Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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

Song and Dance

September 23, 2011

from Victoria Marks' Medium Big... Photo: Steven Gunther
Thursday brought the concluding weekend of REDCAT’s 8th New Original Works Festival to downtown best theater venue. It was a triple-bill with some of the weekend's most ambitious and satisfying work. First up were two dance pieces both featuring the talents of Michel Kouakou. The African-born choreographer started off the evening with an intriguing if somewhat oblique solo dance entitled Sack. The title is used as a noun here and there is in fact a sack, bound in rope and suspended from above that swings back and forth as the lights come up. Kouakou lies below while another man stands, bare-chested, with his shirt front pulled up over his head as if he has a hood on. Over the course of the piece as Kouakou begins his rapid, slinging movements, several other darkly clad bystanders arrive and take the same position in their own lights with shirt fronts pulled over their head. Kouakou dodges in and around these people and the sack until he eventually unties the rope and begins weaving it between the other participants as well. The visual references here clearly suggest the last decade of the Iraq war and torture. The sack could be easily be a body or part of one, and the hooded figures invoke images of torture victims that most Americans grew sadly familiar with during the years of George W. Bush. But the political overtones are otherwise oblique and Kouakou’s choreography seems as likely to be struggling with some internal psychological demons as public political ones.

Michel Kouakou in Sack Photo: Steven Gunther
After a brief pause, the evening took off on a very different track with Victoria Marks’ Medium Big Inefficient Considerably Imbalanced Dance. Kouakou joined five other dancers, which was the highlight of this year’s entire NOW Festival. The work was remarkably polished and had a sense of being complete. The six dancers would often pair off into smaller, unequal groups and much of the motion had the feeling of being off-kilter or imbalanced. Dancers start off in one direction, but then appear to have second thoughts resulting in awkward almost comical poses. It reminded me of some of the best international dance projects I’ve seen at REDCAT in recent years, and it was difficult to avoid being completely mesmerized by the activity on stage. All of this was accompanied by a minced-up soundtrack of bits and pieces from d. Sabela grimes that served as a perfect complement to physical movement cleverly mimicking uncertainty in several directions.

Dorian Wood as King Minos Photo: Steven Gunther
The show and festival ended with the most ambitious work of the whole festival, a brief puppet opera called Zoophilic Follies. Like all opera, the artistic collaborators here make for a very long list in their own right. The musical composition is credited to Daniel Corral with a libretto by Sibyl O’Malley. The show was directed and designed by Caitlin Lanoff and Danrae Wilson. Together Corral and Lanoff comprise Tandem, a puppet theater company that has presented a number of well-received projects around the country. For the musical performance Tandem collaborated with the well known local tenor and new music aficionado Timur Bekbosunov and his band The Dime Museum. This small ensemble was joined by four vocalists, including Timur, who sang the principal roles. So with so many collaborators in the mix, not to mention costumes, lights, and the rest of the puppeteers, there was an awful lot of energetic and often funny business going on.

The story is that of Daedalus and his relationship to the royal family of Crete including King Minos, his bull-loving wife, his daughter Ariadne, and the unfortunate product of man-bull love, the Minotaur. Daedalus, sung by Timur, acts as a sort of narrator to the events that unfold familiarly starting from Poseidon’s dealing with King Minos and ending with the death of the Minotaur. The story unfolds not just through the vocal performance of the four principals who branding giant featureless masks to represent their characters, but also through some smaller scale puppetry with dialog, including the building of the labyrinth. The libretto is comical and wryly knowing with a variety of contemporary inside jokes directed specifically at the audience. This is not the Crete we might think of from the Greek debt crisis, Dorian Wood’s King Minos tells us. There are some lovely songs here and it is hard to ignore the musical energy of the piece. And while there were several balance and amplification issues, the rough-hewn feeling of the performance complemented the DIY sensibility of the work. Zoophilic Follies also doesn’t manage to overcome the primary narrative obstacle of the story – while Daedalus is the protagonist of the story, the events that drive the narrative action of the piece belong almost entirely to everyone else. Daedalus remains mostly a footnote retelling how he helped, or didn’t, get all these other people into their own relative hot waters. But visually and energy wise, Zoophilic Follies cries out for further development and performances. You can attend one of them on Friday or Saturday this weekend at the REDCAT downtown.

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