Alex Prager, La Grande Sortie, 2015. Image courtesy of the artist and Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong.
Do artists feel stage fright? It’s not the first question you might ask when thinking about the life of an artist. But upon considering the multitude of vulnerable situations that artists encounter (when they debut a daring new body of work to a roomful of collectors or the press, for example), it seems safe to say that stage fright, or some form of performance anxiety, is part of the plight of being an artist. For a 2015 commission for the Paris Opera Ballet, Los Angeles artist and filmmaker Alex Prager channeled these emotions into a 10-minute film, La Grande Sortie, which pictures a prima ballerina as she warily returns to the stage after a hiatus. This fall, Prager presents the film anew at Lehmann Maupin’s Lower East Side gallery, alongside a new series of photographs inspired by it. The film itself conjures the anxieties of being alone on a stage, performing a role and facing criticism, and now in New York, Prager gives her New York audience a taste of how that feels.
Prager is perhaps best known for her 2013 film Face in the Crowd, which sees a blonde starlet, played by Elizabeth Banks, wander through swarms of strangers. For La Grande Sortie she extends her explorations into crowd dynamics to include the relationships between performers and audiences. “I felt that through my own experiences with public speaking and how my body could suddenly become not in my control—sweaty palms, dry mouth, shaking, and worse things—it was a powerful subject that I was sure others would be able to relate to,” Prager recently told Artsy. Beyond those who’ve experienced being frozen on stage, the work is relatable to anyone who has felt the debilitating inner turmoil that nerves can cause.
La Grande Sortie follows a ballerina, played by French dancer Émilie Cozette, as she performs for the first time in a year. As she takes the stage, legs shaking, eyes darting back and forth scanning the theater’s inhabitants, she becomes consumed with her audience—individuals shown in various states of distraction, boredom, and derision. (A man whispers to his wife; a woman fans herself with her program; someone gets up to use the restroom.) The work finishes when Cozette locks eye with a smug woman in the audience, who she recognizes as herself, causing the dancer to dramatically disapparate. For the show in New York, Prager sought to bring the palpable emotional turmoil of the film into the gallery.
Upon entering the new exhibition on opening night, gallery-goers will be propelled into the roles of both audience and performer, thanks to Prager’s curatorial direction. “The film takes the viewpoint of the performer, and the exhibition takes the viewpoint of the audience,” she said. “I like that the question becomes ‘who is watching who?’” The gallery’s ground floor is hung with large-scale color photographs that Prager shot on set during the film that picture the visibly dissatisfied or distracted spectators. “So when you have people viewing the works you will have two sets of audience—the audience on the walls, and the audience in the gallery,” the artist noted. Upstairs, visitors can watch La Grande Sortie.
And twice on opening night, the tension between audience and performer will be heightened as ballet dancers penetrate the space, performing original choreography set to Bohuslav Martinů’s 1925 composition Film en Miniature. Amid the audience staged by Prager’s photographs, the live audience will “hopefully [experience] something they find beautiful but also uncomfortable, because the ballet dancers will be in a space that people are not used to seeing them in, at a proximity which is way too close,” she explained. “You will hear the sounds of their breath as they dance, the scraping of their shoes against the gallery floor,” she adds, among other visceral elements of the performance.
“I think I love mixing these fantasy worlds and the real world because you end up getting the beautiful right alongside these other things that can be very uncomfortable,” Prager explained. For those of us who can relate to the tremors of stage fright, Prager’s show may just help us face our fears.
“La Grande Sortie” is on view at Lehmann Maupin, New York, Sept. 7–Oct. 23, 2016. Opening reception: Sept. 7, 6–8 p.m., with performances at 6:30 and 7:30 p.m.