Photo by Mario Del Curto

London-based interdisciplinary artist Maria Maria Ribot, a.k.a. La Ribot, debuts this week at Highways with Más Distinguidas and Still Distinguished, the second and third installments in a series incorporating a broad range of expressive forms. We wanted to write about her, but we didn’t know how or where: Is La Ribot a dancer or a performance artist? And does it matter? In an effort to understand all this, we — dance critic Sara Wolf and performance artist Ron Athey — sat down to argue over where dance ends and performance art begins, or vice versa.


RON ATHEY: Last March, I saw La Ribot at Tate Modern performing in the “Live Culture” season, a major lineup of live art (what we call “performance art” in the U.S.). It was set in a stark gallery space with no technical support, and it signaled for me the absolute return of performance to its 1960s non-theatrical origins. She makes brilliant use of cheap everyday props (like anything red — wig, furniture, food), and somehow it’s equally comical and sinister.


SARA WOLF: That’s interesting, because I consider her a dancer and choreographer who incorporates visual, video and performance-art practices into the solo form.


R.A.: It’s true that I first saw Más Distinguidas on a dance stage, which was gratifying because of the production values and seating, which you don’t always get when you see performance art. But Still Distinguished has even less of a leg in dance, and it has many hands in visual and action arts. Certainly a dancer’s walk possesses a trained awareness and poise, but for me La Ribot’s pieces don’t hinge on their use of choreography. Instead, she uses different performing techniques to make a clear jump to visual art.

Maria is a dancer, but she has moved into another genre.


S.W.: I don’t think she’s abandoned dance at all. More than body awareness, La Ribot clearly has extensive classical training, which she employs to great effect. Besides such obvious pieces as the arm ballet “Missunderstanding” or the 10-count accumulation of semaphore gestures in “Numeranda,” there’s the matter of how she scores object manipulations to music.

Take, for example, the series of actions she performs in “Oh! Compositione”: standing on a chair draped in a chartreuse ballroom gown; drinking a glass of water; belting out a note while tossing a cup, dress and chair across the room. All of it’s assiduously timed to correspond to the mounting crescendo of a maudlin opera aria.

Likewise, in “No. 26” she draws on her body by holding a blue grease pencil in place and “dancing” against it, with long strokes and short staccato moments creating designs across her skin in tandem with the music. She’s a mess by the end, but this is no raw, cathartic experience; every minute is rigorously choreographed. In my mind, it’s La Ribot’s exacting precision that uplifts what otherwise would be just another stale performance-art tactic.

As a dance critic, I read Más Distinguidas as a sophisticated comment on the artifice of grand-scale theatrical performance. From the blank slate of her naked body being continually “made up” in various costumes (hanger and all) down to the blue-haired balletomanes she wittily invokes in “Divana,” she’s breaking down the terms of exchange between the audience and performer — all those illusionary tricks the high-art dance world has come to rely on — even while adhering to such basic modernist principles as rhythmic unity and the marriage of music and movement.


R.A.: I think you’re trying to make a case that every move that a dancer makes is dance, but that’s bullshit. At some point the genre’s been left behind. In her piece “Narcisa a’ Vendre,” La Ribot takes Polaroids of her breasts and muff, then tapes the pics on her body so the developing process happens on the represented bit. Striking a pose of rapture, she keeps checking on how the colors are warming up. This is the kind of performance you can imagine being taught at art school; it’s so classic. But she makes something more out of it, just as elsewhere her work makes magic out of crayons and bright pieces of cloth. And it’s amazing how your vision of her beauty changes through her actions. In “No. 14” she steps into a wooden folding chair, which violently clacks away around her midsection. It’s as if she’s fucking it. Or it’s fucking her.


S.W.: Are La Ribot’s gallery performances free? Live art often costs nothing, but dance almost always requires paid admission. Also, while gallery happenings have the air of a casual party among friends, you can’t say the same about big-name dance concerts, such as the Martha Graham Dance Company, which is on tour again at a whopping $75 a ticket.


R.A.: Performance sometimes has to be free because the pieces are so short. At the Tate Modern installation, La Ribot’s ticket price was comparable to seeing an exhibition at MOCA, but you could circulate among her or Guillermo Gómez Peña or Forced Entertainment (a sort of British Wooster Group), as well as live-art related video. La Ribot’s premiere at Highways costs money too, but her short pieces add up to a full bill. But I wonder about someone equally brilliant, like body artist Franko B., whose performance can clock in at under 10 minutes — could a crowd that shelled out $15 to $20 deal with the brevity? Audiences come with expectations when they sit in seats waiting for a show to begin.


S.W.: Maybe the problem you’re having calling La Ribot’s work dance is that dance just doesn’t have the street cred of performance art — or the same renegade-styling, edge-seeking audiences. If you’re trying to get the cool kids on the block to come to an event, you have to call it performance. And the cachet of performing in a gallery, the instant status it grants, can’t be denied. Maria Ribot’s work certainly wasn’t getting much respect among the dance community in her native Madrid, at least not until last year when she received one of the Spanish government’s most prestigious arts awards, the Premio Nacional de Danza.

But there’s a fair amount of shared history and crossover between dance, performance art and visual art that tends to get overlooked by each camp. Self-reflexive commentary, irony, object manipulation and task execution were fundamental in lots of postmodern dance experiments by choreographers and artists such as Robert Rauschenberg, Yvonne Rainer, Robert Morris, Steve Paxton and Trisha Brown.

I love that, as beautiful as she is, La Ribot allows herself to appear ridiculous or even grotesque — as she does in “No. 14,” which is a hoot. Her deadpan face and perfunctory manner of performing add to the absurdity, and in some ways inure us to her constant nudity.

In other works, though, she’s putting a much more passive body on display. The naked female body becomes an object to be manipulated, not a body that is manipulating objects to make a statement, like in the previous series. This is really clear in the way she trusses herself up with cord and attaches a giant label reading “Outsize baggage” in the solo of the same name. It’s a sardonic pun on the pop-psychology adage, but more than luggage, she reminds me of a prized salami — an aesthetic object ready to be consumed. But does such willful self-transformation automatically classify her work as performance art?


R.A.: Nudity has mostly become a cliché of performance art. I recently taught a two-week performance workshop at CalArts and found it remarkable that almost all of the students thought public nudity was tired. This from a school famous for on-campus nudity! While nakedness is the point of some of her pieces, Maria often goes beyond just being nude; it’s a state of transition to the next incarnation.

By the way, she sells her Piezas Distinguidas like visual-art objects. For a mere 200 pounds, the proprietor’s name is acknowledged whenever and wherever a solo is performed. Among the patrons listed on the Highways lineup, I noticed that Franko B. and choreographers Jerome Bel and Mathilde Monniere “own” pieces.


S.W.: Now, that’s brilliant. Dance and performance sometimes stay low on the arts totem pole because they’re ephemeral, but this could open a whole new field in art collecting: Maybe one day all dancers will figure out how to “sell” their works. But then would we have to call it all “visual art”?

By the way, I think “Narcisa a’ Vendre” is still for sale.

Más Distinguidas and Still Distinguished at Highways, 1651 18th St., Santa Monica; Thurs.-Sat. 8:30 p.m., Sat. only 10:30 p.m.; $18. 310-315-1459.

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