TBA:13

We have reached the exciting meta conclusion of TBA:13. Fortunately, Nim Wunnan and Andrea Stolowitz were on hand to dig into two of the last performances, Karen Sherman’s “One with Others” and Ivana Müller’s “We Are Still Watching.”

KAREN SHERMAN/”ONE WITH OTHERS”

Cardboard props, a collection of overhead projectors, and handmade wooden contraptions sprawled across BodyVox’s wide stage for the audience to contemplate before Karen Sherman’s “One With Others” started. Perhaps they were to prime thoughts of “what did I sign up for,” easy to think at TBA, where you can usually hit another show that night if the first one didn’t do it for you.

Karen Sherman's "One With Others"/Photo by Jeffrey Wells courtesy PICA

Karen Sherman’s “One With Others”/Photo by Jeffrey Wells courtesy PICA

Sherman and her dancers answered this question as their first act on stage. Instead of any kind of introduction, they walked straight to the central, office-grade projector and presented the audience with an ELUA (End-User License Agreement), outlining the terms they agreed to by reading the document. The three dancers perched carefully, needlessly adjusting the transparency and checking on us, the End Users, to make sure that we read all the way to the lines at the bottom. These lines declared that reading them constituted signing—and dating—the document. It was easy to tell when viewers got there by tracking the laughter through the seats.

Reading between the ironic lines, the document told me that we were in for a large portion of self-reference, possibly some send-ups of office culture, official contracts, or other things that take themselves too seriously, and an alternation between dry language and exciting stage devices. Laid out like that it sounds fairly third-year-in-art-school. However, something about the attitude of the final lines of the opening document and the laughs they got suggested that things would get more complex than that. They did, and it got interesting.

The show included monologues, live and dubbed musical performance, self-referential improv, “pure dance” with and without mixers, a recording of a critique of the performance itself, anecdotes about previous performances and practices, and precarious operations involving homemade props. In less capable hands, all that could easily turn to mud. The individual passages were performed thoughtfully with care and talent, but the pacing was perhaps the deftest trick of the show.

The irony mixed with grace and ambiguity and avoided mugging. The props set up physical games for the performers to play, while the self-referential passages outlined what sorts of things could pass through the fourth wall (backhanded compliments from previous audiences, arguments at dance practice, lonely self doubt of the performers, comments on the dancers’ bodies, etc). The barrage of forms and contexts worked well to prevent the more abstract aspects of the performance from reading simply as illustrations of the texts. The show was full of fun, but rarely without a sense of something more pensive below—just the right amount of bitters in the cocktail.

The dialogue between dance and text created a space that recognized and played with the strangeness of people dealing with each other, people watching other people operate in the displacement of a stage, and people trying to make something together. As dance extends language in such a conversation, the devices extended the dance. Some appeared flimsy or goofy at first, but in the world built on stage they served necessary, bizarre purposes.

Sherman piloted the most elaborate of them through a tooth-scratchingly-raw operation. While she used a large cantilevered wooden armature to precariously hang a rubber glove full of a dark liquid over dancer Joanna Furnans free hand (the other was bound in a wooden press), dancer Jeffrey Wells slit the glove with a scalpel and siphoned the liquid through one of the other devices (which looked a little like a wooden version of Helper from the Venture Brothers). Later that device served as a stand-in for a fourth member of the troupe in an ad-libbed argument about how one of them was always asking another one for a ride home from rehearsal. The beauty of the show was how much sense that made once things came to that point, and how difficult it would be to explain why.

—NIM WUNNAN

IVANA MUELLER/”WE ARE STILL WATCHING”

Ivana Muller's "We Are Still Watching"/Photo Sanne Peper courtesy PICA

Ivana Muller’s “We Are Still Watching”/Photo Sanne Peper courtesy PICA

Walking into the Coho Theatre at four in the afternoon on a rainy Sunday in Portland towards the end of the TBA festival, I was not sure what to expect from Ivana Müller’s “We Are Still Watching, “billed as “a play in which the idea of ‘spectacle’ slowly shifts to where we least expect it”. Since we needed to have reserved our tickets in advance, there was none of that last-minute ticket scrambling frenzy that usually accompanies final TBA events. There was a feeling of calm intimacy in the Coho lobby, maybe something akin to having been invited to a private party.

Once we did enter the theater we were given a piece of paper with a seat number on it and told to sit there. The chairs were set up to follow the perimeter of the stage allowing for one row of seating in which we could all see each other.

We all waited patiently until the the stage manager came out and read aloud a list of seat numbers telling those people to reach under their seats to get their script. And with this, the reading commenced. The characters in the script are people very much like ourselves, people who’ve come to the Ivana Müller event and don’t know what to make of it. We are asked to read characters who are trying to make sense of what the event is while we ourselves are trying to make sense of the event.

As we all read aloud together, followed the prompts, gave other audience members our scripts as per the instructions, something interesting began to happen; we were getting to know each other and the characters. In the script there’s the girl who came looking to meet someone, the guy who came because this is supposed to be an important event, the person who had nothing else to do today, and even the ornery audience member who wanted to know what this piece was about. As we played these characters we were also creating an event together as ourselves, deciding how to decide what to do and how to keep the momentum going, and whether or not to keep participating in this exercise.

The high point of the show came towards the end, where a percussive chanting is called for in the script. We were still somewhat self-conscious but all followed the directions, participated, and slowly created an event and a play where what was happening was becoming more and more unscripted. Without any actors, playwrights, or directors present the chanting took on a life of its own; something that was wholly ours. We became both the participants and the creators and at that moment, with the theater vibrating as the chanting continued, there was indeed a true breakdown of order and we were no longer simply watching, we were doing.

If there is a political or social message in this piece it is that we all have the voice, the agency to be both a performer and creator in the political and social world. Our destiny and indeed the destiny of the world is in our hands and we are our own agency of change. So the question, are we still watching or are we participating is in fact an extremely important one and this piece asks us to consider participating.

—ANDREA STOLOWITZ

TBA:13 gets “meta.”

Observations about observation, and interactions about interaction.

You’re about to read an article about some interactive theater…that’s about the theatrics of interaction. (Got it so far?) And this theater was part of a festival (TBA:13) that is—broadly—about the present. Of course that festival is now in the past…and the future presumably, because nothing stays in the present for more than an instant. So now we’ve entered the twilight zone where art gets “meta.” Plots are about aboutiness, and thoughts are about thoughtiness. Rod Serling says hi. George Carlin says hi. The snake says nothing, because it’s eating its own tail.

In Ivana Müller’s “We Are Still Watching”…

arguably there are no actors and nothing happens. Let me explain: The audience takes assigned seats. A few are instructed to pull scripts from under their chairs. They begin to read the lines highlighted in their respective copies, and the lines are things like*, “We are here. We are reading this script. Why are we here? What’s going to happen?”

Our group is peppered with leadership types: a haughty, thin young man wearing all black, an older wispy-haired woman with a commanding tone and a mischievous inflection, a professorial older man in glasses, a young woman with an unimpeachable bun, cardigan, and cameo. These, then, become the characters—or, rather, their character becomes the focus.

As for my character: The fact that I’m there in an official capacity weighs on me. Probably because I so desperately DON’T want to get it wrong, I immediately do so, sitting passively when it’s my turn to read a line because I’ve incorrectly associated the numbers on the seats with the numbers on the script. My scene partners wait politely for what seems like forever for Person Three (me) to say a line…while I silently scan the room and wonder which culprit is holding up the show (me). Maybe whatever this tells me about myself, I don’t want to know. Or maybe it’s a broader comment on humans and culpability.

Finally I fall in line, and then—again, arguably—nothing happens, except that the audience keeps reading aloud, passing scripts around and following written instructions, all while sizing up other audience members, forming tacit prejudices and timid alliances. Briefly, two people begin a romance scene, only for another voice to skeptically dismantle it. There is repeated but idle mention of starting a revolution. A few more detailed musings emerge, as noted by the Mercury. But most of the lines are about how we’re in this moment; it’s happening; we’re talking.

Suddenly, everyone gets a script—at which point we all simultaneously discover that these new pages say simply “Person” in front of every line, forcing participants to decide of their own accord which lines they want to take. If you want to speak a line, you have to decide to, and either be reasonably sure someone else won’t chime in on it, or be okay with it if they do. Declarations like* “I came here to fall in love,” or “I wish I hadn’t come,” are spoken by whomever chooses to say them.

The next evolution is mass-unison, managed by a metronome. What was a script morphs into a self-referential chant about chanting:

“We
are
do-ing
this
to-ge-ther
boom
boom”

Finally, a rhythmic rest is introduced which, if followed by readers, turns our chant into a round. “Boom boom!” say several, resting as others echo “Boom boom!” The pace and the canon proceed for a couple of pages, and there’s a feeling of momentum and camaraderie in the face of increasing pressure and complexity. We’re all racing to keep up, and striving not to mess up, and the text is encouraging this overtly, reminding us that we’re reading together and it’s working. After this triumphal finish, people seem energized, refreshed. This may be the closest thing to a high school pep rally that any of us have experienced in some time.

Is narrative beside the point?

Was “Watching”’s lack of story necessary to convey its message? If we’d been chanting about rowing boats and twinkling stars, would those images have clouded our awareness of our camaraderie–or simply enriched our experience with a sensory element? Are choirs unaware of their connection because they’re too preoccupied with the meaning of the word “Allelujiah?” Would an interactive script that delivered the hinted-at romance or revolution distract too much from its own interactivity? Have we gotten to the point where a plot of any kind is too polarizing to all get behind? Do we have to keep reminding ourselves that we’re existing and interacting, lest we forget?

Maybe so. In a speech that’s recently caught like wildfire, comedian Louis C. K. discussed his aversion to smartphones, saying: “You need to build an ability to just be yourself and not be doing something…that’s being a person…to just sit there, like this.”

On the other hand…“Fiddler on The Roof,” on stage now at PCS, jumps with team spirit for a relatively small sector of the population and its highly specialized set of concerns. Many of that show’s audience members, and surely even a few actors, are interlopers in the Shtetl, alien to its ways–and yet the story is universally appreciated. Humanity is the essential ingredient, but plot certainly sweetens the pot.

No matter how “meta” we get, we’ve yet to outsmart a good story. Still, the experiments continue, pointing out existential truths so obvious that they’ve evidently been overlooked and come as revelations when mentioned: We are here. We are together.

On TBA’s closing night…

we were there and together, too. And lest we forget ourselves in the thumping R&B of Natasha Kmeto and dance music of Rap Class, the watchers (still watching) were there to remind us. The gear and concept from Mariano Pensotti’s “Sometimes I think, I can see you” flanked the dance floor. Two large screens at the back and side of the room scrolled text generated by writers observing the scene. Silently but conspicuously, they called out individual members of the crowd, complementing, insulting, and merely documenting their behaviors as they chatted and danced.

“You in the blue dress,”* flared the white text on the black screen. “Yes you. You came here to let loose. So did I.”

“Guy in the tie, did you mean to wear it so well? Close your eyes and the world disappears.”

“You learned to dance that way from Sesame Street. And YOU learned to dance that way when your mom took you to ballet lessons.”

One of the messengers, PICA’s Institutional Giving Manager Kate Merrill, looked gleefully mischievous in her corner. “Do you see me?” she sometimes typed, daring the crowd to confront their appraiser.

Yes. I see you seeing me. We are here, mutually watching, mutually interacting. Existing as people in our minds, and actors in the world-space. And…what of it?

*Because note-taking wasn’t possible, all quotes in this story are approximate.

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A. L. Adams also writes monthly column Art Walkin’  for  The Portland Mercury, and is  former arts editor of Portland Monthly Magazine.
Read more from Adams: Oregon ArtsWatch  | The Portland Mercury

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TBA:13: Itai Erdal lights and unlights the way

Itai Erdal's performance piece "How to Disappear Completely" is about dying...or is it living?

By ANDREA STOLOWITZ

Life in its most literal sense is about appearing (being born) and disappearing (dying). Dying, that liminal time when one is in the process of “disappearing completely,” has come more and more into the public consciousness as social media and video has made the process immediate and widely accessible. The result has been to peel away the layers and emotions surrounding dying, allowing us to see what has more traditionally been kept private and hidden.

Itai Erdal, who has created “How to Disappear Completely,” is a lighting designer. Light is used to make objects and people appear and disappear on stage. By adjusting the amount, quality, and type of light the designer can conceal and reveal not just the physical bodies on stage but also sculpt the emotional landscape.

Erdal uses this metaphor between how light works on stage and how one disappears when one dies to share the emotionally charged story of the death of his mother. We are taken through a beautifully sculpted narrative which starts with Erdal returning home to Jerusalem from his new home in Vancouver, Canada (where he was in film school), to be with his mother as she dies of lung cancer. Ever the documentarian, Erdal films those months, giving us interviews with his mother, stepfather, sister, and best friend.

Itai Erdal in "How to Disappear Completely"/Photo by Tomas Vallardes courtesy of PICA

Itai Erdal in “How to Disappear Completely”/Photo by Tomas Vallardes courtesy of PICA

His intention to turn this footage into a film about his mother’s passing never materialized, however, but this show did. The multi-media theater piece uses elements of lighting design, which Erdal patiently explains and demonstrates; pieces of the film he made are projected on an upstage screen; and Erdal, the actor, is on hand to explore the story, which it turns out is not only “how to disappear” but actually how to live.

Continues…

TBA:13: AL Steiner and the uses of anger in art

At PNCA the sex gets graphic and political

By MATT STANGEL

Just when I think things won’t go that far, they do.

She’s wrist deep in her partner, pumping into thrust-back hips. Two bodies sharing one pleasure. A sensory ligature between bodies. A climax athletic and musical. Slow-motion fountain. She puts her face in it. Licks at the squirt…

The fisting scene fades into the brooming scene, and I can’t say I’m surprised after the knife play and fetishized urination and chicken eggs birthed from lady regions.

I’ve been intermittently employing the old notepad-as-distraction-opportunity throughout “Community Action Center,” the final video in A.L. Steiner’s “Feelings and How to Destroy Them.” The room is dressed up as a porno theater. A pleather curtain separates the installation from the larger gallery. Two rows of cinema seating are empty, excepting myself.

I write something like, “the woman who’s been fucking the broom is now answering the door for the pizza delivery person. Wonder where this will go, *cough* more intense arty sex *cough*?”

The delivery narrative exists in a forgettable space until the pizza guy’s fake penis is bitten off, gushing soda-fountain splashes of blood.

Meh. I’m pretty over it.

It’s not that I’m squeamish about porn—I’ve been watching porn for longer than I’ve been writing— it’s more that I feel like I’m being led through a surreal mansion of kink/queer/fetish scenes that change room by room. Scenes both distant and intimate. Scenes of which I’ll never be a part.

I feel like a voyeur to a community. A community less geared toward one specific kind of sexuality or singular identity, and more toward harmonious pluralism; toward the countless expressions of sexual freedom.

The mock porno theater and the video that would be all too porn-perfect outside a gallery are the big finish to an exhibition-long illustration. One of anger and community. Of queer frustration and pride. Of sociocultural expectations and how A.L. Steiner and peers gather outside the lines.

***

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“Patriarchy is a pyramid scheme” reads a sign flanking the entrance to A.L. Steiner’s “Feelings and How to Destroy Them,” a survey of past and recent works—most centrally featuring video, but also collage, photography, and installation elements—on view through October 27 at the Pacific Northwest College of Art’s Feldman Gallery as part of TBA:13.

The TBA:13 program notes describe the artistic, collaborative, and curatorial efforts of Steiner in terms of “seductive tropes channeled through the sensibility of an activated skeptical queer ecofeminist androgyne.”

Meanwhile, the one sheet available at the exhibition says the survey show started as a discussion about presenting an “anger workshop,” also detailing various views held by Steiner, including anger’s role in art: “If you’re not angry you’re either willfully ignorant or economically privileged,” posits the artist, continuing, “Fury is a motivating force; potentially productive and destructive, but always transformative.”

While I’d need a little more support for these statements in a conversational setting—after all, platitudes traverse earthquakes on stilts—”Feelings and How to Destroy Them” presents work made in a community that has a lot to be angry about.

That anger is visible in the show’s opening piece, “WARNING: YOUR FEELINGS ARE YOUR FAULT/THE PATRIARCHY IS A PYRAMID SCHEME” (2008), the all-caps carried into the on-screen action: a group of women in white coveralls and protective gear busting up a white hallway with pick axes and sledgehammers. While the hallway is destroyed hole-by-hole and gouge-by-gouge, the dueling titles appear as text overlays in multiple languages-suggesting that to destabilize the long white hallway of patriarchy is to puncture the veneer of manipulative social stances that shift blame from the discriminator to the discriminated.

This initial angry burst sets up the audience for questions: Which feelings are (or, considering titular rhetoric, aren’t) the viewer’s fault? How is the patriarchy a pyramid scheme? What are we getting mad about, exactly?

The next video encountered in the space—titled, “You will never, ever be a woman. You will live the rest of your days entirely as a man and you will only grow more masculine with each passing year. There is no way out.”—begins to point out the ‘what exactly folks are getting mad about’ of the show.

A collaboration with Van Barnes, Zackary Drucker, and Mariah Garnett, the piece follows the domesti-sexual interactions between a most-of-the-time-nude transgender/transexual male and female. Through dialog of the rated-X, poetic variety, desires to fuck until eyeballs pop out or to lick pus from weeping genital sores are tempered by the social plight of transvestites.

The title is delivered as dialog, shifting away from sexual hyperbole as one character offers that they’re just acting and talking the way society expects them to—they’re living up to stereotypes of trannies sleeping in alleys, working as street whores and infected with AIDs, destined to vanish into the history of disease and fringe culture.

All the hard-to-stomach language and degrading sexual activity described become a reflection of what society expects of the trans community (or, maybe more accurately, what Steiner and associates believe to be expectations held by mainstream culture regarding trans communities).

Other pieces appear to hold the most meaning in their willful violations of social norms. Steiner’s video collaboration with Chicks On Speed follows a group of naked women (and one man) through an art space as they engage the exhibition and perform abstract dance choreographies; her piece with dance duo robbinschilds tracks Steiner’s collaborators as they work through unconventional dance pieces in public spaces.

So we’ve seen anger, the source of that anger and the acting out that follows—and in “Swift Path To Glory,” Steiner begins to tease out the consequences a person can face in bending to the will of the mainstream. “Swift Path To Glory” is a mashup of audition footage captured in a storefront window. Hopefuls read a confessional script—a speech James Dean makes in “Rebel Without a Cause”—about stealing a car and the death of a friend. The character says he was responding to cultural pressure to play bad, to fulfill a role of manliness, outlining the destructive potential of societal expectations.

To locate meaning in this constellation of videos is to draw lines between anger and community, between community and its position outside the mainstream, and finally to dangers of adopting a mainstream identity dissonant to a person’s true self.

Then there’s the pleather curtain and the theater beyond it.

***

In the zine that corresponds to the pornographic “Community Action Center,” Steiner and her collaborator A.K. Burns describe their piece as “a sociosexual video which incorporates the erotics of a community where the personal is not only political, but sexual.” So the sex on screen is a political act, an attempt at offering a “contemporary womyn-centric composition that serves as both an ode and a hole-filler.”

While I’m not convinced that the sex acts presented are really a “hole-filler”—there’s a crap ton of porn on the internet, all sorts of queer-oriented stuff included—Steiner’s use of sex as a political expression is mildly intriguing (if vague).

She seems to suggest that the solution to community anger is to brazenly commit to that community, to shamelessly participate regardless of who is watching; to communicate the human element of what is otherwise misunderstood.

What I really want here are specifics: what political changes would quell community anger? What should people hope for from a post-patriarchy society? If we were to eschew visual language, what would be said?

Maybe what I’m trying to say is that “Feelings and How to Destroy Them” is fairly vague in terms of solutions. It’s the classic risk taken when attempting to convey political messages in visual language: without specific points of action, it’s easy to walk away with little more than a nebulous sense of discontent.

Steiner does a good job representing a community that is largely mythical to mainstream audiences, but the big fist-fucking finish doesn’t leave a person like myself—a straight, white male—with much to do about the plight that Steiner relates to audiences. We’ve tracked community anger, why it exists, and the acting-out that follows; now it’s time to be inclusive.

As I leave the theater, the video loops back to a scene where a woman is covered in various messy foods. I can’t say I feel much closer to Steiner or her cause—but maybe that was never the point.

Maybe “Feelings and How to Destroy Them” is here to say: We can’t be a part of every community, but we can ensure every community is treated equally and fairly under the law.

Inclusion be damned?

TBA:13: Meow Meow and The Blow

A brief study in diva themes.

Minimalist diva, meet maximalist diva. Left, The Blow. Right, Meow Meow.

Minimalist diva, meet maximalist diva. Left, The Blow. Right, Meow Meow.

Last Friday night at TBA, I saw Meow Meow. Last Sunday, The Blow. And believe it or not, it’s taken til now to organize my notes from these female soloists’ shows in any satisfying way. This may be because the female solo show is so vastly relevant and incredibly dear to me. Having already covered some strong female leads in theater this month, having tried the medium for years myself, and occasionally facilitating others’ shows, that I’d hate to pop off and say these things wrong. When one woman faces down a whole room, it is love AND war, not either/or. It’s exhilarating, and it can be exhausting. So before we proceed, ALL DUE RESPECT.

“Wait,” you say. “Isn’t any solo performance (male or female, song or dance or theater) equally demanding?” Yes, Pet … to a point. But a diva, defined for our purposes, is a woman or female impersonator singing and talking solo who chooses to confront the (nearly inevitable) gendered expectations with intention. She may either meet, exceed, or explode said preconceptions … or she can flip them artfully to her sly advantage. This usually means deciding, before she begins, which of the tropes of womanhood to play with, and to what effect.

I imagine a classic diva like Meow Meow prepares by rifling through all the feminine styles in her literal and literary closet. Femme fatale, matron, and ingenue are, for this Broadway and London luminary, each as well-worn as an “LBD,” and each embellished with details that make them her own. Who to be … who to be? With a pair of kickin’ fishnets, a cloud of jet-black hair and a dizzy demeanor, Meow Meow conjured a classic coquette, yet she entered the Schnitz from the wings with the hasty politeness of an English matron trying to squeeze onto a crowded subway train. (“Excuse me … thank you Darling … do you speak English?”)

Soon she morphed into femme fatale, clutching a cigarette in an elbow-length red glove, bumping and shimmying in a ruched lavender evening gown with a rhinestoned crotch, stripping down to skivvies behind the conductor’s music stand. Fronting the Oregon Symphony and Pink Martini pianist-leader Thomas Lauderdale in a symphony/TBA co-presentation, she sang in French; cooed, bellowed, and whispered; made jazz hands and rolled R’s. “I’ll give you whatever I have in this exquisite sack of a body,” she promised, sometimes emitting little squeals and lurching into panty-flashing shenanigans so manic that they gave the impression that her overexposure was an innocent accident … hence dialing the persona full-circle to ingenue.

Where Meow Meow unfurled an armoire-full of ruffles and roses, the Blow exposed a near-empty contemporary walk-in closet with a full-length mirror. Khaela Maricich’s aesthetic was minimal, her delivery deadpanned. Where Meow Meow was accompanied by an orchestra, The Blow’s stage at the Winningstad was bare save a large triangle of white light and a single mic. For wardrobe, she wore only white jeans, a tank top, a low ponytail, moccasins, and a button-up shirt … and the moccasins and button-up were all that came off. Perhaps she has a sister in Kaj-Ann Pepper, whose “Post-Realness” yen suggests going beyond a presentation of rote womanhood, tossing aside feminine wiles and charm campaigns in favor of a more frank, challenging, and confrontational femaleness. Still, in a telling soliloquy, Maricich puzzled aloud over who to be, and how to please her crowd: “Which Khaela do you guys want to see? Partytime Khaela? Spooky Khaela? Awkward Khaela? New Khaela—do you actually believe there is a new Khaela?” By flipping through her stark boutique collection of parallel personas, Maricich was still performing an abstracted version of the diva routine.

Just as there are classic characters, there are some performative tricks that work (nearly) every time, writ in the diva’s velvet book of dark arts and else rarely spoken of. But I know them when I see them, and I certainly noted crossovers in Meow Meow and The Blow. I defy you to think of a diva who hasn’t played with these techniques in her routine…usually to awesome effect.

Flirting…with death.

Meow Meow, mid crowd-surf, legs akimbo and balance precarious: “I’ve lost my will to live. Can you pass me that whiskey please? Thank you Darling.” At another point, “I feel nothing. Am I alive?”

Maricich, pacing between dance numbers: “See, you get people to worry about you; get people to want you to stay alive. Then when they try to give you mouth-to-mouth, you can make out with them.”

Meta-sexiness

Khaela, back to the crowd, jiggling her hips in a fluid, jiggly version of twerking: “This isn’t even my ass, because my ass doesn’t do this.”

Meow Meow, feigning a struggle to put on a red bustier before looping it around one arm like a sling: “I just have to get this over with … a little … burlesque number. It’s in my contract, you know. Just very quickly, if you’ll bear with me.”

Radical self-reliance + extreme vulnerability

Meow Meow: She frequently repeated “I have to do everything myself,” as she passed out roses for the crowd to throw at her and steamed up the stage with a hand-held smoke machine. But by the close of the show, she was singing a different tune in Patty Griffin’s “All The Girls,” tapering to a whisper: “Be careful how you bend me, be careful where you send me, be careful how you end me…be careful with me. ”

Maricich: “Are you guys scared for me up here all by myself?” and later, “I know that I just invented myself so that I could make out with myself.”

Keeping collaborators on-board

Meow Meow: According to TBA artistic director Angela Mattox, Lauderdale and Meow Meow met at a prior TBA fest, and there was an obvious chemistry between them. Lauderdale, ever the sport, hopped to Meow Meow’s cues. When she chirped, “Skip to the bridge!”—they were there. When she stopped mid-song and said “I’m bored of that one,” he accommodated. Meanwhile, such abrupt transitions seemed to flummox orchestra conductor Carlos Kalmar; it took him a beat to choose soloist over score.

The Blow is a duo formed by Khaela Maricich and her light/sound technician and life partner Melissa Dyne, but Maricich alone addresses the audience. At the Winningstad, despite hogging the literal spotlight, Maricich highlighted Dyne, declaring, “That’s Melissa. Everything that she does happens somewhere else,” later whispering “I feel so close to you right now,” and closing the show with a tandem bow.

“Dom” demands

Meow Meow’s performance regularly cracked a “dom” whip. She’d politely pepper her requests with “darling” and “please,” then theatrically snap and screech, “JUST DO IT!”—then comically slip right back into Miss Manners mode. She briefly insisted that the stage should rotate, and was met halfway with a lazy susan to stand on and a minion to spin it. She requested that someone bring her a bag of chips and then handed them back after she’d licked them. She recruited audience men to be her dressers, her backup dancers, her chair, and her mic-stand—and ultimately, she demanded that Kalmar and Lauderdale disrobe, revealing red long johns under their tuxes.

Maricich, however, took the submissive pose, at one point singing, “I like torture a lot … my endurance is awesome,” and at another point remarking after a (punishing?) lighting stunt from Dyne, “What are you doing back there? I trust you.”

In the end…true love

Meow Meow: Amid several selections about heartbreak and disenchantment, and even a hint of vintage communist rhetoric (“Che, Tango che”) and apocalyptic alarm (“In This City,” a Meow Meow/Grandage original), Meow Meow made love to the room via a wistfully pan-amorous song, “Hotel Amour,” that she penned with Lauderdale. Nearly whispering as a disco ball beamed bubbles of light around the room, she sang, “a leaf that’s shaped like a heart … a simple breeze … a feather … love is everywhere.”

Maricich’s new catalog of songs seems mostly devoted to celebrating her romance with Dyne. Exuberant single “Make it Up” detailed how past romances paled in comparison to the current one, and the feeling that she and her partner have invented love. During the chorus, Maricich literally jumped for joy.

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A. L. Adams also writes monthly column Art Walkin’  for  The Portland Mercury, and is  former arts editor of Portland Monthly Magazine.
Read more from Adams: Oregon ArtsWatch  | The Portland Mercury

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TBA:13: Linda Austin, misinterpretation and meaning

Does a little girl ride the 'Three Trick Pony'? How about the ghost of the little girl?

At one point early in “Three Trick Pony,” soloist/choreographer Linda Austin paused mid-stream to braid her longish hair quickly, not that it stayed braided long. And I thought, “Just like a little girl.” She had just sung a snippet from “My Fair Lady” and another from “Mary Poppins” came along soon. She bounced and cavorted, tried and repeated various little hops and steps, sank into deep squats, paused and lolled around. And once that first thought had lodged in my brainpan, I couldn’t shake it.

In fact, I elaborated on it! Austin was playing the movements a little girl might make, one on her own, maybe during a purported nap time. It’s the early ‘60s, maybe the girl is six or seven. She goes to various stations/play areas in her room, which in “Three Trick Pony” have been supplied by the strange devices/sculptures created by David Eckard, and she “plays” with them. Once she’s completed a circuit of those stations, she repeats it, although her exploration of the devices becomes deeper, more creative and more “destructive.”

It seemed to make sense, this idea of the little girl at play in a pocket of time.

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“Three Trick Pony” has several “logics” at work within it. It has the devices (a weird mattress rolled up and suspended above the floor, a strange contraption with a screen on which Austin leaves little kisses and traces words, three heavy rectangular boxes knitted together with straps, a large whisk-like object and a cylinder in which it fits, and a long tray-like affair that is filled with corks), some of which have movable parts and all of which can BE moved in certain ways. Like all the other “logics” here, it takes some exploration to figure out the details.

It has the logic of its musical score by Doug Theriault, which at first seems random until you start to connect the sounds with Austin’s choreography. It has the essential choreographic structure: the three circuits of the devices on the macro level and a number of phrases which are repeated from circuit to circuit. It has the choreography itself, which seems sprawling and immediate at first and then reveals itself to be carefully considered, second by second. And finally it has the logic of Austin’s specific body as it negotiates the dance, a difficult proposition physically, especially because of the big boots she wears.

I think it’s just fine to call it a day right there, at this abstract level, where the human body meets the structure, the choreography, the various logics at work.

But once I started understanding “Three Trick Pony” as a memory dance, what it felt like to be a little girl alone and staring a lengthy stretch of time in the face, left to her own devices (as it were), I found that the psychological logic made the other ones more interesting to me. The dance became funnier, yes, and full of insights about the behavior of little kids, how they amuse themselves, their spasms of activity, their obsessions, their fondness for repetition, their play-acting (pretending to be both older and younger), their creativity.

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The childhood memory idea was pure speculation, of course, and I’m not suggesting that Austin was herself playing a seven-year-old. I thought she may have been recovering that time, though, mulling it over as an artist, concentrating it and bending it to her purposes, creating around it and through it. For a seven-year-old (of a certain time and social class), the only purpose is to make it through seemingly endless stretches of time. Austin’s purpose is to make a dance for the Time-Based Art Festival, and somehow to capture that delicious feeling of purposelessness in the child.

Picasso is famous for his pronouncements about the importance of that sort of recovery: “It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child.” For me, Austin wasn’t choreographing as a child; her choreography successfully describes a child.

Although I’m no expert on Austin’s work, I’ve seen a good bit of it over the years. What I’d say is that it contains elements of (or at least reminds me of) the unfettered, the improvisational, the purposeless. Art on some level might be purposeless sometimes, but we can apply even that art to our own purposes. Austin suggests that we aren’t part of hard-and-fast equations, that we can upset the apparent determinism of our lives in the our culture. Among other things.

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But what would Austin think of this hypothesis? I decided to check, asking her simply by email, whether she had a child or a childhood memory in mind when she created “Three Trick Pony.” She graciously replied to a question some artists would find impertinent. Her answer?

“Nope.”

“As the oldest of nine kids (one born every year) there was no being “alone in your room” in my family when I was young. And my earliest childhood memories of play–granted, more from age of 4-5 onward–were of the pleasures of unsupervised wandering and exploring outdoors, going to the creek, smearing berries on lips and cheeks, catching tadpoles etc. Stuff that kids today don’t seem to be allowed to do. We had few actual toys that emerged from Christmas time unbroken, much less play stations. And the toy culture wasn’t as crazy as it is now. We had a wagon, a bucket, basic things like that. And then later, much of free time was nose in a book to escape the commotion and the surfeit of irrepressible personalities and energies around me.”

So much for that idea? Maybe. But she added something later in the email that made me think.

“…your question seems to be an example of the cultural conditioning that makes us frame play and playfulness in terms of being a kid. Part of my relationship with objects certainly is akin to a child’s “pure” exploration of the physical world. Yet, if that’s the direction we’re going to go, a closer analogy would be a toddler pulling out pots and pans from the cupboard or taking a toy or tool or household item and exploring it both tactilely and then deploying it in a way other than its intended use, or activating it in games of let’s pretend.

So the analogy to kid’s play is there, but wasn’t an explicit intention. I’m more likely to engage in that kind of play right now as an experienced artist, and it is a result of dance and arts training and research that teaches how to engage with the world through the senses and being able to suspend notions of what is the right way and wrong way to use something or do something.”

We’re squarely in the middle of that Picasso quote now. One more thing, about her play as a kid and her process now.

“We did put on shows in our backyard. We did have an empty space for a while, an outbuilding that later was converted into bedrooms. When it was still empty, it was the prototype for my current studio, a place for the imagination and playacting.”

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So, I don’t feel so bad about my speculation. Basically, I give everyone, including myself, free rein to engage a work of art and find meaning in various ways. I think that’s a form of play in itself, creative play, that can take us in profitable directions, even though it doesn’t necessarily “explain” the artist’s intent very well. When we speculate, we have to accept the possibility that the act of speculation may be fun and rewarding and also wrong in the particular case.

In this case, the playfulness I thought I detected wasn’t as literal as I thought. Though it runs through Austin’s process, it wasn’t the result of particular conscious memories.

See how I cheated there? I slipped in that word “conscious.” I completely believe what Austin wrote me, and I’m pretty skeptical by nature and training. Nonetheless, I’m not letting go of that little girl ghosting the performance. Just now, I see her embedded in Austin’s own process and in her performance. In some ways, it’s more impressive than the specific way I was imagining it.

At this point you may well want to read Nim Wunnan’s review for ArtsWatch, just to wipe the little girl out of your mind. Of course, she’s still hanging out in mine.

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TBA:13: In the Dark: The problem of perfection

Third Angle enters the darkness for Georg Haas's 'Quartet in the Dark'

Third Angle New Music string quartet plays Haas's String Quartet #3 Wednesday and Thursday nights at OMSI.

Third Angle New Music string quartet plays Haas’s String Quartet #3 Wednesday and Thursday nights at OMSI.

by JEFF WINSLOW

Last night I heard – I did not see, though I was right there – Portland’s first complete public performance of emerging Austrian composer Georg Friedrich Haas’s third string quartet, popularly known as the “quartet in the dark.” (It’s actually titled “In iij. Noct.”, referring to the third night of Roman Catholic services in which light is gradually extinguished.) Ambitious new music ensemble Third Angle found a venue that was visually perfect, as it were – the Planetarium at OMSI. Aurally, perhaps it was too perfect. How can that be?

The work, the better part of an hour, is indeed played in complete darkness. No exit lights, no stand lights, nothing. Cell phones must not only be silent, but kept in pockets. (There were a few surreptitious transgressions, but not enough to be seriously disturbing.) As if to emphasize the impossibility of the usual lightning visual communication typical of such groups, the musicians – violinists Ron Blessinger and Greg Ewer, violist Charles Noble, and cellist Marilyn de Oliveira – took up positions near the walls at four points of the compass, next to tiny candles which had been ceremoniously lit for the occasion. The house lights went off, the candles were blown out, and almost imperceptibly, the musicians began to play.

Haas has come up with an ingenious substitute for intricate musical conversation, which is the traditional hallmark of the string quartet and totally impractical in this context. An invitation, a distinctive musical gesture, is issued by one musician.  There is a wonderfully colorful variety of invitations – they fly off the strings in a flurry of bowing or plucking, keen ethereally with the aid of harmonics, trill mysteriously with clever bow placement, slide insinuatingly on multiple string glissandi, stutter as if struggling against too much rosin in the works, and more. One even quotes appropriate liturgical music by the Renaissance composer Gesualdo. The other musicians are free to accept an invitation by taking up the gesture in an improvisatory manner, or to counter with their own distinct invitations. (Some of the most absorbing moments can be created by conflicting invitations, which Haas encourages in his instructions.)  Once an invitation has been accepted, the others must all eventually join in, sometimes including complementary contrasting gestures as well. Eventually something happens which makes them all stop. Then a new invitation is issued and the piece continues. There are a total of eighteen invitations, and the order of them and the number of times they may be issued is mostly determined by the performers. It may sound easy to throw together, but it isn’t. For example, fine pitch control is essential in most invitations, if not ubiquitously as in a traditional string quartet. In its own way, it is a virtuosic work, and such demands were well met by Third Angle’s master musicians.

It is also a work which would have been impossible before the conceptual innovations of John Cage, though in a delicious irony, that composer would have no doubt strenuously objected to all the improvisation. One of the effects of the complete darkness was to focus all one’s attention on sound – on every sound, including the inevitable coughs and rustles, even what sounded like an attack of the hiccups which (somewhat to my impish disappointment) was quickly suppressed. These sounds wound up adding a welcome extra dimension. True, sometimes they clashed, when sustained tones flowed from the instruments. But other times, they fit right in with skittering bowings and detonating pizzicati. And a few times, it seemed that the musicians took them as cues for a change in musical direction, and those were delightful.

Working against this aesthetic, however, is the almost complete lack of echo in the Planetarium. (This is what I meant by too perfect.) After the lights went out, I leaned back in the wonderfully comfortable chair, preparing for total blissful attention to sound. But I soon sat up again because I could barely hear the very soft opening invitation! Conversely, even where Haas asks for the most powerful attacks, the volume never rose above “rather loud.”

Also, the balance was determined by how close I was to each musician. (Blessinger, who is also Third Angle’s artistic director, indirectly alluded to this problem in his entertaining initial talk, joking that they would raffle off the one perfect seat in the house – the center – for ten thousand dollars.) But imagine if the performance space were live – the echoes would, with luck, even all that out, aid audibility, and add musical continuity as well. I can think of many reasons why this venue is an excellent choice, but unfortunately the most central consideration of all, the sound, comes up a bit short. This in no way should discourage anyone from going. Just don’t get too comfortable.

The darkness focuses attention, and it also ameliorates the nearly complete lack of certain traditional musical pleasures, namely, rhythmic interest and a feeling of progressive development. Only one of the invitations features anything that could remotely be called a driving pulse, and that is specified to happen only once, near the end. And while it might be possible to arrange the invitations in an order which create a sense of progression or journey, and indeed it would would be an attractive challenge for a quartet to do just that, I got few such feelings from the order Third Angle chose. They weren’t helped by certain of the improvisations developing in an all-too-predictable way, such as glissandi which always ended on one of the other player’s pitches. The composer must bear much of the responsibility for this, of course. I was reminded of the story of a young composer asking Stravinsky what a new work of music should do. Stravinsky replied with a favorite saying of the impresario Diaghilev — “surprise me.” Reading the score shows that Haas has done much to enable the performers to do just that, yet it seems there are, and were, lapses here and there.

One might think that the many inevitable silences, which follow each accepted and elaborated invitation, would make the situation even worse, but actually their effect was almost the opposite. Unlike certain other experiments in repeated silence which frustrate and annoy, such as is found in recent work by David Lang, these whetted one’s appetite for the next invitation’s invariably welcome contrast. If the lights were on, it would be too easy to react to dull moments by distracting oneself with whatever visual interest was available, and silence might not be enough of a cue to refocus on the music. This is the ever-present risk with improvisation, and even the best of the best may now and then fall prey. In the darkness Haas has provided a safety net of sorts, to give the musicians a chance to rise and bid for our sympathetic attention again. I’m glad to report that Third Angle finished the piece full of life, nor did it seem, after all, that they had played on for too long. Indeed, only a certain natural reticence prevented me from shouting lustily for an encore. (Playing the piece twice would, in fact, just about fill up a standard classical concert slot.) Yes, there are issues here and there, but “In the Dark” is a more than worthy component of this year’s TBA festival.

“In the Dark” repeats Wednesday night at 7:30 pm and Thursday night at the witching hour.
Jeff Winslow is a Portland composer and a board member for Cascadia Composers. He thanks March Music Moderne impresario Bob Priest for showing him the published score of this work before the concert.

 
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