Hana van der Kolk, The Art of Yes!, Human Resources, Chinatown, August 3, 2011

Hana van der Kolk’s The Art of Yes! has been and continues to be a work in progress; I’ve already written about earlier incarnations of the piece that took place at the Alexandria Hotel and at LACE. Since then, van der Kolk has presented some full-length versions of the work: at Public Fiction in late April, and earlier this month at Human Resources for a three-night run. I saw the one at Public Fiction, and the first night at Human Resources.

I’ve always been drawn to this complex project, which makes an ambitious attempt to both play on and enact the loaded concept of personal transformation within a performance setting. It’s such a seductive idea, but in its present form, it’s not without its challenges. These present the artist with interesting problems that may or may not get resolved in future iterations.

The piece begins with van der Kolk as herself, hanging out with the audience, which is limited to about 15 participants. She asks individual members to help her put on her makeup, which will enable her to transform into Hannah Henderson, a Southern woman who has gone through a spiritual awakening and is able to channel the Angel Gabriel to help people with their problems. (The character is based on a real person that van der Kolk heard on the radio one day, while driving through America’s heartland.)

As the makeup is being applied, van der Kolk asks her audience questions. Do you have a spiritual practice? Have you ever had a spiritual experience that transformed you? Have you ever been in therapy? This leads to some extended discussions that so far have been relaxed and intimate. When enough makeup is applied, van der Kolk begins slipping into character, speaking with a Southern accent and engaging people more ingenuously, until finally she changes clothes and then the finishing touches are put on her hair, and she is completely Hannah Henderson.

Henderson then leads the audience in a variety of exercises that are designed to make people interact, charge the energy in the room, and help her be in the right frame of mind to channel the angel. On the night that I went, Henderson improvised two great activities: building a fort out of seat cushions and blankets and dancing around it, and dividing the audience into pairs for staring sessions in which each partner took turns looking at the other as if they were a baby. The latter exercise brought some people to tears.

Henderson’s own favorite activity for getting into the groove is Jazzercise, and thus the finale is a Jazzercise session done to a song of the group’s choosing (my group unanimously chose Chaka Khan’s “I Feel for You”). Simple movements are used and people can get all goofy as they work up a sweat. A few minutes into this, Henderson feels the spirit move her and collapses to the floor. She asks us all to lay hands on her as she basically has a seizure while receiving the Angel Gabriel into her body. Once he is in place, he makes his way to a chair and microphone and addresses the people in the room, introducing himself as if he’s never met anyone before.

Gabriel’s role is to deliver messages of truth, and he does so in a calm, neutral voice. His message goes something like this: “You are at exhaustion. What you need to recognize is that the universe does not need fixing. It needs you to align with your full potential. To return to freedom. We have only come to tell you what you already know. Everything is going to be all right.” Following this delivery, the work concludes with a death/rebirth meditation, and a group sing-along to Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin’.”

The Art of Yes! sits right on a funny line between scripted and improvised, between a more contained form of theater and a more visceral form of performance art, and therein lies both its allure and its difficulties. I like the fact that we get to watch the artist put on a persona using both makeup and a guided group discussion, and that the persona in turn takes on another persona, using a variety of activities. This is interesting by itself, perhaps as a meditation on the nature of performance, or on the artist’s own process of transformation.

The difficulties emerge in the work’s engagement with its audience. After repeated viewings, it has occurred to me that the performance has an inherent need for the cooperation of the audience in order to succeed. The fact that it follows a certain format or agenda, that it has a beginning and an end, means that certain results are predetermined, and the audience is enlisted to help achieve these results. Sometimes, this feels more like coercion and less like exploration.

I and other participants have had extended conversations with van der Kolk about this work, and she is acutely aware of its issues, and interested in exploring ways to work through them. At Wednesday’s Human Resources performance, Angel Gabriel had asked an audience member if she felt that everything would be all right, and the audience member said no. Instead of engaging with her and asking why, Gabriel kind of ignored her and continued to stay on message. I wanted Gabriel to engage with her more, let things fly, let unexpected situations emerge. Van der Kolk, too, acknowledged the stiffness and hesitancy in that performance, and took steps to circumvent it in the following nights’ performances, as she relayed to me in a phone conversation last week.

On Thursday and Friday, she tried to let go of scripted passages as much as she could, and let the material, which is by now embedded in her, to flow naturally of its own accord. Different scenarios started to occur. Gabriel failed to appear on time, and Hannah instead directed audience members to take turns reading Gabriel’s script aloud. Hannah and Gabriel occupied van der Kolk’s body at the same time, and argued with one another. One audience member was particularly belligerent about acting out his skepticism, which led to an extended confrontation with Hannah. That evening wound up going on for an extra long time, far exceeding the allotted time for the piece, and trying the patience of its participants.

The Art of Yes! continues to be a fascinating work, with fascinating problems generated by the tension between theater and performance art, and the quixotic attempt to forecast or hold the energy of transformation. My own instincts tell me that if she really wants to grapple with the dynamics of transformation and self realization, she needs to let go of all theatrical constructs and agendas, and simply see where the base impulses take her. Maybe do a one-time, all-day retreat in the woods with Hannah and Gabriel and a really committed group of participants.

It also occurs to me that this could all be a metaphor for where van der Kolk is in her own practice at this time. During a studio visit with her last month, she told me about her background as a trained dancer and how her work has primarily been in dance and choreography. The Art of Yes! is her first foray into “performance art” per se, and it is something that seized and inspired her out of the blue, and sometimes freaks her out. She talked about her artistic practice drawing on the notion of “unlearning”; as a dancer per se, training is important, but venturing into more experimental territory as an all-around artist, training must sometimes be left behind. Perhaps the struggle to do this informs some of what we’re seeing in The Art of Yes!.

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