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Review: A ‘Party in the Bardo’ for a City in Transition

Review: A ‘Party in the Bardo’ for a City in Transition

New York City is in a liminal state: partially vaccinated while still in the grip of Covid-19; beckoning cautiously masked people outside with the blossoming spring; and reopening indoor performance venues at last, but with caveats that color every show with reminders of the continuing pandemic.

This moment of in-betweenness is like “that scene in the movie when the prisoner wakes up, and the jail door has swung open and no one’s around,” the polymathic artist Laurie Anderson said on Friday during “Party in the Bardo,” her collaboration with the jazz luminary Jason Moran at the Park Avenue Armory. “So … what’s happening next? Can I just go?”

There’s another fitting metaphor, the one that gives Anderson and Moran’s project its title: the bardo, the Tibetan Buddhist transition between death and rebirth that has been described as a 49-day process during which energy prepares to take on a new life. It’s a long-held preoccupation of Anderson’s, the theme of her poetic 2015 film, “Heart of a Dog,” and the namesake of a late-night radio show she hosted last year as part of a Wesleyan University residency — also called “Party in the Bardo,” whose guests included Moran.

“Party in the Bardo” — the version at the Armory, presented to an audience of a little more than 100 in its 55,000-square-foot drill hall — is, like many projects by both Anderson and Moran, difficult to label. It would be too limiting to call it a performance or an elegy. Or an installation, though it included one in the form of “Lou Reed: Drones,” a sound-bathlike work assembled from Reed’s guitars by his former technician Stewart Hurwood. (Reed, who died in 2013, was Anderson’s partner for the last two decades of his life.)

More than anything, “Party in the Bardo” is a vibe — an hourlong immersion into an environment that is both intensely visual, with continuous tai chi by Ren GuangYi and Haobo Zhao, and a large mirror ball kinetically reflecting lights on every surface of the drill hall; and chaotically musical, with Anderson, Moran and a small group of fellow artists in a series of structured, often simultaneous improvisations layered atop “Drones.” Those of us in the audience were given cardboard mats, to feel it all through the floor if we wanted. I spent a good 20 minutes lying in savasana, vibing.

Spread throughout the space, the players — Louie Belogenis and Stan Harrison on saxophone, Susie Ibarra on percussion and Vernon Reid on guitar, in addition to Moran on piano and Anderson on violin and vocals — were not unlike the ethereal, chattering personalities in the colloquy-as-novel “Lincoln in the Bardo,” by George Saunders. There were distinct notes, distinct voices, but they were only fleeting, coming and going as quickly as the lights on the floor.

The clearest sounds came in moments of transition: at the start, Anderson bowing the lowest string of her violin while Moran rumbled the piano’s deepest registers as if building a foundation; and at a later ebb, when the drones were pierced by painfully human wails coming from the saxophones at opposite ends of the room.

Two readers, Afrika Davis and Lucille Vasquez, spoke text I couldn’t make out until I realized, near the end, that it was a list of the pandemic’s victims. How many, of the nearly 33,000 in New York City alone, could have been named in an hour? To do them justice would require mourning on a mass scale — bigger than Friday’s artistic expression of grief for a privileged few.

With the worldwide death toll continuing to inch higher by the day, it will take time to truly process the tragedies of the past year. It will take time, too, for live performances to resume comfortably. During the curtain call at the Armory, the artists bowed with their arms out but their hands at a safe distance — a reminder that we may have spent an hour partying in the bardo, but we are still very much in it.

Party in the Bardo

Through Sunday at the Park Avenue Armory, Manhattan; armoryonpark.org.

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