The Operature is a dance show scattered amongst the masses of other spring dance shows.
Ok, not really.
Running two weekends in March, the 90 minute installation from Mark Jeffery and his group called ATOM-r is anything but just another dance show. The Operature pushes boundaries all over the place in its subject matter, venue, casting, and process.
Jeffery, a faculty member at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, developed the work over two years, partially funded by a Chicago Dancemakers Forum Lab Artist Grant. Where most Lab Artists take about 12 months to create their work, Jeffrey worked with ATOM-r co-founder and technology guru Judd Morrissey and cast of notable men with footholds in the scientific, dance, music, and performance art communities for much longer. Along the way, the group presented multiple iterations of the work across the city and abroad leading up to a culminating final premiere at the yet-to-be-opened National Museum of Health and Medicine downtown. What a fitting locale for such a tantalizing topic.
The subject is Samuel Steward, a one-time college professor who left academia to pursue a career as a gay pornographer and tattoo artist. Much of Steward’s life was spent in Chicago, before moving to the San Francisco Bay Area in the 1960’s where he was known as the official tattoo artist of the Hell’s Angels motorcycle gang, and an esteemed friend of Gertrude Stein. Throughout his life, Steward kept a detailed account of his many sexual encounters, referred to in The Operature as “The Stud File”.
There are few literal references to Steward in The Operature until the end. The work speaks laregly in metaphor, relating Steward’s sterile analysis of his sex life to the anatomical theatres of early modern medicine. Each participant in his sexual escapades was documented in a formulaic, unemotional fashion. The mood of The Operature echoes these memoirs, with each of its four performers executing Jeffery’s staccato movements by rote and reciting monotone text with a flat affect (assumably deliberate).
At times the viewer feels as thought he’s in a college lecture, listening to a topic or subject about which he has no understanding. At first this created anxiety; I felt as though if I tried harder or paid more attention I might understand. As time went on I entered a phase of acceptance – like one of those lectures where you try to take in as much as possible, knowing you can look it up in the book later. Combined with greater transparency of meaning in the latter half of the work, the beauty of The Operature began to emerge.
It speaks in tongues, and yet makes perfect sense. The technology employed continually fails, but perhaps this is by design. The Operature is about sex, but it is not sexy. The world created by Atom-r is one of complete mystery and fascination, and I think, by and large, that is the main objective.
Atom-r presents The Operature, running through Saturday, March 30 at the National Museum of Health and Medicine (175 W. Washington). Ticket are $10-15 available at http://bit.ly/1kmvPid