I slipped into the charmingly seedy theater of the Coney Island Museum just as a man dressed as a clown, who I would later discover to be Scary Ben, co-founder of Bushwick Burlesque, finished speaking about Marina Abramović’s “The Artist Is Present.” If you are semi-literate in the arts, you already know about this piece, where Abramović sat in the Museum of Modern Art every day for three months and allowed anyone to sit across from her. She then held their gaze. That was it. Some people cried. James Franco showed up, as did Abramović’s long-term partner Ulay, with whom she had done some of her most iconic work and had rarely seen since they ended their relationship in 1988, by walking from opposite ends of the Great Wall of China to say goodbye in the center. People waited in line for hours to sit across from Marina. A documentary was made. It was an enormous success.
For many people, myself included, this was their first introduction to Abramović. However, she’s been creating art since the 1970s, and “Limitless,” the show I was attending, was a burlesque tribute to her decades-long career. Bushwick Burlesque asked their performers “to choose a piece Marina has created or presented, and re-imagine it via the lens of Absurdest Cabaret – to take on serious work, with a serious attitude and a serious intention, but also with the intention of ‘distortion of the mind.’”
Context established, Scary Ben introduced Zoe Ziegfeld, who would be performing “The Stripper Is Present.” Ziegfeld walked onstage in a string bikini, garter belt, and towering heels, with long black curls halfway down her back. She took a seat at a stool at the front of the stage, resting her feet on the stage’s low railing, back ramrod straight. She eyed the audience evenly. I checked my phone – it was 9:35 pm.
After a few moments of silence, a man in a kilt descended from the bleachers, stood in front of her, and held eye contact for a moment. Then he took a seat. The man sitting next to me walked up and handed her a dollar bill. She looked at him calmly, tucked the bill into her garter belt, and untied the knotted bikini strings between her breasts, all without breaking his gaze.
It moved quickly, then: audience members would present Ziegfeld with a dollar and she would accept it, fold it into her garter, and remove an item of clothing, in a kind of slow-motion strip tease. By 9:40, she was entirely nude. With the next dollar, she spread her legs. With the next, she took off her wig. Then her earrings. By the time she was peeling off her fake eyelashes, the audience was laughing. A woman handed her a dollar, leaned in, and whispered something – “I love you” or “Thank you,” I couldn’t tell. By 9:50, she was gracefully struggling to fit any more bills into her garter belt. At 9:51 she exited the stage to rapturous applause.
Each piece put the promised cabaret twist on an Abramović performance. Darlinda Just Darlinda stood onstage entirely nude, affixing rhinestones to her arms, breasts, and hips while chanting, “Art must be beautiful. Artists must be beautiful.” One highlight was Matt Knife & Johnny Panic, who did a pas de deux of clothing removal, finally ripping their pants off Magic-Mike style to reveal black jockstraps and a lot of glitter. They moved ever closer to each other in what was one of the few truly erotic moments of the night, before kissing, rocking back and forth and and exchanging breath a la Breathing In/Breathing Out. While they didn’t pass out, as in the original, they did outlast their music before pulling apart, looking mildly dazed, and then walking offstage hand in hand.
Audience members would present Ziegfeld with a dollar and she would accept it, fold it into her garter, and remove an item of clothing, in a kind of slow-motion strip tease. By 9:40, she was entirely nude.
The final performance of the night, titled “Explosions, A Portrait of Romance,” was by Melody Jane, who came onstage in full cabaret gear: a little black wig, floor-length blue gown, feather boa, and long gloves. While we were warned ahead of time that this performance has proved “boundary-pushing” at its first presentation, it started off with a classic striptease to upbeat jazz. Afterwards, Jane sat at a table onstage and poured herself a glass of wine. (“Respect,” I wrote in my notes.) She then moved to the front of the stage and kneeled facing the audience. She lit a candle. Somehow a flogger appeared. She flogged herself, stone-faced, for what seemed like an impossibly long time. She then removed the lacy thong, pasties, and wig she was wearing, revealing auburn hair and some nasty welts from the flogger. Finally, she peeled off what appeared to be a cloth merkin, revealing a razorblade in a safety case.
Standing before the audience, she began to sing, quite beautifully, what I later identified as Lhasa’s “Fools Gold.” She still had a heart shaped out of rhinestones on her left breast, which she peeled them off slowly as she sang. [Ed. note: The rhinestone heart on Melody Jane was actually covering her scar from the first time she performed the piece.] Now entirely nude, she took the razorblade and traced the outline where the rhinestones had been, carving a heart into her own chest. She sang flawlessly throughout, showing no sign of pain. I realized my mouth was actually open in astonishment. Other audience members were visibly cringing. A few covered their eyes.
Blood dripping down her torso, she moved to a large tub on the side of the stage and ritualistically washed herself with a cloth, singing all the time. The piece ended with her standing at the center of the stage, sopping wet, still bleeding. It was astonishing.
Scary Ben returned to the stage to announce a “gallery walk,” where audience members could interact with the performers stationed around the room, before the close of the show. I finished my PBR and left then, a little bit stunned but mostly impressed. I worried the performances would go over my head: I’m no art critic, and the only burlesque I’d seen before that night was Dita Von Teese on Youtube. But they were thought-provoking, intense, occasionally disturbing, and certainly sexy. Abramović herself urged performers to reproduce her work, and while none of her pieces featured glitter, “Limitless” was certainly faithful to Abramović’s ethos — complete commitment to the art.