NW New Works (Weekend 1) is Rad and Radical

Written by Christin Call

Kate Wallich & Crew
Photo by Tim Summers
 NW New Works is diving off the deep end.  Weekend 1 of the twenty-ninth year of On the Boards’ festival showing new works by local and regional performing artists showed that the Northwest is filled with artists plunging head-on into an expansive scope of creative energy.  With a 5:00 pm performance in the Studio Theater black box and an 8:00 pm performance in the Mainstage Theater, the evening nearly spilled over with depth of artistic inquiry and variety of tones and approaches.
Studio Theater:

As a group of works, the Studio Showcase had an exciting commonality of artistic concern that unified their presentation together.  Tahni Holt, Danny Herter, Corrie Befort, and Catherine Cabeen each in very individualized ways seemed to be using dance as a base knowledge for the creation of work—its physicality, language, and historical conventions—while ending up with a piece that extends beyond the borders of a dance performance.

In Holt’s piece, Sunshine, this was done with opacity and the guarding of meaning toward the audience.  Without the ability to resolve specific imagery, free association takes over.  Were those disco-dressed street urchins destroying a city of cardboard boxes Godzilla-style?  Why did the handling of the boxes seem clumsy—in order to exaggerate comically the thunderous impact of the microphones inside them?  This sparse and somehow glitter-y piece had some movement and quite a lot of stillness that left an enigma.

If one has been slacking on ancient biblical, apochryphal, and pre-Mesopotamian mythical texts studies, Danny Herter’s theatrical work at one mentalityis a good refresher.  Verbatim use of these stories while two actors and a narrator acted them out in small skits, lip-synching to voiceovers, and rapping to 8-bit tracks created a wry, modern satire of the “sacred.”  With a multitude of lingual winks, Herter presented a goofy, sarcastic look at the written texts that have shaped the course of human civilization.  The piece dipped into some deliciously weird fun in a scene introduced by Herter, saying “Now, let’s check in on what’s going on in the Spirit World.”  Apparently the Spirit World is made up of part-animal creatures moving about the way robots might on the dance floor to Nintendo-game music.

Corrie Befort created her own dream-like, sepia-toned world in Pinto.  A too-serious pianist perching on a pile of cushions played and stopped, played and stopped, bowed, and ended crumpled on the floor with her sheet music, trying to crawl away.  Later an afghan rug morphed into a legless torso feeling its way about the room.  It caressed its legs then tipped it onto its back and made off with it like a dish-and-spoon story.  These surreal tinges of trompe l’oiel and lush, subtle details were embellishment of Befort’s own physicality, which seemed to defy gravity in moments when she effortlessly hooked a foot up onto a platform to lay on top or sank slowly from a chair to the floor.  Sinuous moments such as an arm weaving like a rivulet seemed to lead her body along its own ideas, rather than her identity being the source of movement.  The effect was delicate, careful, and sublime.

Catherine Cabeen
Photo by Tim Summers
Catherine Cabeen delivered a matter-of-fact and somewhat tongue-in-cheek performance titled Ready, Aim… that started with writing under a sheet of tinfoil and diverted into a lecture-monologue about the historical accentuation, sexual oppression, and patriarchal control of the female vagina through costume, choreography, and financial reward in the realm of ballet, modern, and now contemporary dance.  Though larger-than-life as a dancer, Cabeen perhaps shines even more as a public speaker.  Her points on such a potentially heavy-handed subject were deftly engaging and humorous, and touched rather close to home.  Has there ever been a dancer who didn’t suffer physical insecurity or the thoughtless comments about her worth and appearance?

Mainstage Theater:

With Something’s Got Ahold of My Heart, Hand2Mouth delivered a piece with the concept of speaking in monologues while another person acted out the movement.  Sobering stories about a woman with cancer dying as she gives birth to her child and a violent, co-dependent couple nonetheless evolved into cheery, heartfelt pop songs as the group morphed into a band with a full drum set and electric guitars.

In The Public Road, Sara Edwards and the People’s Grand Opera gave a stunning performance of choral arrangements to quotes from Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass.  A group of sixteen, led by the pure, gorgeous voice of Edwards, sang Whitman’s words of praise for the body, his celebration of the everyday, and his rooted sense of pleasure in even the aroma of one’s armpits with seamless agility.  Whitman’s poetic style, with its oratorical repetition, is incredibly suited to song; hopefully there is another opportunity to experience this breathtaking performance.  

Kate Wallich and Crew exhibited their keen, physical intelligence in One Plus by beginning with dance club moves like the sprinkler performed in slow motion yet amped to their highest intensity. Built on a simple structure of solos emerging from the group, the movement itself was so full of complexity in dynamic range, speed, articulation, and impetus, it is another performance from this weekend that encourages and almost demands multiple viewings.  At the heart of Wallich’s work seems to be a desire for communion, genuine pleasure, and “feeling the groove” of a group dynamic.  Each of her performers has his or her own tantalizing and exceptional individuality, and yet the eye returns again and again to Wallich herself.  She seems calm, as if in an altered state, yet able to attack her jungle of dance vocabulary with prowess and dexterity.

The one major disappointment of the Mainstage Theater performance was Mike Pham’s untitled tribute to Hamlet Acts III through the Finale.  These 22 minutes of flashy quotes set to overly-loud, melodramatic music, constant strobe lights, plus two clip lamps that were turned off and on throughout and shining directly at the audience, left one wondering why Pham was so intent on being cruel to his audience.  Raging headache aside, the untrained and nonspecific-seeming movement itself could not carry the heftiness of the subject matter.

A whole new line-up can be seen this Friday through Sunday, June 15–17.  Viewers can check out zoe | juniper & the feath3r theory, Erin Pike, Maureen Whiting Company, and Portland Experimental Theatre Ensemble in the Studio Theater at 5:00 pm. Then stick around for the Mainstage show at 8:00 pm (Saturday and Sunday only) with artists Vanessa DeWolf, Richard Lefebvre, Waxie Moon, and Ulrich | Graczyk | Baldoz.  KT Niehoff will also be showing an installation at 5:30 pm on Sunday.  Visit ontheboards.org for more details.