NEW YORK — Just hours before surprising fans by joining Clipse onstage at the Diesel party , [artist id="1230523"]Kanye West[/artist] was sitting in the small Performance Space 122, watching a group of downtown performance artists pay tribute to his latest album, 808s & Heartbreak.
In the new show, “Why Won’t You Let Me Be Great!!!” (named after a quote from one of Kanye’s fiery blog posts), post-modern dancers, video artists and cabaret legends reinterpret West’s highly personal 2008 album in fresh, and sometimes controversial, ways.
The show kicked off with an experimental animated film called “Say You Will (Kanye West at the Scale of My Household)” by Karinne Keithley, who is also renowned for her performance of Guns N’ Roses “Sweet Child O’ Mine” on ukelele.
Miniature horse figurines, snail shells and sweater buttons twirled around while 808s opener “Say You Will” was performed by female vocalists who sounded like avant-pop group CocoRosie.
Then, show co-creator Neal Medlyn appeared onstage and spazzed out to “Welcome to Heartbreak.” His dancing comprised of showing off his double-jointed thumbs and head-thrashing. What began as a silly display quickly turned into an eerie vision, as a naked woman emerged in the back of the stage and mimicked Neal’s increasingly harrowing movements.
The nude figure stayed for the album’s next track, “Heartless,” and was joined by several other dancers in a routine “constructed” by Christine Elmo. At one point, she contorted to make her upper torso seemingly disappear, thus making her appear literally heartless (as well as stomach-less, arm-less, and headless.) The sight of disembodied legs and buttocks slowly walking towards the audience was one of many unforgettable snapshots of the night.
The evening became tense and uncomfortable when notorious (and buck-naked) performance artist Ann Liv Young confronted Kanye personally, shouting that she didn’t think 808s was his best work, all the while grinding barbequed pork into her naked crotch (and then eating it). We all know Kanye is no stranger to confrontation and controversy, so perhaps Liv Young was paying tribute to that? In any case, the audience reacted with absolute horror during her “interpretation” of “Love Lockdown.” To Kanye’s credit, he barely flinched. (Liv Young rather shrewdly ended her performance by shouting, “I love your work with Common,” before gathering her clothes — and pork products — and scurrying offstage.)
Thankfully, video artist Myles Kane defused the tension with a playful live-video-editing demonstration to Kanye’s “Paranoid.” Kane brilliantly manipulated video footage of “RoboCop” and a blaxploitation flick, even intercutting between similar — and sometimes nearly identical — shots from the two disparate films. (The mood became even lighter once Varsity Interpretive Dance Squad bounded onstage, performing charmingly literal choreography to Kanye’s “RoboCop.”)
The final stretch of 808s — beginning with “Street Lights” — is especially dark and reflective. Thus, it was fitting that “Why Won’t You Let Me Be Great!!!” saved its most serious work for the end. Tony-nominated performer Kenny Mellman — of Kiki and Herb fame — delivered a gut-wrenching cover of “Street Lights” behind a piano while a woman’s sweater was slowly unraveled. Then, Dance Gang’s “Bad News” poetic choreography suggested that Kanye worked through his pain by evolving his art.
But it was Neal Medlyn’s grand finale that made the biggest impression on Kanye. Medlyn’s intensely emotional cover of album closer “Pinocchio’s Story” (while video of fireworks looped behind him) prompted West to seek out Neal after the show was over to tell him it moved him to tears. Medlyn and West talked for five minutes as the crowd of downtown artists looked in awe. The man they had just paid tribute to was now paying tribute to one of their own.
Conceived by Medlyn, former “MTV Detox” producer Brendan Kennedy and the dance crew Catch, “Why Won’t You Let Me Be Great!!!” is appearing at PS122 through Saturday.