Review: A Dance to John Cage’s Very Short Stories

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“In Zen they say: If something is boring after two minutes, try it for four. If still boring, try it for eight, 16, 32 and so on. Eventually one discovers that it’s not boring at all but very interesting.”

So goes one of the 90 stories, each a minute long, in John Cage’s “Indeterminacy,” a score he first recorded in 1959 on an album with the pianist David Tudor. On Tuesday at La MaMa in the East Village, the veteran downtown performer Paul Lazar, joined by six special guests, recited most of those stories — “minus a few I didn’t like,” Lazar said at the top of the show — in random order, while completing a nonrandom sequence of gestures and steps, a choreographed dance.

The “if something is boring” story arrived about halfway through, and it drifted back into my consciousness when the work, “Cage Shuffle Marathon,” ended sooner than I had expected. Granted, with the omitted stories, it clocked in at shorter than the advertised 90 minutes. But it was also the kind of performance that rewarded patient attention, in which somehow, the longer you watched, the greater your capacity to keep watching.

Or maybe I was just waiting for more to happen. Lazar — a founder, with the choreographer Annie-B Parson, of Big Dance Theater — has been performing “Cage Shuffle” since 2017, and the setup, which he explained with the easy familiarity that enlivened the whole evening, is fairly simple. An earbud feeds him Cage’s stories on shuffle, so he never knows what’s coming next, but the order of the dance, which he choreographed with Parson, is fixed. The casual-looking moves include a squiggling elbow, a lowering to one knee, fingers tapping the soles of feet.

In the spirit of chance, which shaped so much of Cage’s work, the alignments that emerge between words and motion are serendipitous, and noticing them becomes a kind of game. On Tuesday, these included a caress of the sternum to the line “set your spirit free” and shoes scuffing the floor to “the feet are a little bit off the ground.” Misalignments were just as delightful, like the mundane, plodding pivots that punctuated a dramatic question in a story about Cage’s grandmother: “John, are you ready for the second coming of the Lord?”

For this “marathon” version, featuring more stories than usual, Lazar has recruited a supporting cast of performers and writers, all treasures of New York’s experimental dance and theater scenes: Jess Barbagallo, Patricia Hoffbauer, Jennifer Krasinski, Brian Rogers and Sheryl Sutton. From their seats onstage, around the square of red flooring that centers the action, each takes the spotlight for a single story, giving Lazar a chance to rest. Parson also joins in briefly. This is where I found myself anticipating more: It seemed unusual to gather so many distinguished guests for each to contribute — in ways other than silently observing — only once.

Their interventions brought welcome variations in timing and energy, beyond the shifts in pacing necessitated by tailoring each story, however wordy, to the space of a minute. While the material fit Lazar like a pair of worn slippers — to the point where he could toss off clever metacommentary — the others were just getting comfortable with it. The freshness of discovery crackled in Barbagallo’s comic, emphatic delivery of a story about an Aunt Marge (“You know, I love this machine much more than I do your Uncle Walter”); in Krasinski’s bright, darting alertness; in Hoffbauer’s mix of focus and frenzy. Sutton and Rogers, both staying seated as they spoke, offered notes of calm yet vivid understatement.

When they all started moving together at once, I expected the beginning of another phase of the work, my interest piqued. It was actually the end — a jolt back into a different kind of awareness, after getting lost in the passing minutes.

Cage Shuffle Marathon

Through Saturday at La MaMa, Manhattan; lamama.org.

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