Michael Portnoy: Upstart Pissing On the Contemporary Mix

by Derek Yip

PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art, NO. 61 (January 1999), pp. 36-44

Michael Portnoy is a performance artist/dancer/musician and all-around multimedia artist who has been performing and perfecting his installations for the past five years. Recently he performed an ongoing improvisational dance piece as part of The New Stuff Festival at Performance Space 122 in New York City, describing himself in the program notes as a shower. Perhaps you know him under another moniker as well.

Entitled "The Shattering Of All Undertakings That Presuppose Man To Be Something," Portnoy's performance was explained as a solo dance piece. No surprise then (albeit somewhat confusing), that what quietly began in the low-illuminated red glow as a quizzical dialogue between two men reading their lines right off the actual script, with one person lobbing imaginary objects at the audience, soon developed into an ensemble piece with five people. As a woman off to the side of the stage commented, "No one on stage knows anyone else on stage," a woman on the other side was scratching herself to the sound of a mosquito-like noise emanating from the house. The first woman began blurting out varying, and at times, conflicting and amusing commentary on sex. Meanwhile, Portnoy had slithered out to center stage, shirtless, in red leather-like pants and wooden clogs, accessorized only with periwinkle armbands and a flimsy scarf. A jerky, contorted dance was performed, his muscles tensing up to the rhythm of the computer music that by now had enveloped the space. In an effort to elicit some opinions, a bleached blonde walked up to the audience members and showed them slides. At stage left two films were projected on the wall, one of a shower scene, and the other of a motorcycle being dismantled. Portnoy was standing in the front rows, eyes closed in a trance, making guttural noises with the activities of his varied ensemble providing the backdrop.

Energetic and about ready to spiral out of control, the performance was chaotic. While I believed this to have been Portnoy's intent, he notifies me after the performance that this was in fact the debut during the run of the festival of the piece as a non-solo act. Earlier in the day he had enlisted the help of a few friends and culled the remaining performers from headshots gathered in his apartment. [End Page 36]

Portnoy, originally from Bethesda, Maryland, came to New York five years ago with the sole purpose of becoming an established artist. It seems the only matter that does not agree with him, as any other artist will surely confirm, is the nature of the struggle. Relying on other gigs to survive, Portnoy was cast as an extra in an Elton John video, and the casting director for that shoot then hired him to perform as a dancer on the Grammy Awards during Bob Dylan's performance this past February.

In what could only be termed one of the unexpected highlights of the 1998 Grammy Awards Ceremony at Radio City Music Hall, Dylan performed Love Sick in makeup paler than his whiter-shaded appearance in Reinaldo and Clara. The harsh white floor exacerbated his sickly appearance, as dancers dressed in black forcibly swayed behind the musician to the funereal song. Suddenly Portnoy appears from out of nowhere, with the words "Soy Bomb" emblazoned across his chest, and with his face contorted in a grotesque manner, begins his dance. For the next forty seconds, the national television audience is subjected to this assault on their senses in the comfort of their homes, as the technical directors of the show have no idea that "Soy Bomb" is not a part of the act. In fact, the wide shots of the band with Portnoy dancing alongside Dylan seem to linger for an eternity, until Portnoy is hustled off. Dylan, to his credit, didn't flinch, and even delivered an effective guitar solo following the incident. Meanwhile, Portnoy had parlayed away his $200 fee for the night when he was thrown out of Radio City Music Hall without his clothes (he took the subway with a sheet wrapped around his body), in exchange for some notoriety.

Embarrassed, Grammy exec Michael Greene apologized for the debacle-cum-spectacle, cluelessly suggesting a mosh pit for the next year's Grammys. Within hours, and continuing for days, the subject of Soy Bomb dominated the posts of Dylan fans on the internet. Portnoy explained to the press that this was not a critique of Dylan, but that he meant Soy Bomb as a "spontaneous explosion of the self" to re-invigorate the currently bland music scene that exists. Although one couldn't help thinking of the flatulent implications of such wording, it was clear that Portnoy was no potential Mark David Chapman, however incensed the Dylan fanbase had been about the possibility. Portnoy is not an obsessed fan; his Dylan vocabulary extends only to "Blowin' In the Wind," "Lay Lady Lay," and "Subterranean Homesick Blues," which he isn't able to name but refers to as "that song with the flash cards, which I rather like."

Quick to fill in the gaps of the Soy Bomb mystery, a Soy Bomb Nation manifesto was immediately issued on the World Wide Web by others, replete with a list of demands and a humorously detailed description behind the name, ironically making sense in more ways than Portnoy's soundbites. Delving further, it turned out this was nothing other than a promotional and marketing ploy instigated by TVT Records and WBAI-FM hip-hop deejay Jay Smooth.

Meanwhile, the real Soy Bomb was asked to appear on several television and radio shows as a gimmick. Although Michael Portnoy appreciates the humor of his escapades, he is far from the psychotic nut he's been made out to be. A very [End Page 37] serious-minded artist, who without the twisted facial gestures of his Radio City Music Hall performance appears extremely gentle in person, he has yet to be recognized in public, other than by his pharmacist, who complimented his dance.

What follows are excerpts of a conversation we had the day after I attended his P.S. 122 performance: