Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

Imitation of Life

September 23, 2012

Bastian Trost, Sean Patten, and Berit Stumpf; in front: Simon Will
Photo by Steven Gunther/REDCAT 2012
CalArts’ downtown black box theater, REDCAT, kicked off its Fall season this weekend with another of the kind of performances that it's hard to find elsewhere around town. The multinational performance collective Gob Squad was the weekend’s guest and they brought with them one of their most well-received pieces from 2007, Gob Squad’s Kitchen (You’ve Never Had It So Good). It's a witty and supremely clever piece that builds level upon level in a game that takes on history and the way art serves as a form of fractured and inadequate memory. That may sound heavy, but the show itself is often outright silly with a metaphysical complexity lurking just below the surface.

The four onstage performers, Sean Patten, Berit Stumpf, Bastian Trost, and Simon Will originally appear as cast members in a triptych of films. There is already a certain artifice however in that the three “films” that are simultaneously projected on the large screen the audience is presented with are not really films but live black and white video feed of the performances the cast is carrying out immediately behind that same screen. The three projections are ostensibly recreations of some of the most famous films of Andy Warhol, most notable Sleep and Kitchen. Of course Warhol’s at times infuriatingly deconstructed and experimental films aren’t gripping material for the stage, but the Gob Squad players know this and instead give their characters plenty of dialog and action that reflects on the idea of Warhol’s film work as a time capsule and the way in which we view the historical relevance of artistic works. Sleep, a single shot film of someone sleeping, now becomes a satire of the acting process itself as various cast members reflect on their inability to get into the role of Warhol's original sleeper. Often Gob Squad's commentary is played for laughs as when Berit and Bastian pretend to snort instant coffee as a substitute for the drugs they assume their 1960s counterparts would have used. There are oodles of contemporary neuroses which serve as an intentional counterpoint to the exploratory angst of Warhol’s Factory and its many denizens.

Of course God Squad’s Kitchen goes even further in its intellectual gambit. Soon the boundaries between the three running films break down and cast members trade and exchange roles in different films taking over the performances of their peers. And by mid-way, each of the performers is furthermore replaced by a stand in randomly selected from the audience who appear in the live streamed performances as the original cast members sit in their former audience seats feeding them their lines one at a time. This most direct manner of implicating the audience in the performance is deft and highly affecting. On the opening night, the cast was blessed with superb and uncanny replacements including the gorgeous and super talented Ayana Hampton who craftily dove into the neurotic gay persona of Simon with zeal. Granted Gob Squad's Kitchen doesn't always maintain its intensity and can get caught up in its own absurdity veering towards tedium. But considering the source material of Warhol's own films. these are not qualities to be expunged, but celebrated. All of which were expertly done in this promising start to the REDCAT season.

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Brighten the Corners

August 13, 2012

Heather Woodbury Photo: Steven Gunther/REDCAT 2012
The final week of REDCAT’s New Original Works Festival was perhaps the strongest evening of this year’s shows, all of which featured the newest and most adventurous work from L.A.’s own. It was a particularly good year for the festival overall, especially on the theatrical side of things, and the final night was no exception. The night started off with an hour long snippet from theater iconoclast Heather Woodbury. Woodbury, of course, is known for her expansive multi-character pieces that aim to capture a world or moment in time more than a single dramatic arc. Her latest, As the Globe Warms, is another massive work that will take place over a projected six evenings condensed from 33 half-hour web series installments that were used in the work’s development process. Woodbury plays all the characters in this contemporary American landscape where the reality of ecological decline meets the world of American religious fanaticism and right wing politics. The short selection Woodbury delivered at REDCAT was a work out focusing on a Christian teen convention where one of the show’s protagonists, a teenage girl who gives spiritual voice to the natural world, has come to meet the followers of her online ministry. Woodbury delivers a wild array of young characters in the performance, flipping between the sounds and physicality of these young adults with ease. It was a work out of a turn, but one that was ultimately funny and completely enthralling in both its strangeness and simultaneous familiarity.

The evening’s center was filled with a new dance work, La Tribu from Melanie Ríos-Glaser. The title implies a sort of communal living arrangement and the four dancers, all women, were clothed in identical monotone jumpsuits emphasizing a sort of genderless neutral grouping of dancers. The performance was largely contained within something akin to a square rustic-appearing U-shaped corral complete with electric fans in the walls. The mismatched wood of the corral walls and some of the audio accompaniment implied something vaguely Latin American about the piece, but the almost gymnastic and utilitarian quality of the movement seemed to stray in quite of different direction. It was pleasant enough, but the references were a bit too oblique to follow in the larger sense.

The cast from Emily Mast's B!RDBRA!N Photo: Steven Gunther/REDCAT 2012
As for the concluding piece, Emily Mast’s B!RDBRA!N, it was in some ways the most sweeping and challenging work throughout the whole festival, serving as neither a dance work nor an explicit theater piece. The seven-member cast included a large elderly man and a young child as well as a man dressed as a parrot. They would come and go within a circumscribed performance where set pieces of brightly colored geometric objects would be placed and later removed. All of this referred obliquely to the work of French artist Guy de Cointet who worked in L.A. throughout the 1970s, as well as a true story of a 30-year avian language experiment. There were no outright narrative elements to the performance, but often the cast engaged in word games with each other, suggesting some of the oddities in which our brains process language. There was something playful and irreverent in the work that reminded me in a way of Jacques Tati, and the bright visual elements were equally as entertaining as the sometimes pointless stage action that concluded with an auction for a painting of nothing. The sheer warm spirit of the work and its bubbly clever cast made it a joy to experience, and it felt sophisticated and ground breaking at the same time. And in the end that is what the NOW Festival is really all about. This year especially, the works on offer often felt like they were in fact going somewhere, looking ahead to something larger and more adventurous is scope.


Dance to Remember

August 06, 2012

Jinku Kim's Untitled Photo: Steven Gunther/REDCAT 2012
The second week of REDCAT’s New Original Works Festival arrived last weekend with a lot of dance on its mind. Of course given the venue and the opportunity invited artists get to present works in progress, to call the two larger pieces on that bill “dance” understates the level of complexity and vision on offer. Ironically, both the dance works - Prumsodun Ok’s Of Land and Sky, and Nick+James’ Lake alluded to the power of myth in a contemporary social and political context. Of Land and Sky is a crafty adaptation of an adaptation. The original Cambodian myth at the core of the performance concerns the love between a peasant farmer and a goddess. This original is further filtered through a 1968 Cambodian film version of the story, Tep Sodachan directed by Lay Nguon Heng. Excerpts from the film relevant to the legend were projected on a screen behind the performers of Of Land and Sky and elements of the movie’s musical score were re-enacted by the cast on stage. In the film, the goddess and her fellow deities look down from above as a young farmer burdened with a baby looks on desperately from below appearing in a state of crisis. Prumsodun Ok further abstracts this story in live performance where the romance is now portrayed as being between two men as a group of bare-breasted goddess dancers surround the pair on stage. The movement favors the mythological and archetypal overall, but the gender and political implications of the piece are clear despite the multiple layers of slightly altered versions of similar story elements. There is particular unity here of the traditional with the more contemporary media environment, both in the movement as well as visual content of the piece. But the work at this early stage still feels short and a bit underdeveloped with narrative elements being hinted at more than explained. There are some lovely images including the live action peasant famer character discovering it is not a baby that he is holding wrapped in a blanket by a megaphone. But a certain lack of coordination in the overall corps of dancers and some allusions that are hard to decipher in the context of both the film and the stage presentation weigh the piece down at times.

From Promsodun Ok's Of Land and Sky Photo: Steven Gunther/REDCAT 2012
What followed and closed the evening, Nick+James’ Lake has no smaller set of ambitions. The choreographers and performers Nick Duran and Jmy James Kidd have worked extensively with the biggest names in contemporary dance. But their own work seen in development here seemed to distill many of those influences into something unexpected and new. The reference here is Narcissus and from the minute the audience entered the theater the Dionysian feeling prevailed with a small group of friends and audience members seated on colorful pillows and blankets around the dance space alongside a lotus-seated percussionist. Again bare-breasted women, this time draped in peach togas, strutted around before the primary dancers arrived. When Nick+James did, it couldn’t have been in starker contrast with both dressed in matching grey floor-length skirts and sweaters. There is a particular freedom in this paired movement filled as it was with allusions to any number of other choreographers. The two performers were less enraptured by their partnered “reflection” as Narcissus was with his own image. Instead the Narcissus myth is recast as about love or at least the way in which couples enter parallel existances to one another over time with their own set of flaws and imperfections.

From Nick+James' Lake Photo: Steven Gunther/REDCAT 2012
But oddly though, perhaps the piece I was most taken with on Thursday was the most out of place and arguably the one most devoid of actual performance. Jiku Kim’s Untitled exists on the border between performance and video art instillation. The work begins with three inverted pyramids of white boxes each of a different size suspended from above. The complete darkness of the performance space somewhat masks the inevitable fact of the matter: they are getting closer slowly but surely to the audience almost to the point of being directly above them. Soon the black and white lines, squares and squiggles of a video feed begin to fill the projection spaces of these large structures in rhythmic and rapidly synchronized patterns. It was like a video art version of Close Encounters of the Third Kind played out live with electric noise and music to set the tone. The images could be dizzying in their repetitiveness and brashness. But there was something overwhelming about the experience at once immediate and inviting and alienating, strange and threatening. The simple beauty of frantic energy of the work outshone its overall immediate lack of physical human involvement. It was hypnotic and all to brief of an experience and one that deserves further exploration.

The third and final week of the NOW Festival will kick on this coming Thursday August 9. But before then, it’s worth noting in perhaps the biggest news for REDCAT this year, the Elevator Repair Service company will return from Nov 29 thru Dec 9 for a limited run of their masterpiece, GATZ. I’ve written about the show as performed in New York two years back and can tell you from two separate viewings that this may be the most important single American theater event so far this century. The fact that the production and large cast that manages to reconstruct a dramatic, acted out reading of F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby is coming to L.A. is a major coup for the venue. The show has been wildly praised everywhere its gone including a recent West End run in London. It’s a stunner so don’t hesitate to buy a ticket for this daylong event when you have a chance. It may sound arduous at eight hours with three intermissions including one dinner break, but you’re unlikely to ever experience anything else like it.


Big Ideas. Now.

July 28, 2012

Jessica Emmanuel in Poor Dog Group's The Murder Ballad Photo: Steven Gunther/REDCAT 2012
The ninth edition of REDCAT’s New Original Works festival kicked off on Thursday. And if the opening weekend of this three week festival is any indication, this may be one of NOW’s most ambitious programs yet. Of course, the festival is all about exactly what it says, brand new works often in various stages of development. That can mean a raw unpolished feeling to some of the pieces, but it can also indicate a powerful unexpected energy. And while it is not a competition in any way, Thursday’s program started off with a piece that will be hard to beat in terms of depth, vision, and ferocious impact.

That hour long piece was from Los Angeles’ own Poor Dog Group, the experimental theater collective founded by former CalArts students in 2008. The work, The Murder Ballad, is different in scope from their former projects focusing more heavily on dance elements than prior outings. However, the understated impact, and the piece’s brazen, pointed reflections on race, sexual identity, and authority are more potent and succinctly put than just about anything I can remember in recent memory. The Murder Ballad takes its title from the lengthy blues song written by Jelly Roll Morton at the start of the 20th Century and only recorded by Alan Lomax in 1938 with the help of a little alcohol and 7 aluminum discs which captured the New Orleans legend. The performance is stunning and serves as the soundtrack for what is largely a dance piece with minimal spoken elements. The episodic tale, rife with curse words and explicit sex recounts the story of an African-American woman who murders a woman she has discovered is cheating with her man. She is eventually tried, sent to prison for life, and starts up a sexual relationship with another woman while there. Despite the obviously salacious elements of the story, there is a certain inevitability to the story as well, like Greek tragedy. It’s a sense that all of the things that happen to us are still somehow predetermined and that there is a beauty in that itself.

There are only two performers – the enthralling dancer Jessica Emmanuel who poses, struts, and almost flies throughout the entire length of the piece, not so much acting out the events of the song as suggesting the underlying unexpressed context like some modern day listener reflecting on how little we’ve changed despite our efforts to convince ourselves we have in the last hundred years. This all takes place on top of a white tarp with matching rear projection screen that occasionally provides live streaming images captured from above. Her lithe, at times nearly naked, form is periodically accompanied by a near comic counterpoint from actor Jesse Saler. He radiates sexuality just as easily as Ms. Emmanuel, soaked in his polo shirt and briefs with his large thighs providing a certain counterpoint to her lighter more delicate frame. The contrast in and of itself draws on issues about sexual identity and power relations that the piece, of course, doesn’t attempt to answer as much as explore the deeper meaning in Morton’s often funny, frequently explicit tale.

Jose Luis Blondet, Carolyn Shoemaker, and Juliana Snapper with Opera Povera Photo: Steven Gunther/REDCAT 2012
The works that followed covered very different areas in a more is more sort of fashion with varying degrees of success. The collective Opera Povera took on Pauline Oliveros’ To Valerie Solanas and Marilyn Monroe in Recognition of Their Desperation. The 1970 work was intended to capture Oliveros’ own response to the burgeoning feminist movement of the time drawing parallels between the two women in terms of the effect patriarchy had on their histories. The wordless hour long “opera” is scored mostly for sighs, gasps, and sobbing noises that were performed here by co-creator of the production Juliana Snapper and Carolyn Shoemaker. The staging that Snapper and Sean Griffin conceived further wrapped the elements in Oliveros’ score into the history of Cheryl Crane, the daughter of Lana Turner who would later stab and kill Johnny Stompanato in what she said was an effort to protect her mother. If this sounds like it’s getting complicated, it is, and the staging involves a handful of other characters as well who aren’t always clearly outlined. Cast members at times appear to be Solanas, Monroe, Turner, Crane, and others. Sometimes these references are taken seriously and others not, which is in the spirit of Oliveros’ music. But I’ll admit the references become so complicated that by midpoint it was harder and harder to maintain focus on the inexplicable stage events. And while the notion of the sobbing and gasping that fill the score were mesmerizing, the show did sink under the weight of its own pretentions in the end.

From Susan Simpson's Exhibit A Photo: Steven Gunther/REDCAT 2012
The closing work was Susan Simpson’s Exhibit A, a Los Angeles influenced fantasia of the mid-20th Century. Again electronic music elements were combined with an often comic theater performance that reflected on the 1948 draining of the Silverlake reservoir, the modernist utopian architecture of Richard Neutra, and Harry Hay and the history of the Mattachine Society. Simpson was fascinated by the parallels in the utopian mind set that informed Hay and Neutra as well as science fiction from the period that she had come across in papers at the ONE National Gay and Lesbian Archives at USC. Exhibit A takes off to space from there, imagining Hay, Neutra and others as part of an outer space exploratory cell headed for planet Edendale, Silverlake’s original neighborhood name. The characters are represented by huge wooden puppets that interact with the live jumpsuited cast freely. Landscape flies and is reformed with little warning. The piece dabbles in surreal kitsch and history freely, producing something that doesn’t take itself too seriously but loses steam before its conclusion. The connections are made, but the larger point seems diffuse and uncertain here. Still it’s a collision of great, local materials that begs out for further development.

It was the kind of evening one hopes for at the festival overall – works that overdose on ambition as opposed to those that feel like they have nowhere to go. The REDCAT curators are off to a spectacular start on this front this year, so be sure to check out the next two weeks of programming downtown.

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NOW Voyagers

July 23, 2012

From Poor Dog Group's The Murder Ballad Photo: Poor Dog Group
Attention! There is life for live performance in Los Angeles outside of the Hollywood Bowl. So get out of the heat and get ready for three weeks of hot off the press experimental everything when REDCAT kicks off its ninth annual Now Original Works festival (NOW) this very week on July 26. The festival continues this year with nine, count ‘em, nine new works in development covering music, dance, opera, and theater focusing heavily on local artists. There’s a lot to see, and these shows are typically some of the highlights of the entire programming year at REDCAT. And best of all it’s dirt cheap with passes running for only $36 for all three weeks. That dear reader, is a great deal to see new work from some very exciting folks.

Jinku Kim's work from NOW Festival Week 2 Photo: Jinku Kim
Where to start? How about with crafty LA-based theater collective Poor Dog Group who kick off the whole festival on July 26 with The Murder Ballad, a physical interpretation of Jelly Roll Morton’s classic 1938 recording. The group has an increasingly important position in the local theater scene and this new work promises to open a new chapter in their own history. I’m also intrigued to see To Valerie Solanas and Marilyn Monroe in Recognition of Their Desperation, an operatic staging by Opera Povera of Pauline Oliveros’ 1970 score. The wordless piece will be presented in the first week’s shows as well.

From Prumsdun OK's Of Land and Sky Photo: Poor Dog Group
At the other end of the festival is another pick that will close week three starting August 9 when Obie-award winner Heather Woodbury will unveil her latest wild and wandering dramatic narrative As the Globe Warms. The topic, as you might guess, is the social complexities surrounding the climate crisis, but Woodbury’s track record suggests this will likely be more than a mere inconvenient truth. There is plenty of dance during the festival as well and week 2, which starts August 2, offers new pieces from Nick+James entitled Lake revisiting the duo’s own experiences dancing for many internationally known choreographers and companies. And even broader in scope, Prumsodun OK will present Of Land and Sky a multi-disciplinary performance recasting a mythological Buddhist tale as a parable of homosexual love complete with Cambodian pop songs.

Of course, this is just a sampling of some of the highlights, but there is much more to consider during the NOW festival, which will include three different programs each receiving three performances over the next three weeks. You can see the full details on the REDCAT site. But take my word for it, it’s one of the best performance deals in town. We may be in between seasons, but REDCAT continues to serve up the latest downtown, so do the right thing and go.


Past the Mission

June 30, 2012

Sappho Island, 2011. Photo: Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine
Yes, I'm still in Paris. No, I haven't forgot about Los Angeles. And just to show how much I care, I sent gadfly and maestro of the bon mots, Ben Vanaman, over the REDCAT this week to take a look at one of their most anticipated shows of the summer from Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine. Don't say I never did you any favors.

In 2009, L.A.-based actor/activist Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine (Biro) travelled to his native Uganda to interview a variety of remarkable men and women in that nation’s LGBT community. At the time, Uganda became a world flash point of anti-gay politics following the passage of its notorious Anti-Homosexuality Bill that same year penalizing homosexuality by imprisonment and “aggressive homosexuality” by death. From these interviews, Mwine has assembled a captivating one-person show titled A Missionary Position that is playing this weekend at the REDCAT in downtown Los Angeles. During the course of the performance, Mwine portrays a soldier of the government, a sex worker, a priest, and a lesbian pressed into activism. Although the performance skirts agit-prop, this inclination is balanced if not undone by the actor’s total immersion in each character as he slips seamlessly from one role to the next.

A Missionary Position twines Mwine’s impersonations with actual footage from Uganda adroitly orchestrated by video designer Carole Kim. It begins with a narrator asking, “This is Uganda?,” and concludes with an on-screen assertion that one could never leave Uganda because it’s home. This conundrum, of leaving/staying, flight/resistance, is resolved in words from the priest stressing the African idea of “Ubuntu,” meaning “I am, because we are,” a riposte to the self-serving individualism of Western democracies. The idea, made both implicit and explicit during the evening, is that Uganda is worth fighting for, a fight that makes the accounts of those on the front lines blisteringly affecting.

The performance begins cheekily with Mwine dressed in military garb as a Ugandan soldier named BigamAnus whose “unwitting” sexual double entrendes deconstruct the language of bigotry with caustic effect. Patrolling the stage in swaggering opposition to an audience of spectators he rightly assumes are unsympathetic to his country’s heinous mission, the soldier soon begins to undress, during a breathtaking transition, into Serena, a transgender woman sex worker whose tale of victimization and survival –many of her fellows meet untimely ends- is harrowing. There was a particular moment, where Serena describes the melee that ensues when she’s caught servicing a “john” in a public rest-room, that perfectly encapsulates the duality of bleakest farce and sheer horror that characterizes the razor’s edge insanity of this nation’s anti-gay program.

Disappearing through a curtain behind the main stage, Mwine soon returns as a man who, kept in a zero-sum relationship with a German named Klaus in Rome, returns to Uganda via Tanzania, is reunited with an old boyfriend who’s joined the brotherhood, then himself becomes a priest, refusing to contradict his parishioners who refuse to believe the rumors about him being gay. Emotionally riven by his own closeted-ness, the priest’s anguish is laid bare at news that defiantly “out” activist Bob Kato has been murdered. This crime becomes a rallying cry for Uganda’s LGBT community, leading to Mwine’s final portrayal, of a lesbian who opened Uganda’s first public gay bar, Sappho Island, its later forced closure bringing the evening to an ambiguous conclusion.

Under the steady hand of director Emily Hoffman, Mwine, through each guise, addresses the audience with such measured elegance that one is transfixed by every utterance he makes. By turns combative and reflective, flamboyant and circumspect, Mwine lays bare the tragedy of his subject. One point that was particularly jarring: the dedication of American evangelist Scott Lively in fomenting Uganda’s anti-gay zealotry, and the equal commitment of those opposing the legislation crafted in his wake, from outsiders like Gordon Brown and Hilary Clinton to the real heroes of the Ugandan LGBT community, still living and working, playing and loving in a country that would do well to heed the true meaning of “Ubuntu.” One’s only regret is that the evening didn’t last longer, that Mwine didn’t bring even more of these heroes to life.


Gold Soundz

June 15, 2012

Gary Eister, John Schneider and members of PARTCH  Photo: mine 2012
It’s become an annual rite at REDCAT - the late spring/early summer appearance by PARTCH, the ensemble that bears the name of California composer and perpetual musical outsider Harry Partch. The shows are always special occasions if for no other reason that they are the rare occasions where Partch’s music is performed on the group’s painstaking replicas of the composer’s unique instruments designed to challenge the tonal hegemony of his early 20th Century world. This year’s performance, entitled Bitter Music, was even further removed from what the players have presented in the past by honoring Partch the man and artist apart from his music. They accomplished this through a reading of Partch’s unexpectedly preserved diary from 1935-1936 which recounts not only his travels to Europe to work on a variety of his avant-garde microtonal projects, but also his years living as an itinerant “hobo” wandering the West Coast guest of the government-sponsored camps for the dispossessed, at times begging for food, and working whenever and for whatever he could.

It is this rough and unpredictable life that is reflected in the diary’s title and the intention in its performance, largely a dramatic reading by PARTCH’s John Schneider, is also meant to capture the composer’s interest in the everyday music of human speech. The text contains more than just written text, but also drawings, bars of music, a few songs, and specific intonations for some of the quoted dialog. Schneider’s reading was accompanied mostly by pianist Gary Eister, who joined in with segments of dialog he would sing and simultaneously sound out on the piano. On four occasions, the two were joined by members of the ensemble to perform full-fledged if brief compositions either referred to in the text or reflective of its content. Some of these, including the two vocal line version of Barstow that concluded the evening were some of the most poignant music the ensemble has brought to REDCAT over the years. The performance and music were recorded by the ensemble and released last year in an excellent set by Bridge Records under the same title, Bitter Music.

These diary entries and Partch's lovely, poetic writing impart an intensely personal view of the artist at a critical time in his development. In his own words, Partch sounds like a young man on fire with exploring the world, musical and otherwise around him. He cares passionately about music and changing the musical world. He is concerned about a uniquely American sound and tradition he sees bound up in the lives of everyday people, and there is no doubt from his tales of the Depression years that he is not speaking of them as an outsider. Partch’s drawings of the natural world and the men he lived with during these years have their own beauty, and they also reflect his homosexuality with a frankness not typical for the time. These were not always great times for Partch who could go days without eating and have his work ignored or rejected even when he had the financing to pursue his dreams for a period in Europe. But while this may have provided the bitterness in his music of the period and afterward, much of the diary reflects the composer’s joy for the world around him and his commitment and belief that music and art could be different than they were at the time. What was bitter for him, seems inspirational now and the audience quickly found themselves caught up in this two and a half hour reading with music which was daring for doing the one thing most composers dread – communicating with audiences about the world outside of their musical art. Partch himself thought the diary had mostly been destroyed and it is much to our benefit it survived, unexpectedly copied as part of another project, and given this life by those Californians dutifully keeping his work alive today.

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Finishing the Hat

May 18, 2012

Oguri, Morleigh Steinberg, Dani Lunn, Roxanne Steinberg. Photo: Steven Gunther 2012.
Cold Dream Color, a dance piece from Morleigh Steinberg and her international collaborators Arcane Collective, is one of those bold works that attempts to translate a physical object d’art into a performance piece. It’s not an unusual strategy, but one that can produce a myriad of results. Paintings have long been a popular choice for the stage and film. Figurative works often invite the introduction of narrative, producing results ranging from The Girl With the Pearl Earring to Sunday in the Park with George. It doesn’t have to be that way though. There are approaches that are more purely visual in their tenor going as far as the kind of tableau vivant found at the Pageant of the Masters each summer in Laguna Beach. Cold Dream Color, which opened at CalArts REDCAT theater downtown on Wednesday, is somewhere in between. It’s a dance piece performed by Steinberg and six other members of Arcane Collective based on the paintings of 20th-century Irish artist Louis Le Brocquy who died less than one month ago. The work features choreography by Steinberg along with Liz Roche and Los Angeles-based dancer Oguri and an original soundtrack composed by Paul Chavez and U2’s The Edge. The goal is to evoke the images and feeling of Le Brocquy's painting while incorporating physical movement and the passage of time, though not necessarily narrative.

Morleigh and her dancers do construct some amazing images. And even more remarkable is how strongly they evoke so many specific visual images from Le Brocquy’s often abstract paintings across his seven-decade career. Not unlike the paintings of his friend Francis Bacon, Le Brocquy’s image world is filled with deconstructed bodies in muted non-flesh colors. Dance might not seem to be the easiest format to recreate this visual sense but Morleigh does so, both by relying on sets and lighting that add little color to the made-up ashen faces of the dancers, but also by relying on a movement vocabulary that is constrained, slow, and sometimes epileptic in its gracefulness. Things rarely boil over into speedy fleet footedness, and dancers collapse, roll, and writhe as if falling from the sky or hobbled. The works five sections can produce some unnerving recreations at times like a open mouth, the only clearly visible body feature on a dancer behind a sheer curtain. At one point a dancer waves a huge black flag over both dancers and the audience, passing just a foot or two away from various heads at times. Dancers wander into frame from behind more of these same hazily lit curtains all to a soundtrack with ethereal electric guitar noise that at times succeeds in creating a hypnotic state for the audience.

It’s all very attractive and a fitting recreation of the artist’s image world if the evening, which was sold out on Wednesday, did evoke a sometimes overly serious air. Humorous moments are very few and abstraction is the rule rather than the exception. And in this abstraction Cold Dream Color is more akin than not to tableau vivant despite the dancers' movements and the passing of time in the 90-minute program. The show repeats through Sunday downtown and considering how popular its been so far, you may want to get your tickets in advance.


Worlds of Wunderbaum

April 30, 2012

Members of Wunderbaum in Songs at the End of the World. Photo by Fred Debrock
While I'm in New York this week, a number of OWA's team of roving eyes were out and about. Among them pianist Richard Valitutto who stopped by REDCAT to see what some of the Dutch have been up to and filed this report.

This past weekend, the Dutch theater ensemble Wunderbaum returned to REDCAT following 2010's spectacular Looking for Paul which took on the L.A art scene from the group's own unique perspective. This time around they appeared alongside the Dutch multifarious music trio Touki Delphine in a theater/concert called Songs at the End of the World, inspired by the quasi-eponymous Werner Herzog documentary. The advertisement showed the performers at the top of the show, standing in front of a bright white scrim in full-body parka suits. Knowing very little about the ensembles or the documentary, and my interest piqued by this strange mash-up, I was ready for anything.

And on Sunday night, I was unexpectedly seduced. True to the nature of seduction, I initially resisted a little [shyly looks away], but a beautiful wonder-tree had ensnared my heart for the night. It all started with the LED display that effectively and immediately obliterated the fourth wall, silently informing the audience at the top of the show that the ensemble members were (mostly) 32 years old, the Antarctic wind soundscape would be made with their mouths, and the full-body parka suits were, indeed, quite hot. I was intrigued as we got to know each actor/musician and the pervasive adolescent character that belied their proclaimed ages. But personally, the infatuation was complete with the all-English text – well-spoken and well-sung – in that uniquely charming, aurally intoxicating, Dutch-inflected way (“you had me at ‘photo-sin-teases’”).

The performance was very, very good, magical even. Equal parts indie-rock/electro-pop show, boisterous monologues, intimate childhood memories, eccentric small-town legends, and – le coup de grâce – a visually stunning and unexpectedly emotional staging of an underwater scene that suddenly plunged the audience in Herzog’s film, complete with huge, glowing jellyfish and a singing diver. The show had beautiful transitions, and a virtuosically shaped emotional arc. The alternating musical numbers and spoken scenes were placed in such a way as to allow for a healthy balance of that inner-drama between personal need and fear of (desire for?) isolation. I could never quite tell which performer was a “musician” or an “actor”; they all transitioned freely between roles with scruffy, unashamed styles. Similarly, it was hard to predict that those flaccid, colorful garbage bags on poles could become beautiful wings which would carry the actress into flight, and the audience along with her, to the end of the world.


American Colonial

April 06, 2012

From L-R: Wade Madsen, Jessie Smith, Peggy Piacenza, Jim Kent, Dave Proscia, and Pol Rosenthal with Dayna Hanson on the floor in Gloria's Cause Photo: Ricardo Miranda 2012.
Choreographer Dayna Hanson and her eight collaborators are taking on the expanse of American History at REDCAT this weekend. Or more accurately their show, Gloria’s Cause, is dragging the myths of America’s founding into the light for further examination. That sounds rather clinical, though, for a show that is often very funny and more often than not very thoughtfully so. The show is tinted in red, white, and blue to be sure; a move with some risk in the midst of a presidential election year where that particular color scheme grows old quickly. But Hanson and co-creators Peggy Piacenza and Dave Proscia serve up a performance of equal parts dance and theater that winningly take on the world of the Founding Fathers in a clever sideways fashion that is neither a broad farce nor an overtly politically-motivated screed.

The loosely arranged scenes don’t follow any narrative and wander from idea to idea with a cast of colonial characters interacting with contemporary counterparts in surreal ways. A central figure and character in all of this is Deborah Sampson Gannett, a colonial woman who disguised herself as a man in order to join the Continental Army during the American Revolution. She was wounded in combat and later honorably discharged and Gloria’s Cause is peppered with allusions to her life and legend. There are a variety of other characters drawn from the same period, both real and imagined. And the scenes they appear in often evoke more of an underlying psychological history than any real iteration of events. Sometimes these events are told through dance and other times they are acted out in a comic but very movement-oriented way. The show pleases early on with a wonderfully imagined version of the 1754 Albany Congress where representatives from several of the original American colonies met to discuss common political concerns.

Such scenes are abutted by others with contemporary tacks including the nine cast members sitting around eating cherry pie and offering childhood reminiscences for comic effect. The iconic bald eagle makes an appearance as well, really Peggy Piacenza in a eagle mask, complete with flag-colored heels and a trench coat covering her red bikini underneath. This is one philosophical eagle, as worried about the state of America as her own self-actualization. But things never settle for long here and the show ricochets from a solo dance with a rifle to an imaginary talk show with continental soldiers surprising one another with unexpected drunken confrontations. All of this is set to original songs written and performed by the group, which gives the show an organic and spontaneous energy. At times the performance turns into a rock concert if only momentarily before heading out again.

Best of all the show is smart, scoring its points about the very inequalities on which America was founded with subtle and direct wit. Hanson taps into a hybrid performance style that recalls choreographers like John Jasperse and Ralph Lemon who’ve had big successes at REDCAT as well in recent years with delightfully unwieldy shows filled with as much theater as dance. Gloria’s Cause is another such success, never preachy nor didactic and filled with acting that feels spontaneous and unforced by everyone involved. Hanson and her players work ideas perfectly, getting just the desired effect and then letting them go before they overstay their welcome. It’s an American Revolution not as it happened or how it is remembered, but one that exists in dreams by turns funny and beautiful. The show has two more performances this weekend. You should see it.


New Sounds

March 25, 2012

Frances-Marie Uitti Photo: Malcolm Crowthers
Friday brought an unintentional coda to this month’s Piatigorsky International Cello Festival, which had wrapped up its final performances the Sunday before. The festival brought together dozens of world class cellists from all over the world for a huge variety of concerts, recitals and master classes featuring everything from Bach to Ligeti. Yet there was little in those two weeks that would have prepared us for the sound world that cellist Frances-Marie Uitti brought to the REDCAT on Friday night. Chicago-born Uitti is above all else a trailblazer. A composer herself, she advocates for new music and is known for developing her own extended techniques for playing, including the use of two bows in a single hand simultaneously greatly expanding the amount and types of sounds she can produce from a standard cello. She has written and commissioned new works to explore the sound world created with these approaches, a few of which were featured in Friday’s program. When it comes to rethinking the cello, Uitti wrote the book. And it's expected to be published by The University of California Press in the not too distant future.

Much of Friday’s program featured works from the last 10 years by young composers, some of whom are California-based, including Michael Jon Fink, Gregory Moore, Karen Tanaka, Lisa Bielawa, and Ken Ueno. Both the Moore and Fink works were receiving their world premieres. Many of the pieces used a variety of electronically processed and prerecorded elements including, most provocatively, Moore’s Three Safe Places in which Uitti accompanies her own prerecorded voice describing a semi-autobiographical history of her own view of safety. Moore uses the cello sound to play with sound qualities of natural speech in what was one of the evening's highlights. Uitti's two-bow playing technique was featured in several works including Fink's A Folio of Large and Small Worlds Ending, which also featured assistance from several other CalArts players.

Perhaps the most compelling moments of the show, though, were the pieces that bookended the night, both composed by what Uitti herself referred to as old Europeans. British composer Jonathan Harvey has crafted several works for Uitti, and Curve with Plateau delivers a big punch with relatively simple terms. The solo part transverses the tonal range of the cello from low to high and back again as a simple metaphor for the range of human experience from physical to spiritual. Uitti manages the more delicate and fleeting parts of the piece without any hesitation giving the work a unity it cried out for. The night ended with a work from another long-time collaborator, the always unusual Giacinto Scelsi. Ygghur is the final segment of Trilogia an autobiographical work Scelsi intensely worked on for over a decade with Uitti while she lived in Rome. (She has performed the piece everywhere and recorded it for ECM.) Ygghur is the reflective summation of the larger work using a unique tuning and often reiterating single notes over and over again with only moderate changes in attack and timbre. Uitti's experience with the work again imbued it with a much broader sense of importance and cohesiveness than one might expect in other hands. It was a stunning close to a fascinating show from someone who isn't just a part of the world of cellists but is slowly changing the parameters of what that constitutes.


No One Gets Away Clean

March 08, 2012

The cast of Ricano's Timboctou Photo: Steven Gunther 2012
Hot on the heels of one big ambitious Spanish-language theater production at REDCAT comes another. Timbotou, a world premiere production developed in a collaboration between the CalArts Center for New Performance and the University of Guadalajara Foundation, takes its constituent parts from materials much closer to home, though. The play written by Alejandro Ricano and directed by Martin Acosta, like its cast and creative team, lies on the border between the U.S. and Mexico, incorporating elements from communities on either side of this imaginary division of space into a vision that emphasizes the inter-relatedness of all its elements. Acosta and his design team have created an arch, visually compelling world that shoots for some ideological heights even if the bare knuckle storytelling in the two hour intermission-less performance is frequently far more pedestrian and earth bound.

Timboctou refers to an imagined place, the one farthest from wherever its characters are at any given time, that would provide escape from the particular stressors or crises at hand. And there’s a lot of the world the characters in this world would want to get away from including drug trafficking, government corruption, global warming and murder. The play is episodic and focuses on several sets of loosely interrelated characters, whether enacting or coping with the consequences of various illegal activities. Dany, played by Mario Montano Mora, and his twin Chucho, an equally humorous Axel Garcia, open the play trying to dump the corpses of several murder victims in the parking lot of a McDonald’s restaurant in Tijuana. Their highly choreographed movements stand in contrast to the darkly comic banalities of their debates about the spelling of “sabes” in a warning note to accompany the bodies they are to dispose of.

Axel Garcia and Mario Montano Mora Photo: Steven Gunther 2012
The tone here sharply emulates the kind of banter Quentin Tarantino’s entire career is based on, and Ricano’s script is funny if far less sharp and effective than that. Soon the story spins into various directions looking at closely related plots that impinge on Dany and Chucho’s world including the visiting Spaniard they meet earlier in their travels and later the vacationing San Francisco college students who will accidentally kill him during a drunken beach brawl. It’s a structure that calls to mind another film, Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic with its network of lives created and destroyed by the illegal drug industry. There are comical, incompetent government officials, stiff DEA agents, and mourning family members that populate Timboctou. Some of their vignettes work better than others but all share the same gabby, comical tone.

Timboctou, which is mostly in Spanish and uses projected supertitles on the walls of the set, is at its best when it unhinges itself from all this wordplay and runs with the surreal imagery that fills its physical space. The set is dominated by a mountain of rusty office chairs that at one point takes off in motion and becomes a shifting metaphor for a number of issues in the play. There’s use of performance generated video feed which is fed into a small monitor suspended from the ceiling throughout most of the performance. The stylized choreography of the opening scene remains consistent over the show's running time as well. There are also repeated references and visual projections of polar bears, creatures that Dany and Chucho imbue as inhabitants of the world farthest from them, but one still endangered by the global warming destroying their habitat. The twins see themselves in these endangered animals struggling in an increasingly hostile habitat. Later the bears actually arrive and dance to Handel’s “Lascia ch’io pianga”, an aria best known for its use in the 1711 opera Rinaldo.

Ricano and Acosta have an eye for the absurd and a visual language to go along with it. There’s power in Timboctou that suggests the show has something to say and places to go. But the evening still wants for more consistency and a looser, less narratively driven structure, which tends to dilute and reduce the power of its impact. Still the show offers a lot to think about and represents REDCAT’s commitment to theater events without any other comparable home in town. The show runs through Sunday the 11th downtown.


Remebrance of Things Past

February 25, 2012

from The Past is a Grotesque Animal Photo: Steven Gunther 2012
How we experience the passage of time has always been one of the topics of great art and performance. Add to the list of names those who’ve produced masterful works on the topic one Mariano Pensotti. Argentinian playwright and director Pensotti and his Grupo Marea arrived in Los Angeles this week with a lyrical, funny powerhouse of a stage work, El Pasado es un Animal Grotesco, that is now on stage at REDCAT. The title is taken from the identically titled Of Montreal song, “The Past is a Grotesque Animal,” but Pensotti’s play is much, much more than a clever wordy pop song. The play and its examination of the lives of four young Argentinians from the period of 1999 to 2009 is about history and the way we live in it while pretending that we don’t. For Pensotti and the four actors that make up his superb cast - Pilar Gamboa, Javier Lorenzo, Santiago Gobernori, and Maria Ines Sancerni – time is not a linear narrative but a circular one that folds in upon itself again and again.

The concept is most viscerally and obviously felt in the genius set design of Mariana Tirantte. The stage for El Pasado consists of a circular platform on a rotating track divided into four equal segments by two perpendicularly placed walls. The stage, and many of the accompanying lights, rotate constantly throughout the two hour performance as the players proceed around the walls from one room to the next. Each change of room moves the narrative between one of the four characters whose lives make up the episodic narrative. These are not necessarily big stories, but small ones told in small pieces. Vicki discovers her elderly father has been living a parallel existence most of his life with two families. Mario dreams of leaving Argentina to become a filmmaker. Laura jumps for one problematic relationship to another, and Pablo discovers a severed hand in his doorway one particular morning.

But while the play makes some reference to the political and historical era in which it is set, these stories are more about the broader themes and obsessions that shape our lives in a broad sense than it is particular cliffhangers or psychologically driven climaxes. For instance the mysterious severed hand that becomes an obsession for Pablo doesn’t destroy everything in his life but becomes a recurrent preoccupation that shapes many things that will happen to him in more subtle ways. Much of the dialog in the play comes in the form of narration where each of the four players take turns moving from room to room describing the mindset, action, and motivations of the others involved in the actual events of each scene. Roles are taken up and abandoned as a hand-held microphone is passed from player to player, narrator to narrator. (The play is entirely in Spanish but there are supertitles on either side of the rotating stage.) The scenes are roughly in chronological order although the overall sequence jumps backward and forward in small increments. And while the rotation alternatively speeds up and slows down, the work never loses the sense of motion and flow.

The play is supremely funny at times. There are some wonderful spoken internal monologues that ignite huge reactions in the audience such as when Pablo is filled with paranoid fears about the morgue worker he questions while gathering information he thinks may be germane to the hand he keeps in the fridge at home. And there are some flashes of insight as well, but most winningly, Pensotti and his cast never give in to sentimentality. There are two brief moments of intersection in these four lives, but those episodes provide more of a sense of symmetry than of psychological insight. El Pasado es un Animal Grotesco is steeped in modern life – a love of media and an awareness of the hyperdetermined, intertextual way that people make up the selves they are. The past here is never absent, and it is never a source of overarching predetermination. However, it glows in the dark, just out of direct sight altering events in an almost imperceptible way yet leaving its certain mark. This is great, engaging theater and if you're interested in such a thing at all, you should see one of the two remaining performances before it is gone. Be advised there were no tickets left to be bought at the window before Friday’s show so get them now.


Cage Matches

February 18, 2012


John Cage performs Walter Walk in 1960 on TelevisionThe centennial anniversary of John Cage’s birth is upon us. Live music loves an anniversary, and considering Cage was a native Los Angeleno who spent critical formative years studying with the likes of Schoenberg at both UCLA and USC, revisiting his work here with local forces seems appropriate. In this vein, the faculty and students of CalArts assembled a two day John Cage festival this past week at the REDCAT downtown. Headed by music faculty members Mark Menzies and Ulrich Krieger the expansive 6 plus hours of programming covered an amazing amount of territory. But like any consideration of Cage’s work, it also barely scratched the surface: Cage’s interest in chance and process leaves his music open to so many interpretations that any selection can seem like a very small window looking out onto a huge sea.

The performances of the CalArts faculty and students that make up the New Century Players and the CalArts Orchestra touched on the most important aspects and themes of the composer’s sound world. The first evening clocking in at four hours focused heavily on Cage’s interest in microtonal sounds and Eastern music traditions. The evening was bookended by two versions of Ryoanji from the early eighties with Rachel Rudich playing the shakuhachi, a Japanese end-blown flute. In between were larger ensemble works including Hymnkus (1986), Etcetera (1973), Renga (1975), and Fourteen (1990). Some of the works were marked by a halting pace of repeated bursts of sound like some microtonal dirge. Others hinted at the process games that underlie their performance but aren’t always immediately apparent to the audience.

Etcetera was a particular highlight in this regard with it constantly reformatting ensembles. The 26 players, arranged themselves in three groupings, appeared along the back of the stage area with three performers including Menzies, seated at the front, each facing a different number of empty chairs. These empty settings included a duo, trio and quartet. Periodically, players from the groupings would leave their seats to take one of the stations up front. When a particular grouping was filled, the “conductor” of that ensemble would stand and lead the players in a brief interlude played simultaneously with the sound emanating from the back of the stage. Horns, violins, car parts, or tuba mutes would find themselves unexpectedly alongside one another. Periodically, players would abandon their assigned instruments to percussively tap on a variety of empty boxes. It was a sort of contemporary chamber music speed dating whose results were surprising and fluid capturing a real sense of playfulness.

This sort of playful theatricality came to an even fuller realization on the second night of the series when the players returned for two and a half hours devoted entirely to Cage’s 1958 Fontana Mix. Fontana Mix isn’t so much of a prescribed piece of music as a template by which a wide variety of other music can be composed using its charts and overlays. All the works in the program were composed using the template whether or not they were Cage’s. The show started with a four-channel recording of Cage’s original audio collage with the work from 1958. With all of its caught radio signals, whirs and beeps it sounded like an invitation to nearly all of the electronic music of the later 20th century. There was also a prerecorded version of a similar piece from Max Neuhaus from 1965 that replaced some of these original sound artifacts with falls of audio feedback. Vocalist Carmina Escobar performed Cage’s ARIA which was further processed through another Cage composition/tool WBAI with the kind of shouts, trills, and other non-word sounds that would litter the works of so many other composers over the next several decades.

Perhaps the most fascinating moments for me, though, were the ones where the sound elements almost completely broke down to give way to a performance piece. Cage was intimately involved in making music for dance in a unique way and in works like 1959’s Water Walk. The Fontana Mix process is fed physical actions as much as sound. On Thursday, Kristen Erickson, arrived in a theatrical, red outfit and activated reel-to-reel machines, submerged gongs, mixed cocktails, activated the pressure cooker, and plucked at a prepared piano like a mid-20th Century avant-garde Betty Crocker. (You can see Cage perform this piece from 1960 on TV's I've Got a Secret above.) 1960’s Theater Piece, also receiving the WBAI treatment, was dramatic in a similar fashion true to its name. There were string players doing yoga, and a bassist bowing the pages of a paperback, all held together by Menzies whose arrangement of papers on an office desk provided a particular rhythmic structure.

The young musicians who make up the CalArts Orchestra availed themselves with an enthusiasm that nicely mirrored the adventurousness of Cage’s work. The music is still shockingly different, but there is a sense of wonderment and playfulness that should never be lost despite some of the elaborate music theory and procedural mechanics behind it. There is something rather American and rather Californian about this kind of exploration and the unexpected mingling of forces, and hearing this particular tribute at this particular place and this particular time made for some wonderful listening.


And You May Ask Yourself

February 08, 2012

Film series and retrospectives are a dime a dozen in L.A. There are a number of venues and organizations around town involved in exhibiting and/or preserving films of all stripes. On any given weekend the revival and repertory film scene in L.A. can be a bit overwhelming. So it is an accomplishment that REDCAT manages to offer something unique, important, and off the beaten path with its own film and video series on mostly Monday evenings in the Fall and Spring. How do I love thee? Let me count the ways. The Jack H. Skirball series, curated by CalArts faculty member Bérénice Reynaud and School of Film/Video Dean, Steve Anker screens material you’ll see nowhere else. The screenings focus heavily on experimental works from all over the world and almost completely eschew the type of mainstream commercial or “art house” film production that still dominates much other public film programs around town. Some of my best evenings at REDCAT have been in the film series from the documentaries of Ulrike Ottinger to the salvaged late 20th Century assembled by William E. Jones. Much of this superb and provocative programming unfolds under the watchful eye and sharp, dry wit of Reynaud who is an absolute rock-star of the first order. Half of the pleasure of these programs come from her incisive commentary and intelligent questioning and make these evenings a must see for anyone interested in the art of the filmed images.

The Spring portion of the film series started on Tuesday with an event entitled Music + Image which was presented as part of the omnipresent Pacific Standard Time art collaboration around town. The focus was on short video works made during the early to mid-1980s expressly for television by a variety of American artists. All of these works are included in the Long Beach Museum of Art’s Exchange and Evolution: Worldwide Video Long Beach, 1974-1999, a retrospective of video work shown at the museum over the last 25 years. Exhibit curator Nancy Buchanan was on hand to speak about the films as were several of the artists including Carole Ann Klonarides, Michael Owen, and director and 80s pop icon Toni Basil. The 14 short films shown in the program explored some of the fertile artistic ground that the monstrosity that would become MTV grew out of. While a few of the films could be considered traditional “music videos” most were not although all of them explored a rapidly changing relationship between sound and image in the early years of this kind of video art. Purely abstract visual works like Bob Snyder’s colorful Icron and Tempest from DeWitt, Sorensen, and Winkler gave way to a variety of more narrative and structured works. There were at least two seminal early “music videos” including Laurie Anderson’s O Superman (above) and the Toni Basil and David Byrne-directed clip for the Talking Heads, Once in a Lifetime.

My favorite pieces though were some of the earliest that exploited the whole notion of recording video images to begin with. Cynthia Maughan’s Thank You, Jesus consists of little more than static black and white images of a well-appointed period living room from 1981, The rooms in this suburban home act as imagined settings for a hysterical voice over monologue about a woman meeting Jesus in a dream and rejecting much of what she imagines he has to offer. Dara Birnbaum’s 1978 Wonder Woman (at the top) is exactly what it says – a collection of short sequences taken from the 1970s television program of the same name starring Lynda Carter which are rapidly repeated creating an endlessly spinning Carter responding to staccato explosions in the background. The piece ends with the nearly nonsensical text from a novelty disco hit of the era on the topic of the character projected onto a blank blue screen underscoring some of the sexual politics under critique in the piece.

The screening was followed by a fascinating Q and A where the panel explored the loss of a spirit of experimentation in the video arena by the start of the 1990s. It was a fascinating discussion, but this is standard procedure in the Skirball series under Reynaud’s tenure. There are at least 10 more screenings between now and the end of May including a new work from Lee Anne Schmitt on Feb 13th, works form Daniel Eisenberg and Sharon Lockhart in March and April. And Bill Morrison will bring his collaboration with Johann Johannsson, The Miners' Hymns on April 23rd. Check out the full schedule and mark your calendars now.


The New New World

February 04, 2012

Sonny Valicenti Photo: Steven Gunther 2012
Abacus, the performance piece sprung from the minds of Lars Jan and his collaborators that work under the moniker Early Morning Opera, returned to REDCAT on Thursday. The piece was last seen here in an earlier working version during RECAT’s always fascinating NOW festival in 2009 and has been developed in a number of different locales since including a well-received outing at this year’s Sundance Film Festival just last week. The hour-long show’s content is essentially unchanged. A male speaker, who is billed as Paul Abacus but is really actor Sonny Valicenti, delivers a monologue/lecture crammed with ideas borrowed from any number of sources including the likes of Carl Sagan and Buckminster Fuller. Some of the ideas are credited, others not and they slowly pile up one on top of another in a heady mix of information that the group describes as something between a sermon and a TED talk. The overall points aren't always spelled out and themes are picked up and dropped unpredictably at times more like music or poetry than didactic speech. Behind Abacus is a giant screen filled with digital images generated in real time mixed with live video footage of the speaker himself caught by two cameramen. The two videographers are actually dancers harnessed to steadicams who pose and twirl while capturing the images use in the projected material.

The show is not narrative in any way, and is just as much about the seductive, and possibly dangerous, beauty in the visual design of data as it is the content of the work’s text. And it is those visual elements that really anchor the performance overall. They are striking and more complex than they seem in that they are generated on the spot and not simply prerecorded animation that is cued up to the text. The lecture being given by Abacus veers from inspirational to disturbingly dogmatic in its ersatz progressive philosophy. The show is often enticing and does score its points about the banality of ideas and their commodification with a good deal of subtlety. It does risk being a bit too subtle at times: there is clearly some ambivalence toward the value of the progressive ideas about environmentalism and correcting societal ills that fill the suave, persuasive Abacus' talk. But something is always just a little bit off, reminding the audience that the show is still on another level a put on like the panda briefly caught on video following Abacus as he walks back onto the stage. It’s never completely clear if the presentation is intended as a badly needed parody of the intellectual bankruptcy of the whole TED conference paradigm, a critique of the development of fascist ideology, or something less intellectually rigorous. The show does produce laughs, but the ambivalence towards the material leaves viewers on their own to make a decision about Abacus’s greater purpose. This is a good thing, but not always a comforting one to be sure. It's visual sense is hard to resist, though. The show repeats on Saturday at REDCAT downtown.


Some Dance to Remember

January 27, 2012

Rinde Eckertand Nora Cole Photo: Caleb Wertenbaker
Opera should be impossible. Obviously it isn’t, but the artistic forces involved from so many people at the same time make it perhaps the most challenging and least individual of art forms. The impossibility of such an artistic quest gives the concept of opera ideological parallels to a novel like Melville’s Moby-Dick. Music and theater artists have frequently picked up on this peculiar relationship to produce such varied work as Laurie Anderson’s Songs and Stories from Moby Dick from 1999 to Jake Heggie’s recent outright operatic treatment of the novel that premiered in Dallas in 2010 and will be seen next month in San Diego before arriving in San Francisco this fall. The commonalities also served as the inspiration for Rinde Eckert’s And God Created Great Whales a performance art piece that isn’t exactly opera, but takes up the topic of the creation of an opera based on Moby-Dick as its subject. The work originally premiered in 2000 to much acclaim and various performances over the following three years. More recently, Eckert, along with his collaborators, costar Nora Cole and director David Schweizer, developed a technologically retooled new version of the show that opened up the spring season at REDCAT on Wednesday for five performances before moving onto New York later this year.

Eckert directly taps into the concept of the struggle of artistic production and its parallels both with the struggle of every day life and the struggles for greater knowledge and the unknown in Moby-Dick. And God Created Great Whales tells the story of Nathan, played by Eckert, a composer working on an operatic version of Melville’s novel. Nathan has been diagnosed with a degenerative cognitive disorder and is losing his memory, making his task that much more difficult. He’s created an elaborate system using several tape recorders, including one that is strapped to his chest, to remind and orient himself to his project and work on a repeated daily basis. He’s also joined by Cole, who portrays an imagined version of a famous opera singer Nathan has previously befriended during his work as a piano tuner. She advises and motivates Nathan and after each repeated start with the tape recorder, she joins him in re-enactments of various scenes from his opera. Slowly but surely, things deteriorate for Nathan until he too must face the inevitable sway of forces greater than himself.

Nora Cole gives a wonderful performance as the imaginary friend with a lovely voices and a big stage presence. But at the heart of it, this is Eckert’s show. He has composed all of the accompanying music, much of it incorporating samples of whale sounds, and sings and moves through most of the evening. He plays and tunes a dilapidated piano strung up to the rafters above with thick rope. He’s both touching and funny at times in a script filled with wry, and sometimes bitter humor. Still the last decade alters one’s perspective on the show. The notion of saving memory on a tape recorder comes off as even more archaic in a post Momento, post i-whatever world which makes Nathan seem decrepit and weak even before the scope of his deterioration is elaborated upon. The operatic segments can also be rather genteel and softball in their lampooning of operatic conventions. The laughs here are warm, but rarely all that dark or biting. Nathan’s decline is more marked by apathy than psychic pain, which may be more naturalistic, but doesn’t always make for the best drama. Granted it’s smarter than drivel like Moises Kaufman’s 33 Variations, but I often felt like I was missing something in the fleshing out of Eckert’s concept. The show continues through Sunday at REDCAT, downtown’s still best kept open secret.


Don't Speak

December 01, 2011

Darcy Fowers as Edie Sedgwick Photo: Steven Gunther/REDCAT 2011
A lot of words come to mind when one thinks of 60s icon Edie Sedgwick: beautiful, inspirational, fashionable, pretentious, unpredictable, tragic. And much as Sedgwick served as an inspiration for Andy Warhol in the 60s, she’s continued to serve as muse for other artists. The most recent of these may be former Bauhaus and Love and Rockets frontman David J. He’s taken her life as inspiration for a short play with songs entitled Silver for Gold (The Odyssey of Edie Sedgwick) which returned to Los Angeles on Wednesday at the REDCAT downtown. And there is a certain achievement in the play, which was entirely written and directed by David J, considering that the piece itself encapsulates all of those Sedgwick qualities, both good and bad into 90 minutes. Silver and Gold can be lovely to look at and stylish but it is equally bogged down with its own pretension and problems.

The evening begins with a white stage area containing two risers covered in white scrims that will be used for a variety of projected images. David J and his band, who took no bows at the end of the show, were stationed on the three levels of one of these. In the center of the stage was a silver couch and a small table with a toilet to the side surrounded by several heart-shaped mylar balloons. As the music begins, a strobe light goes off and we watch a figure in a wheel chair, with the body of a man and a horse’s head, wheel its way across the stage. That horse/man is Norihc (James Duval) who acts as a periodic one creature chorus for the largely biographical story that follows, drawing allusions to mythology throughout. Soon after, the show’s protagonist and only other speaking part, Edie herself, arrives all winsome and full of movement. Sedgwick is played by Darcy Fowers and she gives a physically involved performance filled with dance moves and posing that are highly evocative of Sedgwick’s particular time and place. Much of this movement is accompanied by the original pop songs written and performed by David J with his band during the show. The sound will be familiar to anyone who has followed his career, and the songs, which all directly refer to Sedgwick’s life and legacy, are the most enjoyable part of the show. As the songs play, Fowers dances about without singing or speaking and at these moments the character of Sedgwick most comes to life.

Where the show runs into significant trouble is in the theatrical department. Sedgwick’s monologues about the various episodes in her life are both pedestrian and poorly written. It’s packed to the rafters with clichés about beauty and art and at several moments produced small bursts of inappropriate laughter from the audience. When the heroin-addled Sedgwick in a long black wig rolls off the couch onto the floor and begins crawling towards the toilet, you know there’s going to be trouble, and there is. The dialogue is delivered with a rather forced tone that sounded inauthentic to my ear. Having never heard Sedgwick speak, I suppose that this may, in fact, be the way she sounded and the performance was trying to capture a sort of historical authenticity. But when each vignette leaves you wondering if it is the last one or not, something isn’t clicking. Finally however, the end for both Edie and the audience arrives. There is plenty of tragedy in Sedgwick’s story, and undoubtedly a great theatrical story in it. David J has managed to tap into that with his music, but Silver and Gold doesn’t manage to translate that successfully onto the stage. The show continues through this weekend at REDCAT downtown.


No Static at All

October 20, 2011

Rena Butler and Chalvar Monteiro. Photo: Steven Gunther/REDCAT 2011
Quietly but unquestionably, REDCAT has become Los Angeles’ premiere destination for the best in contemporary dance from around the world over its first few years. The list of exciting new dance works that have graced this space grows longer and longer, and a new entry can be made on that record this weekend. Choreographer Kyle Abraham and his troupe Abraham.In.Motion have brought their 2010 performance The Radio Show to town, and it is packed with ideas and ambitions that thrill and seduce over the course of the evening-length performance. Abraham goes deep for a variety of personal references that may not always be explicit, but are closely intertwined with the story of a community, his own childhood home of Pittsburgh, and its relationship with two influential, principally black radio stations AM 860 and 106.7 FM. The two sets in The Radio Show are named for these stations and the music for the program is a pastiche of pop songs from the last 50 years mixed with pops and static from the airwaves. There is also a good bit of recorded dialog reflecting the type of talk that filled these airwaves on topics related to sexual and cultural politics.

But the show is not about celebrities, fame, or the power of pop music necessarily. Set against this soundtrack are references to personal matters including what Abraham describes on his own site as “an abstract narrative around the loss of communication, [in which] he investigates the effects of the abrupt discontinuation of a radio station on a community and the lingering effects of Alzheimer’s and aphasia on a family.” How this translates onto the stage are movements that can be fluid but are repeatedly stopped suddenly in staccato moments of paralysis for all of the seven dancers including Abraham himself. Abraham vocalizes at times with cries suggestive of someone who has lost their ability to speak. But all of this is lodged right alongside sounds for Beyoncé, Slick Rick, and Antony and the Johnsons. There’s a great visual sense to the program in the earth tone costumes by Sarah Cubbage and highly theatrical lighting by Dan Scully. But the show never takes itself too seriously and its points are made obliquely, often with bits of humor as with the faux radio call-in “make it or break it” program like some high-art Showtime at the Apollo. What’s best about Abraham’s work here is the way in which personal and public history are intertwined in a subtle way that mimics many people’s lived experiences. Mass produced popular music feels like a personal soundtrack here and the distinctions between high and low art fuse unselfconsciously. It’s exactly the kind of show that should excite dance fans and it is no surprise that the performances, which continue Saturday, are exactly where you would expect to find them in Los Angeles, courtesy of CalArts in the basement of the Walt Disney Concert Hall.

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Thus Spake Zarathustra

October 07, 2011

from more more more... future Photo: Agathe Poupeney
The world of Faustin Linyekula returned to REDCAT on Wednesday for the first time since 2007. It’s a world similar to the one we know, if perhaps a bit better looking and sounding overall. It is certainly just as complicated, enigmatic, and hyperdetermined. The new program, more more more… future, comes straight our of choreographer Linyekula’s Congo (currently the Democratic Republic of... to be exact) complete with all of the politics and conflicted philosophies intact. This show is also about sex and rock’n’roll, and Linyekula makes no bones about the “carnal endeavor” of the movement in this hybrid piece that also is accompanied throughout by a live band. Like 2007’s Festival of Lies the dancers consist primarily of three men- Linyekula, Papy Ebotani, and Dinozord. They spend about half of their time in audacious capes covered in giant ruffles like strange petit-fours with spindly legs. The magnificent costumes were designed by Xuly Bët and provide an ironic contrast to the ripped lithe male bodies underneath. They writhe against one another and individually and sometimes struggle as if wrestling. At others moments they fall to the floor, legs extended into the air as if in mid-fall from the heights above.

And also like its predecessor, more more more… future has quite a bit more going on. The band with drums, bass, two male vocalists and guitar virtuoso Flamme Kapaya plays throughout the evening. They whiz through a variety of musical genres, but more often than not crunch out highly rhythmic rock riffs underneath the poetic, political, and somewhat obtuse text of Antoine Vumilla Muhindo. The texts are political in the most off-hand way referencing the downfall of unnamed idols, hope for the future, and Zarathustra. And while there is a sense of anger at times, there is more often a feeling of confusion or resignation. The energy ebbs and flows into different forms, sometimes with the dancers and band member brawling with one another and later with the entire ensemble joined in a circle at the rear of the space in an a cappella routine with more tribal overtones. It’s a visceral performance that gives one the sense of being out in public in a world where everyone is running off in opposing directions to unclear ends. And while that can feel disorienting at times, it also feels familiar. The show is more than simply a plea for humanism or political reform. It's about living our lives in the most strange contexts and persevering. It's a very worthwhile evening of dance as well, and is worthy checking it out in one of the last two performances this week on Friday or Saturday.


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