REDCAT NOW: The Final Frontier

L.A. correspondent, Benn Widdey, sends in the final installment of his coverage of the REDCAT theater’s titularly redundant NOW (New Original Works) Festival. This week’s review includes faux butoh, a few walkouts, and a Wiccan campfire ritual!

Review: Extreme Acts @ REDCAT

The final program of this year’s New Original Works Festival at REDCAT in Los Angles burst through this past weekend (August 2-4, 2007). Audiences’ imaginations–and patience–were stretched as all of the artists involved demonstrated challenging dance, theater and musical perspectives.


Shinichi Iova-Koga created and performed the butoh-inspired Milk Traces with a sound score by Shiela Antonia Bosco and lighting by Allen Willner. With each section set in a different pool of light, Iova-Koga opened seated near center stage in a metal gray office chair with his head dropped forward. Wearing a light tank top and long dark pants, he sat attached to the ceiling by a long, fragmented multiple cloth cord. Slowly, he stood and made his way to a blackboard and chalked a series of short vertical and diagonal lines. These hieroglyphics were then connected with curving shapes to form what may be the various subtitles of the piece.


iova-koga.jpgIn Where Are You? and against the quiet of what sounded like crickets, the dancer returned to his seat and slowly tilted himself and the chair he was sitting on backwards until gravity took over and the seat came down. Iova-Koga rolled onto his shoulders and left the chair behind. With his bottom in the air, the man extended a hand through his bent legs toward the sky, creating a flower-like sculptural pose.


With fluid arm and hand gestures and convulsive full body twitches helping to pull him up, the dancer returned to mysteriously print “UNDER WATER” on the blackboard. In a tangerine orange light, he then lunged and lurched forward while being held from reaching his goal by the restrictive cabling. As he fell backward, this neo-umbilicus prevented him from hitting the floor, but, rather allowed him to recline and swing gently.


When the small circular pool of light opened to encompass almost all of the stage, Iova-Koga took a hand hold of his rope and swung around its circumference. Stopping in front of what appeared as an outdated record player, he added what sounded like Italian popular or light operatic music of the mid-twentieth century. With that, he bobbed his head to the beat of the music and stepped rhythmically and unevenly on one Japanese geta sandal.


The final section involved a costume of jackets that had been hanging downstage from the ceiling throughout the entire work. It was now addressed on its own. Placing the layers of garments on his body, our character gained age and wear as he mounted these frayed textiles. Finally, he brought forth a small blackboard prepared with the word “BIRTH.”


A program note refers to the genesis of the dance as the influence of his daughter’s coming into existence. An inventive way for a dad to express his experience of fatherhood, to be sure.


Also interesting was Iova-Koga’s inclusion of some butoh elements–the time frame of movement, the surprise of popular sound, the commitment of the performer–while rejecting others–no white body make up, no near or partial nudity. Butoh can be tough for Western audiences to sit through, but Iova-Koga found a way to draw us in and keep our attention.


hans.jpgLocally based musician and filmmaker Hans Fjellestad brought his analog synthesizers and vacuum tube processor sounds to the stage in front of a series of abstract wall projections in SLIMSPOR. Turning knobs and pushing buttons in his L-shaped arrangement of instruments, Fjellestad created an ongoing stream of outer space-sounding electronics that repeatedly built in intensity, subsided and returned via a new collection of sound waves. Accompanying the sounds were close-up images of a variety of surfaces and textures. As the camera moved at different speeds over different “terrain,” these visuals underscored the urgency of the music and/or helped bring it down.


Sounds that shook like tremors, deep bass drones that developed into rhythmic cadences and occasional high pitched squeals paraded by. Scenic designs wafted alongside. The composer tried to allow us to see and hear conflict on the surface of the moon, feel the breath in the space between stars in a solar system and dip our fingers into the gooey gelatinous substances we watched on the screen. Once, I think I detected a melodic line.


SLIMSPOR was a challenging aural score to experience on a bare stage as we watched Fjellestad move only his fingers and hands. Once he rolled his shoulders to prepare for a big finger push and hand twirl. With so much amplified power coming out of the speakers, I looked at the source . . . disappointingly, he/it was basically inert. This is a challenge that faces a lot of avant-garde electronic performance today, a challenge to which several audience members succumbed and left early. Fjellestad is making music that probably won’t be used in the next Disney film even though he is playing it underneath Disney Hall. . . but he probably knows that.


Kelly Marie Martin and David Jones are composers/performers who are the driving forces behind Contraption Spell. The two acoustic/electric guitar players were joined by five others in this “wry tale of cursed nomads in search of the source of their possession” (as described in REDCAT promotional materials). The other performers included Monica Howe, Mykel Jay, James McCarthy, Cameron Mesirow and Mary-Clare Stevens.


kd.jpgThe stage opened on an irreverently faux campsite, complete with pseudo-campfire, orange cardboard flames and a pail of soup hanging over it. Next to that, an army green two-person tent was labeled “SOMEWHERE” on its outside. Entering one by one and spreading blankets around the fire, Dart, Wand, Jinx, Gust, Leper and Swap made their appearances on the stage. They proceeded to sing a repeated lyric that seemed to say something about war and that we (the characters on stage) still have far to go.


Later, dressed in quasi-nostalgic ’60s generation thrift store costumes–the hippie, the hillbilly , the girl in the black miniskirt and boots–the performers came and went. Covered in black from head to toe and including a hood, one new character was laid out on the floor. The others circled above him holding a pinkish sheet in their outstretched arms and hands. Was this a Wiccan event? Was this the prince of death being ceremonialized? Was this the spell of the title? The scene didn’t seem ominous at all but, rather, sardonic. The music instrumentation was all prerecorded guitars, a bass, sometimes a banjo, and the singers sang above that in an almost always monotone melody. A character named Ghost Woman (Ms. Martin) entered and belted out her song with a little more feeling and variation than the other songs, though still unimpressive.


Unfortunately, I didn’t understand much of what went on. I couldn’t follow the connections between any changes of scene, I didn’t know where the action was going and I never cared about any of the characters. I couldn’t find any narrative line. The work seemed loosely held together, unfinished and vague. It might be that after the previous two performances, Spell got lost in the wake. Perhaps future incarnations of this work will yield a more conclusive outcome.


In its fifth year, the New Original Works Festival drew artists and audiences from more than Los Angeles. This year’s program included Mexican modern dance and San Francisco butoh with its local interdisciplinary offerings–hip hop performance art, site-specific dance, new drama, folk opera and more. As part of CalArts, REDCAT is able to program performing arts that most west coast presenters would have trouble selling. And, as one of the few theaters that can take risks out here, the REDCAT NOW Festival presents adventurous–if not always polished–alternative performance for the L.A. crowd.

-Benn Widdey


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