The 13th annual New Original Works (NOW) festival, presented at the Roy and Edna Disney/CalArts Theatre (better known as REDCAT), drew to a convincing close last weekend in a diverse program of Body Demonstration, Music, and Dance.
The hotly anticipated summer festival is a local oasis of artistic innovation in the creatively dry months of the year. The festival of three interdisciplinary programs over as many weeks featured works by early career artists, selected with an eye to new projects in development.
REDCAT Directors Mark Murphy and Edgar Miramontes opened the program with contextualizing remarks, citing the festival’s mandate and methods. “The NOW Festival allows emerging artists to use this theater as a laboratory for taking risks,” Miramontes articulated.
Filling the house to its 200 seat capacity, a decidedly risk-on audience had no objection to being subjects in tests that proved largely successful.
Energetically bounding into view, self-styled performance art ensemble I AM A BOYS CHOIR took the stage for the first, longest, most outrageous work of the program, Demonstrating the Imaginary Body or How I Became an Ice Princess.
Oddly coinciding with the current Summer Olympic games, Ice Princess chronicles the enmeshed paths of three figure skaters competing in the 1992 Winter Olympics through film and the art of “body demonstration,” an experimental genre blurring the boundaries of dance, theater, and spoken word.
The piece unfolds through a series of vignettes, each named and modeled after steps on Kristi Yamaguchi’s checklist for success: “beauty, stamina, fearlessness,” and others. Through funny, rambling stories, neatly choreographed fitness routines, and mock auditions, all reinforced by gender-bending costumes and driving 90s-era disco music, a clear sense of an ice princess culture begins to emerge, “without a narrative” as collective member Adam Rigg stated upfront.
Emotional intensity mounted throughout the work, moving from the cerebral to the emotional in a kind of exploration of Chakras. Communication evolved from ordinary speech, to body language, to sense-defying videography, followed by a hedonistic frenzy of activity complete with animal costumes, nudity, and other-worldly lighting.
Strongly camp informed, the three-member, queer-identified collective knowingly disregards conventional notions of artistic territory. Banal, self-critical chatter punctuated by an intermittent “what time is it now?” among other seeming trivialities, challenged observers to accept a new standard of artistic merit. “Our goal is to present the truth above all, at all times,” recited member Kate D’Arcus Attwell at one juncture in the performance. Audaciously direct, natural, and unrestrained, I AM A BOYS CHOIR convinces on a visceral level, even as it befuddles logically.
Audience analyses percolated up along the pilgrimage for half-time restoratives. A view proliferated that “much did not make sense,” but the collective clearly delivered on its opening claim to “blow your minds.”
Following a leisurely intermission (and extensive cleanup), composer Daniel Corral arrived on stage to perform his new work Comma in an innovative usage of existing technology.
Presenting the only expressly musical work of the festival, Corral faced the dual duty of satisfying artistically, as well as representing the art of music before the NOW audience.
A darkened hall suddenly flared with iridescent swatches, pulsing and changing with each note in streams of electronic sound reinforced by vigorous minimalist rhythms.
Congruent in purpose with the foregoing Ice Princess, Corral’s Comma reverses traditional musical priorities in a celebration of the Pythagorean comma, the bane of tuning systems since the middle ages.
Pythagoras gets the credit for codifying an intonation based on just fifths, pure and without “beats” (a canceling out of soundwave crest and trough). Beatless fifths are gentle, euphonious harmonies, but the sum of such intervals is greater than their parts, leading to a small but significant inequity in the tuning system. That hair’s breadth of dissonance is the comma (“hair” in Latin), and for centuries, the question was what to do about it.
Today’s intrepid listener accepts the comma, enjoying the dissonant crunch of “wolf intervals,” originally named for the howling of wolves. Comma draws on a pitch vocabulary derived from just-tuned fifths, exploiting their inherent beauty, and cognitively reframes dissonances as sumptuous umami flavors.
Striving for “something that could be experienced on multiple levels,” as Corral notes, a whimsical light show of shifting colors and shapes complements beguiling harmonies and timbres for a “total work of art.” Building on accordion-playing chops, Corral dispatched a dizzyingly intricate drum machine part on Novation’s Launchpad Pro, triggering sound and light with agility and speed.
Comma’s multiple paths of engagement and balanced blend of cooperative elements worked to hold audience attention consistently, slowing time against a steady stream of activity. Enthusiasm for the concluded piece reverberated palpably, as a sense of music’s abiding power to enchant and challenge was affirmed once again.
In the moving finish of both program and festival, dancer and choreographer Wilfried Souly integrated disparate movement traditions and original music in On Becoming, an exploration of identity-evolution.
“Reflecting the way physical history shapes Self across life,” writes Souly, On Becoming reflects influences on Souly’s own history, including African traditional dance, contemporary dance, and Taekwondo, fluidly fusing them for a new, unique genre.
An ensemble of musician from at least three countries collaborated in creating new music through shared improvisation: Boubacar Djiga, from Souly’s West African homeland of Burkina Faso, arranged and recorded traditional Burkinan music. Composers Tom Moose and Julio Montero later created new jazz, blues, and Latin folk-inspired music, taking the original African music as an impetus. A mosaic of styles crystalized, each element retaining its identity while harmoniously supporting the others.
The diverse musical backdrop both drove and reflected movement content on stage. An upbeat swing melody accompanied by shimmering tremolos served as springboard for bouncy gaits and playful turns.
A lyrical ballad for violin, guitar, and recorded media supported a tender episode, featuring intimate close embrace and expressive undulatory gestures. Afro-Blues fusion music pulsed rhythmically in a play on space and number: Dancers merged densely then diffused apart, then bifurcated the stage along a striking diagonal. A later number featured Souly in isolation, divided from the ensemble as soloist, as if satellite reflecting ensemble action. “While the others shared a tender moment together, I preferred to stand apart, on my own,” Souly explained in post-performance conversation. A plaintive soliloquy in spoken word, followed by an episode of descriptive facial expressions and subtle hand gestures brought the piece to an ending point, with ensemble exiting unobtrusively into the audience.
An apt closing number for the evening and season, On Becoming acknowledges the evolving of individual identity and the diversity that shapes it. NOW guests witnessed a moment in that flow of impermanence this season, and can expect new, original works of another variety next summer and beyond.