For several years the Roy and Edna Disney/CalArts Theatre (REDCAT) has presented groundbreaking works by independent and emerging artists. Of the three works on the second week end of the NOW Festival 2016, only two lived up to what the acronym NOW represents; New Original Works. It was evident which artists had original concepts and who did not. It is one thing to take an idea from an artist that inspires you and make it your own, but it is less excusable to simply repeat ideas or images that have been presented by other more capable artists for decades.
PLASTIC FLOW made comments on the present day threat of climate change and its effects on Earth’s glacial landscape. Choreographer Rebecca Pappas should be commended for the attempt, but there was nothing new about her process. At the open there was a mound of material representing a glacier and I kept thinking, “Please don’t let there be a person or people underneath that mound.” Sadly, there was; three people in fact. This is an idea, an image and the use of a prop that has been seen ad nauseam. The end of the work was also predictable when the performers wrapped this material around the beautiful Amanda Runge as she sang. We knew that it was the end because we’ve seen it again and again. Aside from this, Pappas’ choreography was filled with random moments, and disconnected or unrelated movements. The use of the stage lamp was nice to demonstrate the sun melting the glaciers. The choreography, however, awkwardly stopped and started, forcing the performers to move in and out of character.
The performers in PLASTIC FLOW were dancers Arian Winn, Roberta Shaw, and Louie Cornejo, and vocalist Amanda Runge. Additional artists who contributed to this work included Scenic Construction by Matthew Eben Tomás, Costume Collaborator Jill Spector and artist Claire Anna Baker. What stood out, however, was the music by Henry Purcell with Sound Design by Joe Court. It was an imposing score.
Laurel Jenkins is an artist who definitely keeps her eyes and ears on the past, the now and the future. Her work always “pushes the envelope”, causing her audiences to become involved and to leave the theater thinking about the meaning of her work. For this festival Jenkins teamed up with Cambodian choreographer Chey Chankethya and composer Miguel Frasconi to create a beautiful blending of music, dance forms and cultures for SOMA PATH. Jenkins and Chankethya met while pursuing MFA degrees in Dance at UCLA’s Department of World Arts and Cultures. In SOMA PATH traditional Cambodian dance combines with American Postmodern dance. Together these two artists took hand, arm, head, leg and torso isolations, then changed and expanded them throughout the work to produce a dramatically new movement vocabulary. They began standing next to each other expressing their own individual style before literally melting them into one idea. Later the two separated and the movement vocabulary developed even further. Frasconi performed his dynamic electronic score live at a table located upstage left. Frasconi amplified and distorted sounds he created with large glass bowls and other items. Watching him reminded me of composer David Tudor who worked with Merce Cunningham.
Jenkins and Chankethya are each commanding performers. Both have astonishing control to isolate different areas of their body. A shoulder rotates, ripples throughout their anatomy and transports them through the space in unexpected ways. Chankethya has taken her country’s proud dance form to a new level. She did not discard it, but honored her heritage to expand it. One could still recognize the traditional hand, head and leg movements, but Chankethya incorporated her modern training to shape her own choreographic voice. Jenkins did the same with her modern training and choreography and together they created an exotic environment that seemed at times unworldly, yet somehow familiar. The dance lost focus just before concluding, but finished with a use of the theater’s structure to suggested a continuing path toward personal search and spiritual enlightenment.
Unlike the previous two works, NOODLERICE: UNTITLED was definitely a theater piece involving multiple uses of props, narration, satire and humor. Balloons inflated and burst on top of a headless person. We laughed as a woman wearing large metal ductwork on her arms to imitate muscular attributes. Those ductwork units were then used by the four talented actors Cordelia Istel, Anatoliy Ogay, Jessica Barrett Denison and Kevin James Whitmire to make a satirical statement on society’s use of more impersonal or less in-person sexual encounters. It was very funny until one realized how the artists Liang Guo and Yao Zhang have exposed how technology separates people; even reaching into their private, solo sexual life. Through the use of fans inflating translucent film formed into large tubes, NOODLERICE: UNTITLED comments on how we have become more and more encapsulated, or as comedian Bill Maher puts it, “living in a bubble” by not interacting with others or simply listening only to the ideas of those we already agree with.
Liang Guo and Yao Zhang have come up with an amazing set; turning simple everyday items into bigger than life instruments of theatrical statements. I hesitate to call these tubes and other items props because they are more than that. They become alive and turn a mirror on us to see ourselves more clearly. Text by Gertrude Stein is reintroduced into our consciousness as another tool to provide insight into the follies of man/womankind. The work of Sound Designer Jess Mandapat and Lighting Designer Chu-hsuan Chnag add greatly to the success of this humorous but acutely real work.