That Obscure, Unattainable Object of Desire: Your Own Art

Posted January 18, 2018 9:18 p.m. EST

NEW YORK — Desire and power, the New York performance scene, Hindu goddess Chinnamasta and Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s film “The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant” are all mixed into Dean Moss’ latest performative stew, “Petra.”

The idea was “to make something that reflected what has driven me in the field,” Moss said in a recent interview. The key is his relationship with dance: It’s something of an unrequited love. That idea came first; he used the Fassbinder film as, he said, “the vehicle.”

Moss, 63, finds parallels between the film and his life as a director and choreographer. As he put it, “That process where you never attain what your desire is became something that I was interested in.”

For “Petra,” which opens at Performance Space New York — formerly Performance Space 122 — on Tuesday as part of the 2018 Coil Festival, Moss has assembled an all-star cast of women whose members were chosen in part for their presence in New York’s performance world. (The Fassbinder film, from 1972, also features an all-female cast.)

At times the performers step out of character to show their real personalities. But what does real even mean? Moss thrives in a diaphanous theatrical world of in-betweens. “Things are revealed,” said Samita Sinha, a cast member. “But there’s always the possibility of a mask.”

Moss’ slippery, multilayered performance works use dance, theater, video and, frequently, audience participation. All come into play in “Petra.” In the Fassbinder film, Petra is a demanding, narcissistic fashion designer who rules over Marlene, her mute assistant. Karin, a stranger, arrives and Petra promptly falls in love with her. The relationship doesn’t end well.

A Bessie-award-winning choreographer as well as a respected curator who programmed dance for several years at the Kitchen, Moss, an African-American, takes a closer look in “Petra” at the experience of the New York City artist, with race and gender playing an integral role. His “Petra” is set in a mythical Southern realm and deviates from Fassbinder’s film in another important way: Here Petra isn’t a fashion designer, but a version of Moss.

Reflecting on the reputation of Fassbinder and of the film — a work, he said, by a “genius artist who is also a quintessential queer artist” — Moss wants to explore what he calls “the queering of culture.” The story of a same-sex relationship is no longer taboo. But by setting his production in the South, he can take his “Petra” into a new arena or “the territory of brown, which is a world that I live in and love,” he said. “Also for my viewer in New York, for the cosmopolitan who hasn’t spent that much time there, it’s a bit exotic.”

Rwandan actor and director Kaneza Schaal plays Petra, and Sinha, an Indian vocalist and composer, plays Petra’s lover. Sinha also composed the score and is the audience-participation wrangler. At the beginning, she sits in the front of the audience and starts to vocalize as the houselights dim to black.

“As the composer I actually open the whole piece,” she said. “Then I step into it as part of the story.”

For her third role, she orchestrates a reading among audience members of a text about building diverse audiences, as Paz Tanjuaquio performs a solo. “It’s like a sound-meeting-content-meeting-dance space,” Sinha said. “It’s a complex — I’m not even sure if I call it a role. It feels like it’s a world.”

The other parts are just as vaporous. Mina Nishimura is Petra’s sister; Sari Nordman is her daughter; and Tanjuaquio is her mother. Each performer also plays Marlene. These Marlenes, like the Marlene in the film, find a certain pleasure in Petra’s mistreatment of them.

A similar suffering, Moss said, occurs in the performing-arts world, not only from the point of view of artists, but also administrators. “People involved in dance and the arts — when they are paid as low as they often are — have to get that enjoyment from that abuse,” he said. “It’s hard to stay in the job in an environment that’s changing and devaluing so much of the arts. You get exhausted.”

If “Petra” investigates, on one level, the effects of race and power, Moss also sees it as a way to explore being a black artist in contemporary dance. “There was this downtown presenter and when she saw me, she would frequently pat me on the head,” he said. “And I didn’t mind. It was her show of affection. And then we fell out in a way and I began to look at that behavior and that condescension.” Moss first came to New York from Tacoma, Washington, on a scholarship with the Dance Theater of Harlem. He worked extensively with postmodern choreographer David Gordon, in whose company he danced for 10 years.

He has long resisted having his identity frame him as an artist. Now, that is increasingly difficult. He recounted a recent instance in which a New York curator asked him if his work had any relationship to Black Lives Matter.

“But are you asking white people?” he said, of his reaction. “That’s who you should be asking that question, but my work has to be about identity. And if it isn’t, that person’s not interested in bringing it anywhere.”

That has been a struggle. When he was on the board of Danspace Project, he said, “people were really worried that the pie is only this big, and there’s not enough room for other races.”

He found himself essentially arguing against himself. “It’s what James Baldwin says when you have that moment where you’re rooting for the cowboys and realizing you’re the Indians,” Moss continued. “It took me a long time because I so wanted to believe in a meritocracy.”

In “Petra,” he can finally, in a sense, be himself. “Identity brings me to the place of this unrequited love,” he said. “To want to be seen, but under a certain condition.”