But just what [7mis[22;27m she deconstructing now that 1980s downtown aesthetics have become cliches in their own right and the Age of Irony is retro? As intellectually evasive as it is texturally engaging, “The Nerve Bible” — headed for a brief Broadway stand in April — finds performance art’s foremost post-modernist running low on fresh tricks. The coy pretense of meaning just doesn’t go as far as it used to.
Inasmuch as one can nail a clear theme amid the various fragmentary jokes, stories and existential red herrings here, “Nerve” centers on notions of time and mortality. The approach is sometimes personal: There are amusing reminiscences about the grandmother whose promised biblical apocalypse didn’t arrive on schedule, and of surreal adventures in weapons-happy Israel. Sometimes it’s more general, as in cryptic or inane invented aphorisms like “History is stories that are only half-remembered, and most of them are never written down.” More provocatively, multiple screens show “beautiful” smart bombs detonating in Gulf War combat skies “like fireflies on a summer night.”
Anderson is less arch than she used to be, less dependent on the satire of middlebrow banalities. She can still be glib and condescending, however, as when film-clipped native island dancers are shown framed by the postcard greeting “Wish You Were Here!” Her emotional range hasn’t expanded overtime.
By far the evening’s most engrossing seg takes place sans all visual and sonic additives just before intermission. Anderson simply tells of a recent near-death experience she had in Tibet: Succumbing to extreme altitude sickness, she was kept conscious by a fellow traveler’s constant monologuing. “Maybe you know what it’s like to be saved this way, just by the sound of another person’s voice,” she says.
That story encapsulates Anderson’s appeal as a quirky, querying Everyperson. But time and again, posturing coolness gets in the way of such intimacy and fails to provide a coherent overall thesis. The restless, in-jokey text (cobbled together, like the music, from several recent years’ efforts) suggests less hidden depths than art-school standup.
This hollow center grows wearying by night’s end, especially given the perf’s increasing formlessness. But one can’t deny the exquisite design package Anderson has assembled. Casually clad (save for a couple of bodysuits wired for percussive use), she doesn’t provide much in the way of personal movement or imagistic thrill. In some ways, she doesn’t need to — the mix of stills, video and film footage, computer graphics and simple animation projected onto three sliding screens is often gorgeous in a purely textural way.
In the second half of the perf, set designer Chris Muller adds a hanging cube and globe as further “screens.” Throughout, Michael Chybowski’s lighting contributes greatly to the beautiful color effects.
Musical aspects are less satisfying. Anderson’s production sense has evolved from her early-’80s minimalism, but her composing still draws on a limited palette. Stretches that most closely approach conventional song structure nonetheless find their melodic potential overwhelmed by those talk-singing lyrics; a dissonant violin chord that’s the evening’s aural motif soon grows irritating.
At the end, Anderson disappears into a smoky fan of green laser light, still playing her signature violin. It’s another unquestionably lovely image. But the clean, abstract look, pop culture references and elliptical flavors of “The Nerve Bible” can’t lend it soul. What looked fresh a decade ago now looks like just another form of technologically progressive, intellectually shallow mind candy.