Up Late at the NW New Works Festival
There was a champagne toast at the Sitting Room, following the Weekend 1 performances at On the Boards’ Northwest New Works Festival (Weekend 2, June 15-17; tickets) on Sunday night, which really capped the value provided by a $14 ticket. Briefly, let me also mention the Sitting Room’s Citrus Lillet cocktail, in case you find yourself needing sophisticated-but-tangy refreshment.
It’s almost always true of On the Boards shows that they don’t end when the curtain closes–the post-show lobby is generally thronged with people discussing what they’ve just seen and heard. I don’t know of another place in Seattle where people are so committed to letting artists perplex, frustrate, and infuriate them, in the name of the creative process. Or, for balance, where people are so often rewarded with artistic leaps into rarefied sui generis atmospheres.
Circulating around the Sitting Room–Oh, look, Waxie Moon, Paul Budraitis, Mike Pham, Catherine Cabeen–were a contingent of Seattle artists who were not simply back-slapping after the shows, but getting networking done. Conversation topics included Angélica Liddell (still), residencies, and, in Pham’s case, retirement.
“I don’t believe it,” I told Pham, nonplussed. I’d just been worked over by his either self- or untitled work, which featured Pham whirling and moving with deliberate, slow steps in front of a huge screen on which was projected text excerpted from Hamlet. It was my first Pham and here he was claiming it was his last, though his reasons were all too credible. It’s tough out there for a solo performer, let alone one whose work is, let’s say, not overly audience friendly.
One reason it’s difficult to play Hamlet is because these phrases are so familiar, they remind you you’re watching a Famous Shakespeare Play. But “To be or not to be” repeated, stacked, hundreds of times, caught the fugue state of the undecided mind, as Pham will o’ the wisp’ed in shadow beneath it all. “See that My Grave is Kept Clean,” by Diamanda Galas, provided a funereal soundscape that occasionally rhymed “graves” with the textscape, Pham clutching up a sheet of sheeny fabric, then proceeding with it held in front like a used-but-futuristic shroud.
The reaction to this was pure OtB: Either people wanted lights on Pham so they could see him, or they rejoiced in the way he stood illuminated by the text, rather than illuminating it. It’s a majestic conceit–pivoting off the written work’s weight to efface the putative artist. Pham may have flickered in and out of being like a buggy hologram, but the effect was immensely human. We are dwarfed by these things, by grief, anger, desire, death–but in that, Pham emerged from Hamlet’s shadow.
If the written word was not your thing, there was next The Public Road, a performance by Sara Edwards and the People’s Grand Opera of songs set to texts by Walt Whitman. It’s fashionable to like Walt Whitman, to own a copy of Leaves of Grass if you want to go that far, but he is in danger of being so appropriated that people cease to hear his poetry, or recognize its radical Nature, outside of TV commercials.
In song, Whitman’s words, with their unreasonable demands, came alive, often repeated in their too-direct awkwardness in these spare settings.
Fourteen singers, dressed homespun à la Whitman, massed on the stage (the
direction stage management was by Jennifer Zeyl–much of the staging, including costumes and concepts for the video backdrop, were from the artist NKO), stepped forward to solo, separated into trios, and sang with an earnestness undisturbed by titterers, lyrics such as: “The scent of these arm-pits / aroma finer than prayer.” The song “Stuff’d” (with music by John Osebold) also got a laugh on “A boatman over lakes or bays, or along coasts—a Hoosier, Badger, Buckeye.”
We don’t love your armpit scents, I guess, and maybe Whitman’s attempt to stitch up the nation inside himself, out of love, is particularly hard to credit in our red state/blue state era. Even though his call to “loaf with me” still goes over well, it is likely honored more in the breach than the observance; the word “loaf” has mostly fallen out of usage. As sung by the People’s Grand Opera, it’s a seduction. To hear Edwards and Erin Jorgensen sing together, blending voices, was striking–both have more character in their voices than pretty tones, and yet, the sympathetic grain that shone in their duet was sheerly beautiful.
As it happened, when I snuck into the KT Niehoff/Lingo Productions installation earlier–they’re gathering material for a show called Collision Theory–I’d had loafing brought to mind. Small groups of us were ushered into OtB’s mainstage seating area, with dancers stationed on orange platforms. They danced as audio wondered what they were up to, then they invited three or four of us to a platform, where we were given a clipboard and a minder. Mine asked me to think about a feeling I hadn’t had in a while, and write it in a letter–that’s when the indulgence of just sitting aimlessly occurred to me–which was collected and, remarkably, inserted live as a spoken word lyric in music by Ivory Smith.
Back at the mainstage that evening, there were also performance’s by Portland’s Hand2Mouth and Kate Wallich “& Crew.” Hand2Mouth’s Something’s Got Ahold of My Heart incorporates “interviews, found text, and seminal concert footage,” to see, I think if you can get real love onto the stage. But because they use such unusual scenarios–in one, the partner of a woman with cancer (if I have this right) has a child with her after they know she’s terminal–there’s the association of extremity with authenticity that I am dubious of. The quest to write a real-love rock song meets also with mixed results, which may well be the point, but either way, also serves to demonstrate that writing anthemic love songs isn’t all that easy.
Wallich’s One Plus was my first exposure to her choreography; I am told she’s someone to watch. It was engagingly kinetic, though this particular work, despite its athletic movement vocabulary, seemed to want to say something else. Michael Upchurch describes it like so:
Gradually they shaded into movement, flexing and swiveling their arms with their fists clenched, as if to rope the air with invisible slow-motion lassos. Undulations shifted into sharply marked rhythms. Then an individual dancer (the “one,” presumably, of the title) would separate out to do a solo, until joined by the others (the “plus”).
I’d have to see more to say something more substantive than that this piece didn’t crystallize for me. But I will happily see more.
The studio offerings were much more of a mixed bag, beginning with Tahni Holt’s Sunshine, which involved two dancers (Lucy Yim and Robert Tyree) playing with cardboard boxes, or strips of them. One cardboard panel had the word “Satisfaction” written out in it. Yim entered on hands and knees, in costume, with her head in a box, pushing it along, and I thought, This might go somewhere, but if it did, I took a wrong turn. I remember the boxes were stacked into a wall upstage, then knocked over and blown across the stage with an electric leaf blower.
Danny Herter’s dyspeptic at one mentality, a compilation of the books of Enoch and Genesis and Ezekiel, with the Epic of Gilgamesh thrown in for good measure, was strangely one-note. Herter’s derisory reading of the craziness on display (Ezekiel, what were you on, man!) became grating, despite the movement talents of Nikolai Lesnikov and Amy Ross. But, two exceptions: a dance in the spirit world, with coyote faces; and a strobed segment in which Ezekiel is declaiming from the shell of a white dresser, with drawers added one by one that gradually cover him up.
Corrie Befort’s surrealist Pinto–built around Befort’s attachment to a matrix-chair–used ilvs Strauss’s dreamily intermittent lighting to create that sense of attractive dread when an image feels, in a Freudian way, somehow obscene, though you can’t say why precisely. Befort, on her knees, leaned forward onto the chair, tried to create distance, got on top. Her legs found the top of an adjacent platform and carried her up to that, where an unexpected conveyor belt (magically, in the half-light) zipped her to the wall. In the corner, pianist Adrienne Varner (full disclosure: whom I know) played an upright. She was in a black dress, had walked on with music in her arms, stopped, disinterestedly faced the audience, and then began playing. When done, she reversed the process, except fell to the floor and crawled off. Away from the chair, Befort developed a sickly, Parkinsonian oscillation, and made her way back.
I like this kind of thing a lot–surrealism in performance allows for a different rhetoric, one less driven by conceptual arcs or presentation of formal technique, say, but that addresses the audiences in a wilder, precognitive way. As evidence, let me mention the furry half-creature dragging itself across the floor with its arms, that eventually became entangled with an easel. (The eerie oddness to the arm joint was created by having the unseen performer put their legs in the arms, though that’s not how your mind “read” the set-up.)
That takes us right to Catherine Cabeen’s Ready, Aim…, wherein at one point she rummaged in her shorts, talking about how messy and volatile the menstruating vagina is, and then daubed her cheeks with red “war paint.” I think we’re all happy to assume that’s stage magic, but it’s hard to argue that, if so, we’re not proving her point. The piece actually begins with Cabeen in a half-light, beneath a foil-y sheet of material with slits in it, through which arms and legs seem randomly to appear, like there’s a set of unmatched prostheses under there. It’s all very conceptual, with Cabeen gradually emerging from her chrysalis, then stopping to ask, “I don’t know–is this working?” From there, things switch gears drastically to a comic polemic about women’s bodies and dance, told through the prism of Cabeen’s own experience with eating disorders and sexism and coming out, while she demonstrates pornographic arabesques in short-shorts. Ballet, especially, is interrogated in the way it claims a kind of sexless chastity while demanding positions whose sole purpose, seemingly, is exposure. Say what you will about R.D. Laing, but a divided self cannot stand. Is a ballerina a woman, or not? That said, Cabeen also criticizes contemporary dance for its post-feminist alienation, the magical belief that the crotch is just another cultural artifact: snap-on, snap-off.
Befort’s piece had ended with her circling slowly, for all the world like a little music-box ballerina as the box lid was closing, bringing down darkness. Maybe she’s still in there, not-dancing her dance (she’s hard plastic). It’s not the kind of image that I think Cabeen would reach for, but in the context of a festival, and its unplanned adjacencies, it’s there for me, these two works in dialogue. It’s harder to be more apt than serendipity can be without even trying.