more. Each is a “type,” familiar and somewhat knowable, and seemingly not of the present day but of a past that is hard to pin down–the 50s, perhaps, or the 70s, or a mix of the two. The photographs force us to share the artist’s keen powers of observation; details come into focus, carrying weight and meaning. Striking and gorgeous, the photographs feature strong colors, dark shadows, chiaroscuro and telling patches of illumination. They are large, so that we share the space with them.
The film, which is projected on a wall in a darkened space upstairs, presents choreography adapted from Bernard Millepied’s Amoveo, created for the Paris Opera Ballet in 2006, to a score sampled from Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring by Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich. A dancer, Paris Opera star Emilie Cozette, appears on a stage before a large audience and full orchestra. After a pas de deux that features many awkward moments, the story being that this dancer was returning to the stage after a hiatus, her partner (the Paris Opera star, Karl Paquette) gives way to a series of audience members in street clothes sharing the stage with her. (Of different ages and sexes, these are actually veteran performers or teachers with the company.) Cozette’s dancing becomes increasingly frenzied, her eyes wild and her hair disheveled, until a woman in the audience, her doppelganger, comes into view. This woman rises and exits the theatre in a grande sortie. (No further spoilers are offered here–watch this wonderful film yourself.)
While additional photographs and posters on display highlight Cozette with or without her original partner, it is the attention to the individual and individual experience that is so remarkable and penetrating in Prager’s work. In La Grande Sortie, we are observers, we are the audience and we are Cozette, her frenzy being our own.