PICA Artistic Director Angela Mattox spoke briefly before the piece on Saturday, which was the second-to-last TBA:13 show at the Con-Way. She noted that for this year's festival, she was very interested in artists with "singular, uncompromising artistic vision," and when I think about that now, it seems equal parts introduction and disclaimer.
I have seen Belaza's choreography described as mesmerizing, spare, introspective, hypnotizing, minimal, and I certainly agree. But I would also add that this work—which from what I've read must have been quite similar to Le Trait and Le Temps Scelle, her other performance earlier in the week—was repetitive, impenetrable, imcomprehensible, and about 40% of the time, creepy.
Over the first 15-20 minutes, the lights, sound, and arm-swinging movement all went from zero to about 200, from dark to too bright, from quiet to too loud, from still to frantic, everything gradually increasing from slow to fast, from calm to overwhelming. And then it stopped, lights went out, the two dancers (Belaza and her sister) moved to a different part of the stage, planted their feet, and did it all again to a different soundtrack of dissonantly layered music and prayer chanting or children shrieking. But... why?
Yesterday I sat in a theater full of people I'd never met before, having a conversation. We were supposed to be seeing a play called We Are Still Watching, by the Croation-born, Paris-based artist Ivana Müller. Instead, we walked into a theater without a stage, sat in our assigned seats, and waited.
It was impossible not to notice that the pile of papers under my seat was enormous. I knew from the description of this piece that it would feature heavy audience participation, which I'd been kind of dreading. Now, apparently, one of the larger parts might go to me, just because of the seat I was assigned.
My worries turned out to be unwarranted. While the play was actually entirely audience participation, it was a surprisingly warm, easygoing experience. The script is clever—it's about the situation the audience is actually in: sitting, waiting for a play to start, slowly realizing that they are the play now. It's infinitely self-referential, as the audience members read scripted lines wondering why they're reading scripted lines, voicing hopes for the outcome of the performance, trying to relate to each other, or trying not to.
It's confusing, honestly, to realize that you are starting to think these people are who they are pretending to be. Nobody was really "acting," just reading the lines. And in fact, not even reading consistent lines, as the audience is regularly asked to pass the script to someone else.
The script sometimes made us suspicious ("Are there cameras recording this?" "Could some of us be planted here by the producers?"), flirtatious ("Maybe we'll all end up naked." "Maybe we'll make babies."), or turned us into the artists ("We should just write our own script!" "What if we are being recorded, and later the video will be projected on the wall?").
But it also pokes little holes in its own system, in order to poke holes in bigger, less obvious systems. There's a tiny part of the script that deals with voting: Are we truly together with people we vote similarly to? Is a vote actually our voice, or just part of the script we're reading?
The script constantly asks if we, the audience, are really together. And of course, the script is what brought us together, but it's also the thing keeping us from being together, by putting words in our mouths that aren't our own.
I walked out of the CoHo Theater wondering how I would ever talk to anyone again. Müller's lines had been so natural and credible that I had not only started to believe these other people were speaking honestly, I recalled my own lines as evidence of how I felt about the experience. I honestly still don't know if I was against this experience because I was against it, or because my "character" was. All I know is, I couldn't talk to another human being without a dose of suspicion for two hours. I wandered around in a daze, second-guessing everything, especially my own voice.
The play is still going today, at 12:30, 2:30, and 4:30. If you're just comfortably assuming you have all the agency in your life, you should go get shaken by this play.
"The new creed of the obscenely rich: sorrow for sorrow's sake alone." Daniel Barrow's The Thief of Mirrors is a wry takedown of the upper class, positing that "crying is a class privilege." The wealthy victims of the story's protagonist, a harlequin "kissing bandit," wake one morning to find that they've been robbed of their jewels, their wealth, and with it their ability to express sadness. What they're left with is a kiss, a simple red rose, and the sad clown visage of the thief etched permanently into the glass of their mirror, a symbol of their new status.
"Dear Mom and Dad," begins each letter which serve as the narrative device in Barrow's second piece, Looking for Love in the Hall of Mirrors. Inspired partly by Harper Lee's classic novel To Kill A Mockingbird and partly by the gay cruising park known as "the hill" in Winnipeg, where the story is set, this piece is a melancholy tale of an aging, closeted man who moves from the farm where he's lived all his life to the big city searching for a new life in art and love. He likes the city, is fascinated by the cruising culture in this park (though he never quite fully describes this to Mom and Dad), but ultimately seems to be stuck on the outside looking in.
What I appreciated most about this performance, which was co-presented at the Whitsell Auditorium by the NW Film Center, is Daniel Barrow's innovation, and his multimedia approach. It is rare to see someone creating a completely new and different form of performance, and especially surprising when it uses such a familiar and utilitarian piece of equipment as the overhead projector.
“This feels like a really interesting experience,” says performer Jeffrey Wells during One with Others, "a really interesting, almost satisfying encounter,” he follows up. He’s referring to the performance itself; It’s partly sarcastic. It’s partly a challenge.
One with Others, a trio choreographed by Minneapolis-based Karen Sherman, is "meta" and self-aware in a way that made me consider a performance itself and its performers in a way that I have never before considered: It made me consider the act—both the labor and the delight—of creating a performance. It made me think about the connection between a dancer and her audience and receiving audience feedback as a dancer. It made me consider the career of a contemporary dancer. One of my favorite portions of the show is when Sherman is holding an overhead projector and scribbling Pros and Cons on an overlay; they read like the pros and cons of making dance. A few of them: Pros: Love; Great Conversation Topic; Anonymity. Cons: Don’t love; $; Hate talking about it; Anonymity; Too old.
Anyone trying to forge a life in the arts can sympathize.
In general, the show is sparse. The three performers wear muted colors: grey, cream, black. You can see the stage's lights, drawing attention to the artifice of theater. There’s a severity to this as well as in the way the performers gaze blankly or accusatorily into the audience at times. I wonder if the show would've benefited from some kind of softening, either in aesthetics or otherwise.
That being said, a favorite scene during the performance is a moving segment done by Wells, who clutches a black pillow and throws himself to the ground, aggressively and repeatedly, reciting different self-help mantras for a broken heart: “Get a dog. Write about how you are feeling. Imagine slashing their tires but don’t really do it. Do yoga.” The excessive onslaught of mantras is comical; it's also sad, because of the proliferation and obsession of them. My favorite scenes of the show are these stripped down scenes. They feel the most raw and vulnerable, and so the most affecting.
There’s one more show of One with Others, a Sunday matinee at 4:30pm. Catch it if you can.
As a sidenote: if you haven’t checked out PICA’s blog re: the TBA Festival, click here. They’ve been keeping a lovely one this year, with some great nontraditional reviews and documentation of the festival. As performances are wrapping up this weekend, it serves as a nice review.
Bouchra Ouizguen’s opening show was cancelled on Wednesday. Luckily the show opened instead on Thursday, to a packed theater. It was beautiful. And moving. It was moving in how intense it was, yet spare at the same time.
One of my favorite kind of performances is one that can do a lot with a little, and Ha! does a lot with very little. There’s minimal lighting, no musical score (aside from live voices), and it's all done on the scrappy stage of the Imago Theater. Ha! is performed by four women in black shirts, black pants, and black shoes, with white cloths on their heads. This sounds like it would be boring, but I was absolutely transported.
The best way to describe the show is that it was a trance. The performers sing songs normally sung by men in Morocco. (Ouizguen is a Moroccan artist who studied in France.) Ouizguen’s fellow performers are traditional Moroccan cabaret singers, “Both celebrated and scorned for their performing tradition on the margins of society,” PICA’s show brochure reads. The performance pulls from a variety of traditions, including songs sung by the insane. The piece itself evolved by traveling throughout Morocco, studying different areas of the country and different forms of expressions, and by studying the works of the Persian poet and mystic Rumi.
The performance opens with darkness. The four performers are singing; it sounds like they’re saying “Hey, ho,” chant-like, but also like they’re shouting orders, like they’re rowing. The women's voices are incredible. They're hardy; sometimes they bellow and almost shout, but sometimes they whimper, but it's always melodic and rhythmic. This show is incredible in how it creates space with sound, and also in how it embraces stillness as a key element of a performance.
All performances require a special brand of bravery, but perhaps the bravest performance is the kind that can embrace silence. At times the performers of Ha! stand on the stage without a sound, they look around, then move against one another slowly. Again, this sounds like it might be boring, but it’s not. Shortly after this, they start hip-thrusting, playfully, making goofy grunting sounds; the audience laughs. It's like they're teenagers of the '50s who've just turned on the TV and discovered Elvis Presley and the concept of pelvic thrusting.
I stayed for the post-show conversation on Thursday night. Two of the performers decided to rest. (The show would be exhausting to perform, with nearly non-stop singing.) “I talk bad about my work,” Ouizguen said, through broken English. She speaks English with a French accent; the audience yelled out English translation suggestions at times. She was reluctant to put her work into categories. And it’s true that it seems better to experience this particular work for itself—to absorb the sounds and the unique voice that inspired it. There are two more performances of Ha!, tonight at 8:30pm and Saturday at 8:30pm. I think it’s fair to say, that you can only see this kind of show in Portland—this particular, international perspective—through the TBA Festival.
Itai Erdal is a lighting designer, not an actor. He explains this to the audience right away during his one-man show How to Disappear Completely—he's just a good storyteller who's had an interesting life.
Born in Israel, Erdal moved to Canada as a young man. When his mother got lung cancer, he flew back to Israel to care for her. Because he was, at the time, an aspiring filmmaker, he filmed his mother's decline, with her permission, with the ultimate goal of making a documentary. That footage forms the basis of How to Disappear Completely. Providing live voiceover translation in lieu of subtitles, he screens interviews with his mom, a good-humored woman who is pragmatic about her fate, and with his sister, who disapproves of the documentary-making enterprise. Heartbreakingly, there's footage of his stepfather shaving his mother's head, pausing to kiss it. It is a son's homage to his dead mother, and it is moving.
Alongside this personal account, Erdal interjects lighthearted tutorials about lighting design, and how different lights can be used to convey different effects. He's got a little portable lightboard onstage so he can control some of his own lighting cues; he explains to the audience what each light on stage does and why he's using it, and jokes about how much control the lighting designer has over a production.
Erdal is a likable presence, and his crash course in stage lighting is fascinating. But the two elements of the show—the personal and the technical—don't fit together particularly well, and I'd argue that they actually work to blunt the show's emotional impact.
On the one hand, Erdal the storyteller is sharing anecdotes about his family and friends and particularly his mother, and those are revealing and funny and quite moving. On the other hand, there's Erdal the stage technician, explaining how lighting can be used to manipulate an audience's perception of an actor or a story. The stagecraft element is fascinating, and Erdal ably connects with the audience when he's joking around and sharing his expertise as a lighting designer, but those elements coexist uneasily with the show's intense footage of his mother's decline and death.
There are plenty of ways that lighting can function as a metaphor—from the notion that lighting is outside of an actor's control to the temporary, arbitrary nature of the spotlight to the fact that everybody fades to black in the end. And while I'm ordinarily not one to argue for making metaphors more obvious, in this case I don't think it's enough that all of that is implicit.
There's a moment in How to Disappear Completely where, if you're not completely on Erdal's side, he will lose you. He lost me, and I think part of the reason he lost me was that, though I found him quite a likable presence, his digressions about stage lighting actively encourage the audience to consider how the elements of the production have been selected and manipulated. Ordinarily, this wouldn't be a problem. However, ordinarily, you're not asked to watch footage of someone's dead mother.
If Erdal wants to tell a story about his mother's death, fine, but he needs to make sure all of the show's elements serve that purpose. If he wants to tell a story about how he is telling the story of his dead mother, that's fine too, but he needs to make that intention more clear. Without that clarity of intention, the whole show runs the risk of seeming exploitative and self-serving. I'm in the critical minority on this one—I've heard nothing but raves—but I came away frustrated with the show's unrealized potential.
See for yourself tonight or tomorrow night at Imago.
Mariano Pensotti's project Sometimes I Think, I Can See You is just a screen at the PSU Urban Center Plaza. It's just white text on a black background. It doesn't even make a sound. And yet, people will just sit there for hours and stare at it. I sat for an hour, and there were definitely those few that were there when I got to the Plaza, and still there when I left.
The text on the screen is written in real-time by a writer hidden in plain sight. (Hidden, actually, seems like a stretch—basically there's an unmissable tent with a person on a computer under it.) When I arrived at the Plaza, I planned on getting a coffee to sit with, but before I could even get into the coffee shop, I got sucked in. "A man with long hair walks," popped up on the screen. That's me! I have long hair!
The artist went on to describe the way I'd walked from NE Portland over the course of 401 days. "In order to do this, he had to envision himself as something other than himself. He envisioned himself as a rock for about 300 days." The story continued through my past and into my future: I would now recycle my cup and write an epic poem about bridges.
I thought at first that my ego was driving my appreciation of the piece. How could I not be enthralled by an anonymous stranger writing a new life for me right in front of me? But I continued to be interested no matter what was being described. A group of people under an umbrella were apparently inventing a new dance, mostly consisting of finger movements and brief smiles—brief, naturally, because "People don't trust happy dancers."
The writers work in shifts, so you can revisit the Plaza and have a different experience. I left for a while and came back for a second writer. This one was less focused on the people in the Plaza, and seemed to be writing about his own experience as the writer. He referred to himself as a camera, and got lost in the sounds of the streetcar, buses, birds, and fountains.
It reminds me of a writing exercise, but made public. The writers are free, through anonymity, to get lost in the fantasy of other people's lives, but they still have to be conscious that there's an audience for this. When a woman came around the plaza asking for signatures on a bill proposal, the first writer wrote:
She doesn't want all your faces on her. Just samples of your handwriting. She wants it because she thinks it will be beautiful. Even if you think it could be better (inconsistent a's, etc). She's going to take all the beautiful samples of handwriting, she's going to give them to a clock, because she trusts clocks.
This is happening all day through Sunday, 11:00am-6:30pm, at the PSU Urban Center Plaza on SW Montgomery between 5th and 6th. There were also two ongoing instances of it at The Works last night, although I don't know how permanent that is.
Also tonight, the first night of Chop Theatre's How to Disappear Completely, a one man multi-media show by acclaimed Canadian lighting designer Itai Erdal, about his mother's death from lung cancer. That's tonight through Saturday at Imago; details here.
And tonight at midnight is your last chance to see Third Angle's excellent In the Dark, a contemporary chamber piece performed by a string quartet in the pitch-black planetarium at OMSI. (I do hope they bring this show back, I'd like to see it again.)
I've got a pair of passes to the Works—TBA's late-night programming at Con-Way—email me by noon tomorrow, with "TBA passes" in the subject, if you want to win. Only catch is that you have to be able to stop by the Mercury office downtown tomorrow to grab 'em.
"I'm getting a little bit of ASMR," my husband leaned over to whisper to me about half an hour into last night's performance of Miguel Gutierrez and the Powerful People's And Lose the Name of Action, giving me a thumb's up. ASMR stands for "autonomous sensory meridian response," and is defined as "a recently described perceptual phenomenon characterized as a distinct, pleasurable tingling sensation in the head, scalp, back, or peripheral regions of the body in response to visual, auditory, olfactory, and/or cognitive stimuli." Although it's still the subject of some controversy in the scientific world—it's difficult to study, and not everyone experiences it—it seems like an ideal response to a show that makes its business the link between our physical selves and our perceptions, by way of neurology, philosophy, ghosts or "insubstantial bodies," and the experience of performing and watching dance itself.
Artists' statements are notoriously opaque, and while waiting for seating to begin I read Gutierrez's, whose work I've seen at several past TBAs, and have appreciated for its multimedia dynamism (film, monologue, and singing all appear prominently in his repertoire) and because he has a relieving knack for injecting small, perfect moments of humor into his work, often using it to clear the air after attaining dramatic climax. (Also, to thoroughly disclose: My tiny dancer brother-in-law sometimes collaborates with Gutierrez back in New York.) In the statement for this show, he discloses the fact that his father has suffered a number of neurological problems over the past half-decade, circumstances that led him to his interest in the body/mind connection, and how it's been studied.
How does one translate that into modern dance? Anyway you want, really—the medium pretty much demands liminality. But here's how Gutierrez chooses to proceed: an all-white set with projection screens that occasionally animate with a pacing professorial type who waxes philosophical; a cast that varies along lines of age, race, and body type; and neutral toned costuming that mutes to suggest Socratic philosophers and academia, as well as some light nudity.
The action itself, without giving too much away, involves a séance; a wonderful, talkative scene that devolves into the cast chasing each other around the room yelling "Fuck you!"; a lot of beautifully controlled chaotic movement that suggests the organic/chaotic complications of cells and neurons (and probably drugs) interacting both functionally and disfunctionally; contrastingly deliberate, directed motions that recall both ballet instruction and physical therapy; and spectral muttering and screams. (And yes, a little bit of well-timed comedy.)
Performances wherein you're given a little bit of information, followed by vague, interpretive action, always result in an inner turmoil for me where I'm both trying to assign narrative and meaning and trying to stop myself from doing so too literally, but I will say that the solos were when I felt most tapped into what Gutierrez meant when he said that dance "constantly disappears and haunts."
I was starving when I showed up to the venue for the 6:30/suppertime show, and somewhat crestfallen at the utter lack of refreshments available for purchase—a mood further darkened upon the realization that the show was nearly 90 minutes long. It says something that I was surprised when it ended; it didn't feel like that much time could have possibly elapsed. I wasn't even hungry anymore.
There are two more shows this week for And Lose the Name of Action, on Friday and Saturday evening (details are here)
Occasionally, TBA affords an opportunity to see a local act I haven't seen or am not super familiar with. I've had two great experiences in that category this year: Third Angle New Music Ensemble's string quartet, performing in the pitch-black at the OMSI planetarium, was incredible; and I really enjoyed Monday night's installment of Getting to Know YouTube, a local show that invites guests to curate a presentation of YouTube videos.
I've seen Third Angle before—most memorably at TBA in 2008, when they performed at the Keller fountain. But I'm not hugely familiar with them, or with the world of contemporary chamber music that they work in.
In the Dark is performed in the OMSI planetarium, a space that, with the lights out, gets so dark that Third Angle did a test run of lights-out before the show started, to make sure audience members all knew what they were in for. (Because there's no easy way to find your way out of the planetarium with the lights out, audience members were instructed to "clap twice" if they needed to leave during the performance. No one did, thank god.)
The piece, by contemporary Austrian composer Georg Friedrich Haas, is performed by two violins, a cello, and a viola; the musicians are spaced equidistance from each other around the circumference of the planetarium. The piece is performed without sheet music, obviously, and the musicians make their way through the 18 sections of the piece listening for certain cues, or "invitation gestures," to move them from segment to segment, as Third Angle's Ron Blessinger explained in an interview with the Mercury.
The challenge for me, as an audience member, was to shut my brain off and listen. It was difficult to keep my attention focused on the music at first. I found the tiny seam of light coming in from under one of the doors; and the faintest glow that might've been an audience member's watch. I got distracted by a lady across the room who couldn't stop hiccuping, and thought about how impressive the human eye is. Weird associations kept coming up, summoned by the chirping and thrumming and screeching of the instruments—worms falling out of the sky, the Care Bear Stare, baby birds.
Eventually, though, my annoyingly distractible brain settled into the music, and the experience of pure listening was thrilling. I've never felt so involved in the drama of a piece of music before. It was as close as I've ever come to understanding that scene in Howard's End where Helen hears goblins in Beethoven's Fifth: A sense that the music had a weight and agenda all its own. It also kind of scared me, which I didn't expect at all. I loved it and I didn't want it to end and I wish I could see (hear) it again.
There's one more show tonight at 7:30 pm, and then Thursday at midnight. Tickets are $30 a pop, so it's definitely a splurge, but it was a totally singular, amazing experience. More details here. (Advance tickets are no longer available, but they'll have a limited number available for sale at the box office. Get there early if you're interested. Last night my boyfriend and others were shooed away from the ticket line by an overzealous volunteer who told them there was "no chance" they'd be able to snag tickets; that was not, actually, the case, and most—all?—of the people who stuck it out got in. I am still, clearly, holding a grudge about this.)
It was a Monday night; I sat on a bean bag chair in the corner of the Con-Way warehouse slurping a Capri-Sun; I sat two feet away from Laura Arrington, who was wearing a beard of blue ducktape and sprightly screaming a W.H. Auden poem at me...and us, the audience. “AH CRAZY SMURF” my notes read.
I’m still trying to make sense of ADULT. I can say for certain that it was a duet (between Laura Arrington and Jesse Hewit), and that it was more of a performance than a “dance” dance—like what the hip ‘60s kids might call a "happening"—and that I was confused, annoyed, and, at the end, surprisingly kind of sad. I think it’s about effort—the act of effort itself. And ambition. And exhaustion and confusion. Maybe.
The audience is small; you need a reservation to see the performance. There are about six rows of chairs, plus a few big bean bags in the front, all pushed towards the far end of the warehouse. FYI, sitting in the bean-bag row does not mean you will be forced to participate in the show in any weird way, as feared. The big warehouse door ominously shutters down right before the show—“Now we’re trapped,” intoned my bean-bag mate—and the lights go down. The only light is more or less the green glow from the EXIT sign (getting more ominous).
Soon Jesse Hewit appears; he turns his back to the audience at a considerable distance from us and starts singing, solo, and, hey, has a great voice—quasi-operatic. Eventually you start to hear percussive clicking, and Arrington appears from stage right. Her head is down. She’s tap-dancing. She tap-dances for a long time, until the tap dancing deteriorates to scraping the concrete floor, and she falls to the ground and writhes around for a while. Meanwhile, Hewit starts running in circles around the warehouse (he is actually a good runner too—good gait!). Then he plops down on a janky, particle-board folding table. He lies there, Deposition-of-Christ-like, sweaty, with heavy breathing. Arrington approaches the table, exhausted and sweaty. There’s several hesitant, *mock* sexual encounters between them (think 7th grade). They roll off the table twisted together.
The first act is over.
At this point, a cereal cart is wheeled out. My eyes perked up. I am not above saying that, for whatever annoyance I might have felt for the lack of structure or purpose of the show, it dissolved when I saw boxes of Lucky Charms and Cocoa Pebbles and Capri-Suns and wine and (seemingly) whiskey, and...basically all the stuffs of college kids' fever dreams. It was intermission, and we needed to turn our seats around to face the wall. Meanwhile, we got snacks.
The second act was more exciting.
Last night, PICA's artistic director Angela Mattox introduced Three Trick Pony referring to Linda Austin as a cornerstone in Portland dance. What does a cornerstone of Portland dance look like? Last night’s performance looked partly like an absurdist play—there's no plot, just atmosphere—and partly like a quirky creative person (*cough*myself*cough*) alone in his/her apartment; Austin murmured to herself; she mumbled showtunes under her breath; there were hip shimmies.
Austin previously referred to the show as having cartoon qualities. The score (by Doug Theriault) supports that. It’s comprised of different horns, honk sounds, and very few words/lyrics, something like a score to a slapstick comedy. Austin is the only dancer in the performance, accompanied by props built by David Eckard. The props are excellent, formally and also in terms of how they move. They’re sculptural but also interactive; they’re minimalist, built out of wood, some built out of metal. One of them looks like a giant q-tip. One prop is made from wood and has a translucent screen; it has a wooden arm that pulls up to reveal a white, wing-like fabric attached to it. It looks like a sailboat, the fabric gives off a brilliant gleam from the lighting, and it is a showstopper (figuratively and literally, as it cues the end of the show).
Austin interacts with the props with playful curiosity. At times the show reminded me of watching my baby nephew as he discovers his toys and discovers how to play with toys, and also as he discovers his own limbs and comes to the slow realization that they're attached to him and that he exercises control of them. Austin repeats the same actions over and over; she throws her hair over her face and sings showtunes, “All I want is a room somewhere, far away from the cold night air,” she murmurs. Sometimes she grabs her props and nestles up to them, in a desperate-looking attempt to snuggle. There are occasional chuckles from the audience.
When the lights went out, there were a few hesitant claps…silence, waiting. Austin emerged from under a prop and stood up. Finally full-on clapping ensued. The show was over, but no one knew it was over, because it’s the kind of show that goes on and on and that seems like it could continue to go on and on, in some parallel universe, something like a Samuel Beckett play. Which means, it’s slow. (A couple people walked out of the show—there’s no narrative or build-up.) However it also means that it creates its own solid, absorbing, self-contained environment. Austin has truly built her own vocabulary of movement, and, in Three Trick Pony, the props, the music, and the lighting all coalesce to create an atmosphere all its own.
There are two more shows of Three Trick Pony, one tonight at 6:30pm and Wednesday at 6:30pm. Austin will also be in conversation with choreographer Karen Sherman this Saturday at PICA, at 12:30pm.
I don't think I've ever had as much fun at TBA as I did on Saturday night. Evidence: cabaret with bluehairs, drag queens galore, and cheese-curd hotdogs. Can't beat that evening with a glitter stick.
I think the Schnitzer crowd got some blood flowing to their wrinkly bits at the Meow Meow show. The Australian cabaret diva is a little racy for the normal Oregon Symphony patrons; she's also brilliant. Meow Meow is a delightful mix of bathhouse Bette Midler, Fosse's Cabaret, sad Isabella Rossellini in Blue Velvet, and the physical comedy of Charlie Chaplin. In a cloud of sequins, slips, fake eyelashes, and confetti, she owned the stage in front of the Oregon Symphony, accompanied by Pink Martini's Thomas Lauderdale on piano. She kissed the musicians in loungey repose, bemoaned her lack of budget for smoke machines and dancing boys—which she solved with a tiny handheld smoke machine and amiable audience members that she draped about her body and used as arm chairs. She even managed to crowd-surf on the front-row audience. ("Google crowd-surfing when you get home," she advised.) No hips were broken!
Yes, it was schticky, and yes, it was absolutely fabulous. Meow Meow is a consummate showman—she had the crowd firmly in her manicured hands. On a beat, she turned the mood from raucously funny with her French/Chinese/avant-garde version of "Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini" to heart-achingly bittersweet the next minute with Patty Griffin's "Be Careful" performed on an empty stage, holding her own spotlight. Along with a lovely full-bodied voice, she has the heart of a slapstick comedian—sashaying around the stage like a diehard lounge singer, working it hard, and throwing out roses to the crowd ("Throw them back!" she ordered in diva fashion). The whole shebang ended in a huge everyone-on-stage spectacular worthy of a Muppet Show finale—with Lauderdale and the Symphony in red long underwear, dancing boys from the Portland Gay Men's Chorus, the Von Trapp kids (!!!!), and a nearly nude mannequin. So. Much. Fun.
And just when I thought things couldn't get more gay... I went to the drag ball at the Works. Alison reported on some aspects of the evening. (Hey, I didn't see those giant pickles! I had a veggie hotdog with cheese curds and glitter on it, served up by a boy wearing an apron over his underwear.) Kaj-anne Pepper and Chanticleer Tru hosted the performance of vamping drag queens, titled Critical Mascara: A Post-Realness Drag Ball. Categories included Diva Practice, Glamour Gore, Vogue, and HAAAIIIRRR. After the gals strutted their stuff, the panel of judges awarded scores such as "Fuck You" and "Fuck Me." There were outrageous costumes, natch—one gal greatly reduced the value of her Beanie Babies collection—and even crazier hair (HAAAIIIRRR!), but I think the vogue dance competition really upped everyone's game. I've never seen arms do things like that—limbs were twirling around like drunken windmills and the audience was eating it up. The Con-Way building's sound was a little mushy, so it was hard to hear everyone's name, but the dance beat was strong. Very, very strong. And, two days later I'm still finding glitter in unusual places, which seems like a sign of a successful drag ball.
Check out more of Pat Moran's photography here and on his Flickr:
At last night's performance of We Put It Together So We Could Take It Apart, the collaboration between musician Khaela Maricich and visual artist Melissa Dyne (AKA the Blow), I was reminded of Reggie Watts' TBA performance at the Someday in 2008, where he collaborated with dancer Amy O'Neal and used a loop pedal to create dizzying, hilarious improvisations.
The Blow's show isn't as funny as Watts' was, or as showily virtuosic, but there's something similar underpinning the two productions: Both are heavily improvised, both explore the limits of collaboration, and both feature performers really trying to take risks in front of a live audience.
The setup for We Put It Together is simple: Maricich stands on a bare stage, a giant triangle projected onto the wall behind her. In the back of the room, Dyne stands at a table, controlling light and sound. Maricich sings songs, and dances to beats laid down by Dyne, and responds to nonverbal cues from Dyne about where to stand or what to do next. She banters a bit with the crowd, frequently returning to questions about authenticity: The idea that the person onstage is different than the person who, say, wrote the songs that she's singing. (She also shakes her butt a lot.) The whole time, she's focused on Dyne, who is helping to guide the show with light and sound cues. Dyne and Maricich are partners, which gives the setup an interesting dynamic, like some intimate communication is happening to which the audience is only sorta privy. The overall effect is of a sort of post-modern cabaret, with Maricich performing a live deconstruction of her role as performer. And if that sounds boring, the songs are actually really great, poppy and dancey while retaining that lyrical specificity that characterizes Maricich's work. Everyone in the "I stopped listening to the Blow after Jona Bechtolt left" camp should probably reconsider that position.
I imagine the show will be different tonight than it was last night, and I imagine it would be more different still in a different venue. I don't think the Winningstand is the best place for this one, in fact; the show's energy flagged toward the end, and I think the big formal theater setting didn't help. I thought this one was fun and engaging, though I talked to a few people after the show who were aggravated by the apparent lack of structure.
There's one more performance tonight at the Winningstad at 8:30 pm—tickets here
The performers in Lola Arias' The Year I Was Born are young Chileans in their 20s and 30s. Most grew up in Chile under Pinochet's dictatorship; some grew up in exile, thanks to the politics of their parents.
Over the course of about two hours, the show delivers biographical information about each of the performers: Where they were born, significant events that occurred the year of their birth, where they lived as children, what their parents did. Because they were all born after Pinochet's military coup of 1973, their life stories are subtitled with a history of their country's recent turmoil. One young woman's mother was gunned down by government police, and her picture appeared on the front page of the newspaper as a warning to opposition parties. Others had parents who were friendly with the regime, or who worked for the police, or who just kept their heads down and tried to go to work.
At one point, the actors are asked to line up onstage in order of their parents' political affiliations, from left wing to center to right. As they jostle for position and argue about whose mother was more of a revolutionary, or whose dad was in tighter with the military, it's fascinating to watch: family pride and loyalty superimposed against the broader context of a military dictatorship that used torture and murder to violently suppress all opposition. (They later repeat the exercise for skin color and economic class; each time, it's revealing.)
But the remarkable thing about The Year I Was Born is that there's a sense of fun onstage even as the material is often quite heavy. The performance doesn't wallow; it isn't maudlin. There are electric guitars, and dance numbers, and clever bits of stagecraft—all of which makes it clear that director Lola Arias is deeply invested not just in her subject matter, but in finding challenging and uniquely theatrical ways to explore it. And while show feels about 20 minutes too long—thanks in part to some issues with the supertitles that the cast handled quite gracefully—it's one of those performances that makes me glad TBA exists, because seeing stuff like this makes the world feel a little bit smaller.
There's one more performance tonight at 6:30 pm. Highly recommended!
Sometimes a performance tries to do too much. Too many ideas, too many techniques, too many emotions are corralled together. It gets messy. I think this is what happened in bobbevy’s This is how we disappear, which has some gorgeous segments but overall feels incoherent. From PICA’s TBA brochure:
“This is how we disappear examines the complexity, frailty, and weight of human relationships in contrast with the fluid simplicity of the passage of time.”
So, that's a vague statement. It’s also...a lot.
Bobbevy are a local dance company, comprised of choreographer Suniti Dernovsek and visual artist David Stein. The piece is performed by two dancers. Based on their movements, one guesses that the two are meant to be a couple. Sometimes their movements are sensual (they roll their head along one another’s arms, longingly). Other times they’re aloof (the male circles around the female, austerely, as she stutters across the floor like a marionette).
Its TBA appearance is the premiere of This is how we disappear's full-length performance. I saw an iteration of it at Conduit’s Dance+ Festival last year—it actually felt more refined to me then, even though bobbevy have been workshopping the piece quite a bit since. My basic qualm with this iteration of the show is that the aesthetics clash, in particular the costuming and the video projections. The costuming was distracting; the two dancers wore cream-colored tops, made from what looked like felt, which were too stiff and rigid. They looked like armor—like breastplates—which conflicted with the sweeping movements of the choreography. As far as the video projections: at one point the dancers are whimsically winding through a forest (which was a projected animation). At another point, a screen drops down in front of the dancers’ faces; the screen has neon backgrounds and different illustrated animals flashing across it. The animals (which kinda looked like they were made on an old Apple computer a la Oregon Trail), stand in for the dancers’ heads. Meanwhile the score plugs along with aggressive digital bleeps and bloops.
All this being said, there are still some excellent segments. At one point, the dancers are on the floor, putting their body together in different shapes, and then lying still, with a projection of abstract patterns scrolling across their bodies. The pattern projection transforms the couple into one abstract form—it's a really strong visual.
For whatever maybe-missteps, ultimately it’s great to see what a local act like bobbevy is doing in comparison to all of the international dance brought in by the TBA Festival this year. Bobbevy will do three more performance of This is how we disappear. Catch them at BodyVox tonight or Sunday at 8:30pm, and on Monday at 6:30pm.
Here's an extended version of the interview the Mercury conducted with Lola Arias, whose excellent show The Year I Was Born has one more showing tomorrow night. - eds
MERCURY: The show you are bringing to Portland, El año en que nací (The Year I Was Born), tells the recent history of Chile and Pinochet’s dictatorial rule through the personal stories and family artifacts of the eleven performers themselves. But before this production, you toured the world with Mi vida después (My Life After), a show based on a similar concept about six young artists growing up under Argentina’s dictatorship and political turbulence. Did The Year I Was Born evolve from, or expand upon, My Life After?
LOLA ARIAS: My Life After was a play that I did in Argentina based on the story of my generation. I was born in 1976, when the military coup took power, and like others from my generation, I was born under this dark cloud. In My Life After, the performers reconstruct the life of their parents with personal documents (family photos, letters) and also memories. The protagonists take the role of their fathers and mothers to do reenactments of their parents’ stories. The idea was to have two generations looking at each other, like a mirror between their youth and our youth 30 years later. I had six protagonists who were chosen because of their family stories. I wanted to have people with different backgrounds: people whose parents were in the guerrilla or in the police or were indifferent to politics.
The Year I Was Born uses the same concept, but because it reflects a different society and a different history, the play is totally different. The most obvious difference is that in the Chilean version there are 11 people with completely different backgrounds (a daughter of a guerrilla woman, a son of a leader of the extreme right movement, a son of a policeman, a son of a marine, the daughter of intellectuals who went into exile, etc.) and they don't agree on how to tell the story of the country. That's why I incorporated discussions which were not present in the Argentinean version. This discussions are a transcription of what they discussed during the rehearsals. I think the Chilean version is more more polemic, more rude. In the discussions of the group, you can hear how Chilean society is still divided on how to evaluate what happened, who to blame, how to judge…
Did you develop these performances specifically to tour globally, to tell these untold stories to foreigners who may not have experienced anything like that?
No, these are not pedagogic plays to tell the stories of our country to foreigners. Both plays were very important in their own context. We performed My Life After for 4 years and we always filled the house, the same with The Year I Was Born. Both plays were really strong in their own context because they created a lot of discussions in the audience. In both societies, there was a need to discuss what happened during this time, what it means to us now, how we deal with the consequences of these times. After the play, we always have people coming up to the performers to tell them their own stories, to discuss with them, and people also stay in the hall of the theater discussing what they experienced.
How is performing multimedia theater in South America different from doing the same show in the USA or Europe? Do the politics of each region affect the reception you get? Is there anywhere you would not be able to perform this show?
The piece is very moving for the people who experienced the dictatorship in Argentina or Chile because they could remember and re-think their own past, and also get many other perspectives from other stories in the play that they don't identify with. In other countries the audience gets to know something from the recent history of Chile or Argentina, but also it makes them reflect about their own society, their own history, their political position, the difference between the seventies and present times.
Of course, the audience members reflect on different things depending on their own politics. In the audience once at an international festival, there were some young artists from Belarus who said they would like to take the piece to their own country because they’ve been living under the dictatorship of Lukashenko since 1994. They said the piece reflects how life is under a dictatorship and that they felt very connected to the piece, but I guess we will never be invited to show a piece like this in this context.
You have released a couple albums of original music, and The Year I Was Born has a strong musical component. Did you compose original songs based on the stories of this cast, or how did that come together?
I’ve worked for many years with a musician called Ulises Conti. Together we made two albums of songs and he also worked on the Argentinean and Chilean versions of the play. Music is a very important thing in my work, and most of the time I work with live music performed by the people on stage.
Sometimes we compose songs thinking about the biography of the people, like the song of Liza in My Life After. Sometimes we work with the performers to develop some musical identity. In the case of The Year I Was Born, Ulises Conti worked with Alejandro Gomez (who is also a musician telling his story in the piece) to create all kinds of atmospheres with electric guitars. And at the very end of the play, all the performers play electric guitar together and it feels like your brain is going to explode.
Is there any historical context that would be helpful for an audience to know before they see the show, that might make it easier to follow along?
You don't need to study Chilean history to come to see the piece! Just come with your eyes wide open.
While you file in to the Winningstad, Guilherme Garrido is watching you. He is perched aloft on the feet of his majestically-bearded partner Pieter Ampe who is laying on his back with his legs up. Before the lights go down over the audience, Gui chats with you for a bit, about being in Portland, about his new baby, about this and that and everything except the dude he's sitting on, who starts hitting his foot and fidgeting under the weight, to hilarious effect. Then Gui asks you all a few times if you're comfortable, if you want to take him to the vegan strip club after the show, and eventually asks you to join him in welcoming Pieter with a princess wave and an "I love you." And you do, of course, and you mean it, because this is so cute.
(I know reviewers are supposed to refer to artists by their last names, but these guys seem so friendly and authentic that I just want to call them Gui and Pieter, which they call each other, and I want to give them a big hug. But this is not about me.)
Then the house lights go out and the show begins. There is not really any more talking, and really there is not much "dancing" in the way we generally think of dancing. I would call it a movement piece. They are growling and hissing and grunting, slithering and loping and rolling, hitting and throwing and hugging each other, and yes, at one point, tearing each others' clothes off — the guys are nude for probably more than half the performance. They touch each other in a lot of ways you would never expect to see in public or in private, let alone on a stage, which is surprising and funny but not off-putting.
Dance isn’t really my thing. I don’t see too much of it, I don’t know much about it, I have no particular affinity for it. Sometimes in the line of duty I have to write about it, and I do my best with the limited perspective I have.
I say this not to qualify my opinions about Trajal Harrall’s Judson Church is Ringing in Harlem (Made-to-Measure)/Twenty Looks or Paris is Burning at The Judson Church (M2M) but rather to note that because I don’t see or think about dance very often, I have no real expectations about how a performance should or shouldn’t unfold. The handful of audience members who walked out of Friday’s performance clearly had expectations that weren’t being met, and I’d very much like to know what those expectations were. Did they expect a drag show? A colorful, outlandish spectacle? Or did they simply expect not to be deeply bored by the first half hour of the show?
The reason I’m so puzzled by this is that from where I sat, choreographer Harrall and his two dancers delivered exactly what was promised by the show's description. The premise of the show is a what if: What if, back in the 1960s, dancers from New York’s Judson School of Dance—which pioneered a post-modern approach devoted to upsetting audience expectations—had made their way the Harlem dance halls where gay men were pioneering voguing, a la Paris Is Burning?
That’s *exactly what happened* onstage.
Hello! And welcome to the Mercury's 2013 TBA blog, your source for news, reviews, interviews, and any other "ews" we can come up with. To kick things off in style, we're giving a way a few pairs of tickets to one of the most high-profile shows on the TBA bill: The Cat's Meow, a collaboration between acclaimed Australian cabaret singer Meow Meow and Pink Martini's Thomas Lauderdale. Here's our preview:
Billed as a kamikaze cabaret diva, Meow Meow is glamour incarnate—the Australian chanteuse is covered in sequins and fake eyelashes and charisma and heartbreak. She’s also a damned funny broad. Her pal Thomas Lauderdale (of Pink Martini) and the Oregon Symphony will provide the accompaniment as Meow Meow sings beautiful torch songs with an ever-present cigarette (or two) in hand. This gal’s a cheeky sex bomb, but with her clarion voice and lovely range, she’s just as likely to make your eyes cry martini tears. The cabaret star is not unlike a (slightly) less tragic Isabella Rossellini from Blue Velvet, only with more stage lolling and crowd-surfing in a cocktail dress. So, pretty much utterly delightful.
Convinced? The show is this Saturday, September 14 at 8 pm at the Schnitz; to win tickets, just email me by noon on Wednesday, Sept 11 with "Cat's Meow" in the subject line. Or if you'd rather not take your chances, PICA can accommodate your ticket purchase right over here.
The tenth anniversary edition of the TBA festival wrapped up on Sunday. Some final thoughts:
• One show this year made my short list of all-time best TBA performances: Gob Squad's Kitchen.
• I'm having trouble thinking of a recent TBA show that's been as polarizing as Keith Hennessy's Turbulence was this year—Claude Wampler's piece in '07, maybe? I found it (unproductively) stressful and grating; others found it playful and inspiring.
• I'm ready to be done with Washington High School as TBA's HQ. The cleaned-up old high school was exciting to explore the first year; the second year, comfortably familiar; by now, I've seen one too many depressingly under-attended late-night shows in that auditorium, and those unisex bathrooms are just gross. Plus, this year the lines and security were almost comically unpleasant to deal with. Wait in line to wait in line for a show to start late? No thank you.
• It was nice to see former artistic directors Mark Russell and Cathy Edwards attending the fest—speaks well of PICA that past employees still want to hang out.
• I said it two years ago, and I'll say it again: NEEDS MORE PUBLIC ENGAGEMENT. I don't think TBA needs to make their programming more accessible—I've had this argument before—but I do think PICA needs to provide more points of entry for the general public. Remember the days of free public performances in Pioneer Courthouse Square?
• Overall, I'd say new artistic director Angela Mattox's pledge to bring in artists from underrepresented parts of the world paid off. There were some clunkers (the lineup of performance art from the Balkans was unbearable), but I'm glad I got to see Lagartijas al Sol (Mexico) and Cheltfisch (Japan), and my biggest festival regret is missing Faustin Linyekulas (Democratic Republic of the Congo).
There was a point during poet Gozo Yoshimasu and experimental musician Otomo Yoshihide's performance for Voices & Echoes at PSU's Lincoln Hall when Yoshihide started throwing loose change at his modified turntable— the contact mics inside it amplifying the metallic collisions— and I was reminded of this time that I asked a Japanese graffiti artist to explain wabi-sabi.
“Wabi-sabi?” he asked, considering the question for a slow second before giving his explanation. “Your shoe. Right now, it is wabi.”
Before I knew what was happening, he pulled my shoe off my foot and threw it across the parking lot we were standing in.
“Now, it is sabi.” He had no further explanation.
“Oh, okay,” I responded, trying to judge if he was messing with me or not. Then I hobbled over to my shoe.
Wikipedia translates this experience into boilerplate American English: “Wabi-sabi represents a comprehensive Japanese world view or aesthetic centered on the acceptance of transience and imperfection.”
Loose change thrown at a turntable sounds a bit like that, though I bring up my wabi-sabi story not to describe the intentions of Voices & Echoes' Japanese performers, but to illustrate my unfamiliarity with the Japanese cultural identity, and to segue into the disclaimer that I'm sure there's a lot of referential stuff in the performance that I missed.
Limited cultural understandings aside, I'm gonna try my best to describe what I saw at Lincoln Hall.
This year, TBA closed out its ten-day run with a show by Laurie Anderson, a returning TBA artist who's just about as big as it gets in the contemporary art scene. I'm not sure why PICA decided to close the fest with their big event, rather than opening with it as they've done in years past—it may have just been a logistical decision—but I liked it. A fancy event at the Schnitz that might make a snoozy opener instead offers a gentle comedown from the fest.
Anderson performed Dirtday!, a mild-mannered rumination on natural selection, tent cities, death, sleep, and her piano-playing dog.
Dirtday is predominantly a storytelling show—music provides punctuation and atmosphere, but is rarely the focus. On a bare stage dotted with candles, Anderson's voice settled into a dangerously soothing rhythm, occasionally distorted by a voice modifier or broken up with a riff on the electric violin. Each story was more or less a few jokes wrapped around an aphorism ("if we didn't have regrets, we wouldn't have all that much music"), plus the aforementioned YouTubes of her dead dog, which were beautifully out of context on that stage and very endearing at the same time. A fire alarm went off onstage at one point, and Anderson's handling of that distracting was as gracious as could be. She was gracious in general, in fact, peppering the show with plenty of humor, but I nonetheless I struggled to connect the pieces of Dirtday. She opened with a reference to the name of the show, in suggesting that we rename earth "dirt," because it's "funkier, like we are," but all I can think to say about the rest of the subject matter covered is that it is all relevant to being a human. The evening's undeniable highlight was when she returned to stage for an encore to play an electric violin solo, a beautifully precarious number in which every tremor of her bow transmitted both fragility and control. I wish Dirtday! had offered a few more of those moments.
In our TBA blog comments a few days ago, I picked on Mexican company Lagartijas Tiradas al Sol a bit for their sloppy use of supertitles. That show was translated directly from its original language, where Japanese performance troupe Cheltfisch's Hot Pepper, Air Conditioner, and the Farewell Speech felt adapted.
Hot Pepper, Air Conditioner, and the Farewell Speech is three linked vignettes, all set in an office, that use the repetition of movement and language to lampoon contemporary Japanese office culture (and, presumably, the society-wide implications of a large, homogenous white-collar workforce). It's a show in which small matters take on overlarge significance; in which the petty concerns of the office become life-defining constraints. The show is stylish and at times funny, though I was most interested in how well the show's translation from Japanese was handled. The supertitles included humorous explanatory asides (Wikipedia was invoked to explain several references) and the show's heavy reliance on repetition meant that there was plenty of time to take in both the movement and the language. It made a sharp contrast to the aforementioned Lagartijas show, where I always felt a step behind the wordy script.
That being said, though, this is one of those shows that next year I will have forgotten I saw. One of the dangers of TBA's dense programming is that smaller, less flashy shows like this one are apt to get lost in the shuffle. It's a diverting hour, to be sure, but probably not an essential one. There's one more show tonight.
There are two performances left of Gob Squad's Kitchen (You've Never Had it So Good). Go see it.
Hilarious, technically ambitious, surprising, thoughtful—this show is wonderful. To explain it is to make it sound a lot more pretentious than it actually is, but: It's a contemporary reenactment of a handful of Andy Warhol's movies, filmed live by ridiculously gifted improvisers, with the most seamless integration of audience participation I've ever seen. (I was assured by a performer after the show that they seek out participants who seem open to being onstage—my strategy of staring intently at my hands whenever I hear the words "we need an audience member!" will work fine if you're allergic to the spotlight.)
The actors talk a lot about how their characters would be feeling and acting in 1965, when Warhol's Kitchen was filmed. In one of my favorite moments, a performer named Sharon (a pixie-haired Edie Sedgwick stand-in) is talking about feminism and oppression when another actor begins showering her with corn flakes. In any other contemporary art piece, this would be some sort of symbol, left to audience interpretation—in this show, Sharon said, "What are you doing that for?" It was a small moment, but it made me laugh, and it sums up the directness and humor that made the show work so well.
Gob Squad's Kitchen is a reminder that complexity and accessibility are not mutually exclusive. It's about nostalgia and influence and optimism and change; it's unabashedly entertaining. I might write a more in-depth review of this piece on Saturday, after it's ended, but at this point I don't want to spoil the experience for people who haven't seen it yet—it's an incredible pleasure to watch it unfold. Definitely a top-ever TBA show for me, up there with Elevator Repair Service's Gatz and Rude Mech's The Method Gun.
There are showings tonight and tomorrow at 8:30 pm at PSU's Lincoln Hall. Tickets are $30; buy 'em here.
Get the best of the Mercury each week in your inbox!
|Most Popular||I, Anonymous||Best of the Merc|