Ryan McNamara’s “MEEM 4 Boston: A Story Ballet About the Internet” is a trip. Literally. If you entered the Institute of Contemporary Art’s Barbara Lee Family Foundation Theater this past weekend, you found yourself sitting not in the usual permanent seats but in chairs on the stage. And at regular intervals during the 70-minute piece, a “mover” tilted you and your chair onto a specially designed dolly and shuttled you to another part of the stage, or another part of the museum, anywhere that the discrete parts of “MEEM” were in performance. I’m not sure what story this piece tells, and the Internet connection seemed tenuous, but kudos to the ICA for meeting the logistical challenges and giving “MEEM” an opportunity to meme.
Born in Phoenix and now based in Brooklyn, McNamara was still a Hunter College student in 2010 when he presented, as part of MoMA PS1’s “Greater New York” survey, “Make Ryan a Dancer,” for which he hired professionals — including then American Ballet Theatre principal David Hallberg — to spend five months teaching him to dance. He went on to present at the Whitney Museum (a Whitney Houston karaoke night) and the Guggenheim Museum (a commissioned collaboration with John Zorn). “MEEM” premiered in 2013 at New York’s Performa Biennial; in 2014 McNamara did an enlarged version, “MEEM 4 Miami,” for Art Basel in Miami Beach.
Friday’s performance featured 16 dancers, 16 “movers,” and an audience of about 100. Since each chair was moved individually, no audience member saw the entire show, and no two audience members had the same experience. For about 20 minutes, I remained in the stage area watching three men on a five-foot-high platform gyrate to music that went from ambient and elevator to club, pop, and jazz. Then I was moved to the ICA’s large glass elevator, which dropped to the first floor and came back up every 30 seconds or so as two identically dressed women, one on each floor, synchronized their movement while reciting song lyrics like the Hollies’ “Bus stop, bus goes, she stays, love grows.”
Eventually I wound up in the café area on the ICA’s first floor watching two more women play out a slow dance, their heads on each other’s shoulders. At first an actual relationship looked to be developing, but then it got stuck in a loop, even as the James Bondish film music they danced to evolved into a loop of the theme from “You Only Live Twice.” Last stop before going back up was the Fineberg Art Wall, where a man with an Egyptian death mask printed on his shirt posed, moved in slow motion, and burst into Irish stepdancing while two poker-faced women, boasting the same death mask, stood against the wall.
Back in the Barbara Lee Theater, I found myself looking out at Boston Harbor and seeing the platform performance behind me reflected in the window. I could hear snatches of the Zombies’ “She’s Not There” and the names of the dancers being read out. Then music and movement stopped and the house lights came on.
The dance component of “MEEM” is hard to gauge. It’s said to have been scavenged from Youtube videos ranging from Martha Graham to Michael Jackson, but neither was apparent in what I saw. And though one section developed out of a three-second Tina Turner clip and another from a Jerome Robbins spin, these references didn’t register when taken out of context. My experience of “MEEM” had nothing arresting to say about movement. But the point here isn’t about how we dance; it’s about how we watch ourselves dance.
MEEM 4Boston: A Story Ballet About the Internet
Performed by Ryan McNamara. At: Institute of Contemporary Art, Friday, April 18.Jeffrey Gantz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.