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.
To see a perfect example of how simplicity will always trump spectacle, do yourself a favor and go watch Faustin Linyekula’s Le Cargo. The piece is honest, at times breath taking, and completely void of unnecessary bells and whistles.
There is no set, save a handful of floor lights placed to scatter shadows against the theater walls. There are no projections, or tricks with video. The piece is bare-bones performance at its best, and you might be surprised how easily Linyekula holds your attention through the 60-minute duration.
Le Cargo is essentially a performance recalling Linyekula’s first memories of art and ritual. He tells us early on in the piece that he is trying to “learn how to dance again”, which for him, means revisiting his childhood village Obilo, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo where his first memories of dance are. But more so than that, I got the impression that in order to “learn how to dance again” Linyekyla felt as though he needed to make this a shared experience. In many ways, the show feels less about him and his personal history, and more about what it is to explore origin and ritual in a broad sense of the terms.
There is indeed a clear sense that gradually comes out in the piece that the audience is just as important to the success of it as Linyekula is. Which is something I found to be incredibly refreshing considering how often it seems in contemporary performance that the audience comes second to the art being displayed. I would even go as far to say that
Linyekula attempts in Le Cargo to bring the audience into his ritual, that as he moves, narrates, sings, and even jokes, that you, as a sounding board, are helping to further his work to “learn how to dance again”. It is a cyclical aspect to the show that isn’t fully revealed until close to the end (no spoilers!) and one that exhibits that, on top of being a captivating mover, Linyekula is also a talented writer.
I could probably go on and on about this piece. It is easily in my top three things I’ve seen at the festival this year. Linyekula is charming, magnetic, modest, and talented. His piece is beautiful, thrilling, moving, and good. You should go see it. It plays for two more nights at The Winningstad.
Just gonna put it out there: I pretty much want to live in The Love Song of R. Buckminster Fuller, the live documentary written and performed by filmmaker Sam Green and scored by Yo La Tengo (originally commissioned by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art to be performed during the 2012 San Francisco International Film Festival).
Last night at Washington High School, as Yo La Tengo played behind Green's friendly narration and slideshow of videos and stills detailing the life of Buckminster Fuller, I was reminded that strong entertainment value and contemporary art aren't mutually exclusive forces. This reminder has become something of a TBA tradition: each year I'm bombarded with challenging art of elusive value/meaning, I get tired, frustrated, etc., and then in the middle of the hairiness something just blows me away with its entertainment value, relevance to everyday life, and clear and present meaning (sans unnecessary codifications or large, showy art moves). In short, I left Love Song with the same sort of joy for storytelling that I walked away with after seeing Mike Daisey perform The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs at TBA:10. That's a tall order, and I couldn't be more happy with this particular 'art is worthwhile' moment.
Dear Mercury—Why will no one admit that Parenthetical Girls is an emo band?
GOOD QUESTION, ISAAC. Also, I WILL ADMIT THAT PARENTHETICAL GIRLS IS AN EMO BAND.
They were last night, anyway. A friend remarked that the main part of their show reminded her of a My Chemical Romance concert, and she was right: loud and shiny and spectacle-y, with Zac Pennington dramatically walking out wearing what's probably best described as a flesh-colored unitard (somewhat awkwardly, this is what I had chosen to wear to the event as well), over which he had a harness connecting him to two massive, helium-filled balloons. This was followed by five women, credited as "Valkyries" in the program (a document whose cover simply boasted the giant words PRIVILEGE IS OVER, a Masonic Square and Compasses, and "PARENTHETICAL GIRLS, ET AL."), walking through the crowd, one by one, spitting something into Pennington's hand—I was sitting in the back, so I couldn't see the details, but I have been informed that they were "glitter eggs," which Pennington then threw, because this is what you do with glitter eggs.
All of this was accompanied by three massive video screens, and all of this had been preceded by performances from Jherek Bischoff, and Golden Retriever, and Classical Revolution PDX, and dancer Allie Hankins—topless! covered in glittery gold!—all of whom collided onstage for the Pennington-led finale, which felt like a big, sonic wash that kind of obliterated everything that had come before—Golden Retriever's intense, Vangelis-score-for-Blade Runner-y performance with Classical Revolution PDX, Hankins' (similarly intense) dance. Pennington's a hell of a showman, talented and confident and (this sounds weird to write about a dude I used to work with and—disclaimer!—am still friendly acquaintances with, but okay) somehow both sexual and androgynous at once. He's fun to watch, and the general sense of the performance—lavish melancholy—came through strong, even though the sound system in the Washington High auditorium is, turns out, pretty shittily equipped to handle the sort of grand, complex sound the show was based around.
The sound system was bad enough, actually, that the show briefly stopped as they tried to work out some sound issues, with an understandably testy Pennington complaining before giving up and moving on. The show ended shortly afterward, abruptly and surprisingly soon—it's TBA, so who knows, maybe that was the plan, or maybe, as was suggested by a few people afterward, Pennington had cut it short. The performance as a whole—with all of its associated acts—didn't feel short to me, but the final, Parenthetical Girls-focused segment, which concluded with a camera following Pennington through the halls of Washington High before wandering outside the school, the resultant broadcast on those big video screens, did feel like it ended too soon—it might've been overwhelming and blurry, but the music is solid, and what can I say? I like this sort of stuff. I like My Chemical Romance too.
Two of our writers saw Keith Hennessy's improv-based Turbulence on the same night. Jenna was sharply critical of the piece; here's Noah's response, which I'm pulling from the comments:
I am of people who really liked this show. And for all intents and purposes, following my own standards, I should have disliked it. I usually hate unscripted theatre, I am not a very big fan of dance that lacks choreography, and I usually loathe audience participation. But for whatever reason, I found this loosely structured, chaotic mess of a piece to be compelling.
Why, though? I can't say for certain (yes you can call BS). I am still making up my mind about it and why I'm continuing to think about this piece and what exactly made the impact but...
I think I liked it because it wasn't afraid to be hated.
I think I liked it because it didn't feel like a performance but a school yard game.
I think I liked it because it was messy.
I think I liked it because it wasn't trying to teach me anything or change my mind about something.
I think I liked it because it was some hippy shit, it was some 1980s San Francisco shit, and it was also its own shit.
I think I liked how genuine Hennessy was. And how that translated into the room.
I realize that what I saw and what I think I liked I will probably not see or like again as the nature of the show is to change. But I think I like that too. And I would even go on to guess that that is one of the main ideas behind the piece.
Anyone else want to weigh in?
Things I was looking forward to seeing last night at The Works: Weston Currie premiering a new film with a live soundtrack provided by Portland's own Liz Harris (Grouper). And B-Movie Bingo presented by Wolf Choir, in which audience members play bingo using movie cliches from Bulletproof starring Gary Busey(!).
I didn't see them though. I left The Works at 1:15am and the basically cleared out theater was still being setup for these two portions of last night's Future Cinema. There were murmurs going around that neither of these films/performances were even going to happen.
What I did see last night: a two hour Google+ chat amongst five seemingly intoxicated friends made increasingly tedious with obscure inside jokes and failed audience participation.
This was Terrifying Women, a program of videos and performances by current and past Portland artists Alicia McDaid, Tanya Smith, Wendy Haynes, Sarah Johnson, Diana Joy, Kathleen Keogh, and Angela Fair. I think the idea here was to have a modern day panel of sorts in which work could be shown and then discussed by each of the respective artists participating. But what was actually presented was more of a confusing conference call interrupted at times by videos and loosely structured live compositions. As an audience member I felt bewildered and also a bit put out that I was either not in on the joke, or just completely missing it.
Some of the videos were interesting however. The ones shown by Diana Joy in particular were impressive in regards to production value and content. But on a whole this loosely structured and meandering program left me cold and wishing I stayed out in the beer garden.
More photos after the jump if you'd like to take a gander...
It's press day at Mercury HQ, so I don't have much time to write about Perforations, but in a nutshell: I didn't like it.
The program of performers from the Balkans was intermittently boring, irritating, and boring again. I left before the fourth and final piece in the show, after sitting through three segments of the type of performance art that are exactly why so many of my friends refuse to go to TBA, even if I wave free passes in their face.
Segment 1: The crowd is waiting in the the hallway when a volunteer tells us that if we're claustrophobic and/or incapable of standing for 20 minutes, we should skip the first segment of the program. We don't skip it, and so we're ushered backstage, where for the next 20 minutes we stand uncomfortably in the dark, listening to spooky music and wishing we could see what was happening. Since what was happening was that a performer was creating an intricate yarn-web over the doorway, we weren't wishing that hard— we were trapped! In art! Art that felt a lot like a Nine Inch Nails fan's basement! So that was boring and uncomfortable.
[Unexplained interlude lasting approximately 40 minutes.]
Segment 2: Back in the main auditorium. A woman moved squares around over a light board (projected on a screen above) while pretty music played, then she rolled around on it for a while. I found this part sort of relaxing, but I also sort of wanted to leave.
Segment 3: A woman in a white dress gave a "political speech" inspired by Pussy Riot, while a slide show of stock vagina photos played in the background. This segment had some potential, except it lasted for 600 years, long enough for the vagina slide show to cycle through four times. I wrote down a lot of quotes from this, mostly alliterative pussy sloganeering, but I'm not going to transcribe any of it because it's frankly not that interesting. Basically it was yelling about how we need a vagina-based political party, and then it was some spoken word poetry that involved reciting the names of past presidents while porn sounds played.
At this point PICA volunteers tried to usher us upstairs, for the evening's fourth and presumably final segment (it was 10:15; the show started at 8:30), but we ran free into the night.
There's one more showing of Perforations tonight, if you really want to challenge yourself. Or you could just watch this clip 120 times.
One mark of a promising theater company, to me, is the ability to do a lot with a little. Tackling a centuries-long, war-addled saga in a foreign language with a cast of two and a set comprised mostly of produce boxes? Yeah, I’d say that counts.
All right, I’m sorry to say it, but my public school education taught me very little about Mexico’s history, and I’m guessing I’m not the only one. But you know what that means? Asalto al Agua Transparente, the drama of the perpetual struggle for water as power in the Basin of Mexico, is like a brand new story! Shiny.
Luisa Pardo and Gabino RodrÍguez, the founders of Lagartijas Tiradas al Sol, slip seamlessly between then and now, weaving a present-day scene of two lonely city-dwellers between a tag-team storytelling reenactment of sorts… It’s kind of hard to explain because I’ve never quite seen it done like this—another sign of exciting new theater work.
Last night was the first and last performance of Fluid Hug-Hug's Glowing. If you missed it, my apologies in advance: It would be a lot better to see the dance—it’s so much about the subtleties in seeing—than to read whatever recap I will muster about it. Check this out, at least:
The majority of the piece is performed in silence (you can barely hear the dancers’ feet hit the floor). This means all of the attention is on the visuals, and there’s a ton to see indeed. The lighting and the movement are masterful. Choreographer Kota Yamazaki has a Butoh background, but infuses it with a lot of other dance influences. Yamazaki’s company, Fluid Hug-Hug, is comprised of six dancers, hailing from all over: Japan, America, Ethiopia and Senegal. The name "Fluid Hug-Hug" says a lot—the word “fluid” kept coming to mind during yesterday’s performance. From Yamazaki’s website: “Yamazaki believes that a person is fluid and has to keep flowing, like water, so that exchange between people from different backgrounds can become more easy and free. The name of Fluid hug-hug came from this idea of fluidity and meeting people from all over the world.”
Glowing is a dance that makes you marvel, for one, at how controlled the body can be, but also at how it slows down movement to make you closely examine the body's form itself. The dancers use the entirety of their selves and their motions. From full-out seizure spasms to the tiniest flicker of a finger—from head to their toes, they have a complete awareness of their body. As for overriding themes, the emphasis is on lightness and darkness (the costuming is strictly black and white, the floor is white and the curtains are black). Yamazaki was inspired largely by the essay In Praise of Shadows, by Japanese author Jun’ichiro Tanizaki’s. In terms of plot, in terms of rising and falling action, nothing really “happens” here—which maybe sounds boring (it’s definitely not what I would consider a crowd-pleaser), but, if you're patient enough to pay close attention, there’s a lot to offer.
In Tanazaki's essay, he talks a lot about dishes and lacquerware, which (bear with me!) is actually super relevant to this performance. It gets at that tight attention that turns into a dreamlike quality, which pervades much of Glowing. Here, this passage:
Lacquerware is light and soft to the touch and gives off hardly a sound. I know few greater pleasures than holding a lacquer soup bowl in my hands, feeling upon my palms the weight of the liquid and its mild warmth…With lacquerware there is a beauty in that moment between removing the lid and lifting the bowl to the mouth when one gazes at the still, silent liquid in the dark depths of the bowl, its color hardly differing from that of the bowl itself. What lies within the darkness one cannot distinguish, but the palm senses the gentle movements of the liquid, vapor rises from within forming droplets on the rim, and the fragrance carried upon the vapor brings a delicate anticipation. What a world of difference there is between this moment and the moment when soup is served Western style, in a pale, shallow bowl. A moment of mystery, it might almost be called, a moment of trance.
And, with that, I’m going to go get rid of all my Tupperware now. Have fun at the Works tonight; maybe I’ll see you there.
This is one of those TBA performances that will make you irritated and possessive with your time. Confusion, frustration, and disorientation: you’re apt to feel all of those. But that’s the point. Last night was the second and final run of the piece Miriam. I saw it Friday, and I’m still trying to make sense of it.
In short, it’s a difficult performance, and it’s good to have some background information (our print preview of the show will give you some clue). Zimbabwe-born choreographer Nora Chipaumire works with ideas of displacement, gender, and African identity. Also performing in the piece is dancer Okwui Okpokwasili, who was born to Nigerian parents but is Brooklyn-based. Miriam is booked as a dance, but it’s a lot more like theater—like Absurdist theater, or Dada theater, where there are a lot of indecipherable grunts and gasps (more so than actual sensible words).
The idea behind Andrew Dickson's latest TBA offering—following his performances about how to be an eBay PowerSeller and how to sell out—is, on the surface, pretty gimmicky: Dickson acts as a life coach for someone. Participation is free for both the audience and the pre-selected coachees; in a setup that more or less mirrors that of any shrink's office—quiet, two chairs facing each other, low lighting—Dickson and the coachee sit for the better part of an hour, talking through any life challenge(s) the coachee has asked for help with. The biggest difference from a normal life coaching session, I guess, is the fact that there are like 40 people watching, and occasionally weighing in. Well, that and the fact that Dickson totally isn't a trained or licensed or even particularly experienced life coach.
The performance/session I attended yesterday afternoon started off somewhat worrisomely: Dickson asked everyone in attendance to take a few moments to reflect on why we had chosen to attend and what we wanted to get out of the experience, and then he had us turn to whoever was sitting closest to us and, making eye contact, discuss these reasons. This was about 98 percent awkward and terrible, for me at least, in no small part because I felt more than a little guilty and voyeuristic about my reasons for attending. (In short: "I am a terrible and curious and nosy person, and I figure this is the closest I'll ever get to eavesdropping on a stranger's therapy session.")
So that part was clunky and weird, and ultimately, didn't add a whole lot to the experience. What happened next, though, was pretty great: Dickson invited up the coachee, Wayne, a middle-aged or maybe slightly more-than-middle-aged man with a gray shirt, gray hair, glasses, and a soft voice. Wayne had applied to be Dickson's coachee because he had a problem. A math problem.
In his disarming new show Heavens What Have I Done, the New York-based Gutierrez invites the audience onstage to witness firsthand the anxiety, excitement, and inspiration that goes into creating a performance piece. Much of the show takes the form of a deceptively casual monologue, as Gutierrez—face painted, fake eyelashes in place—jokes and rambles his way through his preparations for a piece. Early in the monologue, Gutierrez mentions a stint he did as a teacher at a dance school, where he found a disconcerting sameness in the student work he was seeing: It was as though, he explains, the students felt they had to erase themselves before going onstage, to limit their entire presentation and focus to a single idea. Heavens What Have I Done is an explicit rejection of that approach: Gutierrez brings everything onstage. In a literal unpacking of baggage, as he prepares his set and dresses in a clownish costume, Gutierrez shares his insecurity about his intelligence, his desire to impress a judgmental ex-boyfriend, his philosophical interest in the notion of binary constructs like gender and the mind/body split, and how much, exactly, his shoes cost. (I won't attempt to analyze the symbolism of the pennies he rains upon the stage at one point.)
When Gutierrez finally begins to dance, it's a forceful, aggressive assertion of his right—as a gay man, as the son of immigrants, as an aging dancer having trouble fitting into his skinny jeans—to make art on his own terms. In a ruffled rainbow collar and a Marie Antoinette wig, looping French phrases and singing along with opera, his show appropriates bits of Western "high culture" in order to effectively subvert our often-unquestioned assumptions about ownership and participation.
That's what I got out of it, anyway. Gutierrez had a few harsh words in the piece about festival programs, which glibly attempt to pin a performance down to words—but it's kind of my job, and that's what I came away from the show thinking about.
A few more stray thoughts: (1) Don't wear a short skirt. (2) The piece has a conversational tone, but that doesn't mean you need to do any talking. Seriously, no one likes that guy.
Gutierrez performs two shows, tonight at tomorrow at 6 pm at Washington High. Reservations are required for passholders; individual tickets are $20. Details here.
I had two thoughts as I walked out of the premier TBA performance of Lagartijas Tiradas al Sol's El Rumor del Incendio. The first: "well that was charming." The second: "I want to watch that all over again and not pay one shred of attention to the supertitles." This is not to say that supertitles are superfluous to the show. Lagartijas Tiradas al Sol (you can brush up on them here and here) is a Mexico City based theatre collective and they present El Rumor... in their native tongue so supertitles are necessary for us monolingual dummies, as Alison so nicely put it, to keep up with the dialogue.
And oh is there dialogue. The show is essentially a history lesson in and of itself, mapping out in great detail the tumultuous history of young Mexicans revolutionaries in 1960s and 1970s Mexico. A movement, that to my knowledge has received very little attention in the history books (at least not at my high school) and one that Lagartijas Tiradas al Sol give a very stirring account of. Much of the show, perhaps a good 60% of it, is exposition. There are many events to follow, many names to try to keep track of, and it is easy to get turned around and hard to keep all the people and places straight. Found letters, historical accounts, and audio clips that the group have uncovered are shown and heard, and at times the information coming at the audience in this "documentary play" can be fairly overwhelming.
But lucky for us, Lagartijas Tiradas have found not only creative ways to communicate this information, but they've paired it with action brought charismatically alive by the ensemble Luisa Pardo, Gabino RodrÍguez (Largartijas' founders) and Harold Torres. I seriously could have watched this trio for hours, dialogue or no, they were captivating, personable, and heartwarming.
Which brings me to my point about the supertitles. While the story and the history that Lagartijas Tiradas unwraps in El Rumor del Incendio is mostly conveyed through words, it is the action on stage, in the present, that is the most engaging. The group uses real-time video, models, masks, toy soldiers, even a fish tank (seriously the set is fucking great), to help bolster and convey the history they are telling. And it is this action matched with the stern performances of Gabino, Pardo, and Torres that really make the show worth seeing. Words are great, but it was refreshing to see a play's themes displayed in such a physical and visceral way.
Of course there is a catch-22 here. I probably wouldn't be as excited about the play's physicality if I hadn't been in tune with the narrative the dialogue was mapping out. And that I had to obtain through those dreaded supertitles. But is there a way to tell? I suppose I could go twice. Ah screw it, I'm going twice.
So, full disclosure guys, I was pretty stoked to go see opening night of Big Art Group's The People: Portland tonight. After interviewing both of the New York City based collective's co-founders, Caden Manson and Jemma Nelson, I was fairly convinced that I was going to dig what they had to offer...
Recorded interviews of Portlanders answering questions about concepts like democracy, justice, terrorism projected on the walls of Washington High School? Ok sounds neat.
A live footage and live theater mash-up woven into the plot and themes of the Oresteia? Awesome, I love those plays.
A piece of art blending local thoughts with larger universal human ideas? Well that just sounds like that whole "think global, live local" motto jammed packed into one night of performance. Sign me up.
So yes, I suppose you could say I had high hopes for the spectacle Big Art Group had set forth to bring to Portland's TBA audience. Were my hopes met with coinciding results? To put it bluntly, they were not. But before I get all negative, let me first list some things that I thought succeeded in Big Art Group's The People: Portland:
-I found the group's use of technology (aside from several glitches last night) to be quite thrilling. Albeit this wasn't a surprise. Big Art Group is well known for their technical innovation. Seeing the real live performance occurring inside Washington High's classrooms (where most of the piece's action took place) projected in real time outside on the school's walls was certainly an engaging feat, if not awe inspiring. As the piece continued however, this function became increasingly hard to follow.
About an hour before seeing The Quiet Volume, while flipping through the new David Foster Wallace biography Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story at Powell's, I landed on a passage describing how Wallace's ideas about language were influenced by the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. Wittgenstein's early work characterized language as a rigidly logical system, a notion he later rejected in favor of the position that language is communally defined, by usage. ("Meaning as use," as a character in The Broom of the System puts it.) During his career as a fiction writer, Wallace explored both of those positions, as he constantly grappled with the philosophical underpinnings of language.
I read that and I thought "poor David Foster Wallace" and "how awful to feel so stressed out about language" and "I don't really remember my college philosophy courses very well," and then I put the book away and headed to the Central Library for Tim Etchells and Ant Hampton's The Quiet Volume, a show that blew me away by creating just the sort of anxiety about language I'd been pitying Wallace for having.
The 10th annual Time-Based Art festival kicks off tonight with a performance of Big Art Group's The People—Portland (a mashup of live theater, video, and footage from interviews with Portlanders, loosely based on the Oresteia)—followed by a free dance party at Washington High, and the opening of TBA's visual art exhibits.
I have it on good authority that—for real this time—this is the last year TBA will be based at the school. It's absolutely worth checking out while you still can—the old high school makes a great performance hub, and it's fun exploring classrooms and hallways full of visual and video art.
Tonight's dance party is FREE! and starts at 10:30 pm at Washington High (SE 13th & Stark); it's helmed by NYC DJ Venus X. "Not since DJ Spooky... has a D.J. been appreciated in so many cultural contexts," writes the New York Times of the scene-hopping DJ, who's as likely to perform in an abandoned warehouse as at the Museum of Modern Art. Kinda boring video:
Also at Washington High: Cocktails, a beer garden, and food—tonight provided by Boke Bowl.
One of my favorite articles in this week's TBA guide is "Online Relationship Management," by local writer/artist Dylan Meconis. Dylan interviewed writer/artist Claire L. Evans—whom you might know from her work in YACHT—about a presentation Evans is giving at TBA. The interview discusses Evans' ideas about how online relationships are measured and understood, and it's accompanied by some of Dylan's suggestions for online relationship tools. They are delightful:
(Oh yeah: This whole business is being streamed live here, if you're curious.)
2:23 pm—And here something pretty great happens: Mike Daisey loses his shit, breaking character and pushing himself back from his table, laughing hard for a long spell, his big chest shaking, he's giddy and enthusiastic and looking—for the first time in like I don't know a dozen-and-a-half hours—like he's having a genuinely great time. The thing that caused this reaction was a joke about raping Jonathan Ames' corpse.
I'm not going to lie; I had a hard time with this performance. I hardly know what to make of it. Sure, at times I could see themes of nationalism, political oppression, and maybe rebellion, but it was all so conceptual, I could not connect with any of it.
As the audience trickled in to fill the Winningstad Theatre, dancer/choreographer Rachid Ouramdane, who comes to us from France, stood silently on a slowly spinning platform. Once the house lights went down, he started off the piece with a section of increasingly complex semaphore gestures accompanied by only a metronome on a starkly lit, minimal, industrial set... and it never got any more accessible than that. There was just no narrative through-line, and no appreciable attempt to involve or even acknowledge the audience. At some points it felt like Ouramdane was just freestyling in a basement with his buddy jamming on guitar, which is why I felt myself wondering why I was watching this.
Speaking of jamming on guitar, though, I was often more interested in watching composer Jean-Baptiste Julien's performance. His haunting piano melodies, mixed and engineered live and on-the-fly (as far as I could tell), were the best part for me, particularly when Ouramdane spent several minutes lying flat on the floor.
Granted, I may not be worldly or educated enough (how much is enough?) to properly appreciate or decipher this high-minded piece—and your counterpoints and illuminations are welcome in the comments—but I'm betting a lot of you would have also been staring at this puzzling production wondering, "what is this? What is the point?"
Prior to the show last night, I caught zoe | juniper’s A Crack in Everything Installed. If you’ve seen it (it’s free), you’d probably agree, it’s totally bizarre and unnerving. There’s a series of women, standing in a line with tubetops on; their hair is up and they’re covered in silver glitter; their mouths are oozing some kind of golden bathballs, and red pieces of string drape down the walls. It’s a lot of discordant elements, and I couldn’t help but feel like I had stumbled on some kind of portal, and that I was seeing something I just shouldn’t be seeing. (The Boston Globe called the performance, “A crazy dream you just can’t shake.” Seems apt.)
Then the show started. I knew A Crack in Everything would be intense, but I wasn’t expecting this intense. Obviously the dancers of zoe | juniper are insanely skilled. I talked with choreographer Zoe Scofield about a month ago, on the phone, and she informed me the work is inspired by memory and non-linear aspects of time, and how our minds reconstruct and revisits traumatic events: this is a challenging proposition when the art of dance is, well, “time-based,” and sequential.
Struggling to put the pieces together of last night’s performance, my mind keeps coming back to the work of Matthew Barney. Since Taylor Mac has taught us that “comparison is violence,” yaddayadda, I’ll try and break it down, after the jump.
Hey demographic, you're about my age, right? Which means we're too young to remember Andy Warhol's experimental art scene of the 60s but old enough to have died of an overdose by now if we'd been a part of it.
The idea of playing songs in front of projected film doesn't sound like anything novel or experimental, but there was actually something unusual about this show: it's an equal marriage of film and rock show. I kept trying to figure out whether the focus was really on the film or the music. Andy Warhol is a bigger name than Dean & Britta, but the musicians were the live performers here. After a while I had to tell myself to stop trying to classify it and accept that it was both.
The films in question, from Warhol's Screen Tests series, are each a few minutes of very subtle black and white footage of young, beautiful people doing nothing much. Staring at the camera, blinking, smoking, drinking, looking around, you get the idea—all starkly lit, and with Dean & Britta playing a live score of very chill, psychedelic folk-rock. But the finale was the most erotic teeth-brushing scene I've ever witnessed. Here is a clip that is all too short:
Aside from that, though, the part I was most fascinated by were the stories that Dean and Britta told in between songs/films, filling in the backstory of these mysterious people: their relationship with Andy Warhol and their strange and untimely demises, such as, "he got out of the bath and danced naked out of his fifth floor window."
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