Dreams of Southland

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The Royal Society’s Southland {this is what i know about love} turned out to be so unexpectedly special that it’s difficult to know where to begin. With the hundreds of butterflies cut out of sepia-toned photos? With the ribbon of text that snaked around the wall? With the performers’ warm, open intimacy? With the atmosphere suffused with a magical Southern aura? Part installation, part performance, Southland is billed as “an evening of sound, movement, and art you can touch.” The Royal Society is the collective title of co-founders Lylli Meredith and Travis Morehead (who conceptualized the show together), as well as Alyza DelPan-Monley, Hilary Grumman, Lorraine Lau, Jason Merges, and Alicia Pugh, and together they proved to be a captivating bunch of versatile cross-discliplinary artists. Southland premiered Friday, July 18, at Portal Studio, Amelia Windecker’s new space for art in Greenwood, and it seems to be The Royal Society’s most public event to date. The response has been strong. They did virtually no publicity for the show, yet by Saturday night they were turning people away from Greenwood’s Portal Studio. Luckily, they have been able to add an encore run this Friday and Saturday—a rarity in Seattle. It’s a small venue, so get your tickets now.

Lylli Meredith and Hilary Grumman in Southland {this is what i know about love} Photo by Jason Merges
Lylli Meredith and Hilary Grumman in Southland {this is what i know about love}
Photo by Jason Merges

At first glance, Southland grew from a tension between words and images. Meredith’s writing served as the heart of the project, providing both visual art objects (long rolls of text, folded papers covered in neat handwriting) and poetic songs lyrics heard during dances. The detailed imagery of the visual art, designed and made by Meredith and Morehead, grounded the work with a sense of place—of the South, and of something dreamier. A simple palette of creams, browns, and a bit of indigo unified the room. The butterflies, a central image suggesting transformation and the ephemeral, cascaded down a wall with a pool of folded papers covered in text at the bottom. A series of animal silhouettes leapt up a wall. A cart wheel, a kerosene lamp, tumble weeds—all simple but evocative additions.

 

Southland, with its veneer of beauty and delicate craft, could easily have drifted down a path off too-beautiful, too-perfect. Fortunately, the artists involved have a good sense of when to add in tension. Lau swooped deftly through a landscape of teacups, but sometimes she sent them skidding across the cement floor with a welcome note of discord. Grumman and Meredith performed a duet with strings attached across their arms that became ever more entwined. The other performers passed string all around the audience so that the whole room was in a web. The two dancing women looked like sisters in identical white dresses and braids atop their heads, adding a family dynamic to their final position, tangled and trapped face to face. But, lest things get too dark, Morehead simply walked up to the pair and snipped them free with scissors. It was a whimsically simple act that belongs to the realm of dream logic—extricating oneself from conflict in real life is rarely so easy.

Alicia Pugh watches Alyza DelPan-Monley in Southland {this is what i know about love} Photo by Jason Merges
Alicia Pugh watches Alyza DelPan-Monley in Southland {this is what i know about love}
Photo by Jason Merges

In an evening of surreal images and encounters, one of the most memorable was DelPan-Monley’s solo wearing a train of butterflies. She followed a carefully made dirt path that stretched corner to corner like a long braid or a pattern raked into a Zen garden. She taxed herself physically, arching backward to the ground over and over, covering her body and dress in dirt as she went along. The group was dressed all in white to begin with, so her increasing grime felt significant. She was erasing the ground beneath her as she danced, but she was also picking up the dirt and taking it with her, like a visible marker of her past and the places she came from.

 

The show was impressive for the thoroughness of its vision and for the skill, labor and care that pervaded every element of the dance, music, and visual art. They also integrated the audience well; the key was how performers approached audience members one on one, intimately rather than as a whole group. Nevertheless, it’s not quite perfect yet—although its flaws mostly stem from not getting enough of a good thing. Sometimes the meaning of Meredith’s text got lost amidst the dancing. The words resonated most clearly when performed live, especially Meredith’s reading of a poem and Pugh’s emotive singing. The recorded songs, while beautifully rendered, were overpowered by the live performers so close to the audience. Additionally, the pre-show encouraged interaction with the space, but there was so much to take in that the audience needed more time to really explore Portal Studio. Even the architecture took time to pop out amidst the group’s installation; a gem of a stained glass window added an appropriate tinge of churchlike solemnity to the affair. Southland could stand alone as a gallery installation by day and a performance by night.

Travis Morehead and Lorraine Lau in Southland {this is what i know about love} Photo by Jason Merges
Travis Morehead and Lorraine Lau in Southland {this is what i know about love}
Photo by Jason Merges

Southland was not about love so much as it was infused by love—love of place above all. The work revealed some of the contrasts that are part of a Southern identity. Poverty and riches existed simultaneously throughout. The sparse music lived with the richly decorated space. The simple white of the women’s dresses and the men’s too-short overalls and bare feet were countered with streaks of gold on the performers’ skin. However, reality was not the end goal. Instead, Southland took us to an imagined place that lives on a border between dream and memory. It was a comfortable Seattle temperature inside, but you could still smell and touch the dirt of a Southern summer.

 

The Royal Society’s Southland {this is what i know about love} continues Friday and Saturday, July 25 and 26, at Portal Studio in the Greenwood neighborhood. Tickets available through Brown Paper Tickets. More information on the Royal Society on their website.