Tuesday, December 23, 2008

D’oh! Sorry for the Delay…Macbeth at the Mondavi…starring Homer Simpson as the lead…Marge Simpson as Lady Macbeth...

...and the rest of the Springfield residents rounding out the cast of MacHomer!

On December 11, I checked out MacHomer at Jackson Hall. As I entered the theater (mid-way through my finals for the quarter) I realized that I recalled very little of the Shakespearian tragedy other than the few iconic lines that have made their way into the collective consciousness of our culture (“Double double boil and trouble…,” “Is this a dagger I see before me?” and “Out out damn spot”). How they connected into a narrative was a little fuzzy. But, I’ve been watching The Simpsons since they first appeared on The Tracy Ullman Show, so I figured I was as well prepared as anyone.

In addition to the typical audience at the Mondavi Center, I noticed a few busloads of high school students making their way to their seats - no doubt lured to the show by their English teachers with the promise of a fun evening of Simpsons jokes.

A voiceover greeted the audience and asked us, “How many of you have watched The Simpsons in the last week?“ Hearty applause. Then , “How many of you have read Shakespeare’s Macbeth in the last week?” A smaller, but still quite impressive applause. To which the booming voice responded with an accusatory, “LIARS!” (Confession: I didn’t clap for either). We then were encouraged to get all of our own Simpsons impressions out of our systems so as not to compete with the star. Loud “D’oh’s!” and “Eat my shorts!” followed for a few minutes (I did participate in this cacophony).

Once the audience was warmed up, creator/performer Rick Miller launched into his tour-de-force one-man-rendition of Macbeth as performed by the characters of The Simpsons. The script was billed as being 85% Shakespeare (the amount drawn from the actual Macbeth text seemed to be slightly less than that). And I estimate the remaining was comprised of 12% Simpsons citations, 5% nods to other cartoons, 4% general pop culture allusions, 3% Broadway/musical theater renditions, 2% political commentary and current events, and 1% self referential digs (yes, I know there’s more than 100% there - but Miller‘s show was packed so densely, it felt like at least 112%). And the pace was quick. Miller dusted off the 5 act play in a neat 90 minutes without intermission.

Rick Miller’s technical virtuosity was unparalleled. Not only did he nail the subtle inflections and cadence of every Simpson character (the press materials say he does over 50 voices - though I didn’t keep track), but with the slightest posture change or arm gesture, he was also able to encapsulate and embody each character with his physicality as well.

So, did it work? Well, the plot of Macbeth was generally elucidated (prophesies, plotting, murder, deceit, hubris, comeuppance). The multitude of Springfield residents were all impeccably cast and realized. I laughed at the jokes….and I knew that as I laughed, I was probably missing the next 7 references - but I was OK with that. And because of the mile-a-minute ADD-like nature of the script aimed at just about everyone, the show was probably accessible to even those not versed in either Shakespeare or the Simpsons-verse.

Miller’s use of video and multimedia worked to help fill the huge stage, but I kept wishing the show had been produced in the more intimate Studio Theater where I would have really been able to take in all of Miller’s facial expressions. I had the sense that Miller was larger than life, but for me (and, I imagine, anyone else sitting beyond the 10th row), he became swallowed up into the space. I also felt his encore, in which he sang Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” in the vocal stylings of famous rock stars from Elvis Costello to Bon Jovi, to be irrelevant and a touch egotistical (though admittedly very entertaining).

Nonetheless, it was great to see a young crowd out and about and engaged with the show. It also was a a perfect study break for me between finals!

Friday, November 7, 2008

Young Dancers from ABTII Tackle the Classics

Tonight, New York City-based American Ballet Theatre II (ABII) treated the Mondavi Center audience to some of the most legendary ballet choreography in existence. ABII is a classical company of young dancers (age 16-19) handpicked from around the world. It serves as the training ground for the full ABT company, which has been home to ballet superstars like Mikhail Baryshnikov, Gelsey Kirkland, Natalia Makarova and Robert La Fosse.

First on the program was George Balanchine's classically perky "Allegro Brillante" to the music of Tchaikovsky. The dancers handled Balanchine’s precise construction of pure lines, neoclassic technique and group formations with aplomb.

The jubilant "Interplay" by Jerome Robbins was a perfect vehicle for this young company’s strengths. With flicks of flexed hands and feet, the capable dancers mixed their stunning technique and facility with a jazzy flair and sassy personality.

Marius Petipa’s Swan Lake and the Don Quixote duets provided the highlights of the evening. ABT is known for its interpretations of “story ballets” such as these, and its future looks bright if these dancers are to go on to dance with the full company.

The female soloist in the Swan Lake pas de deux was mature beyond her years. She invested her movements with exquisite emotional weight and had a remarkable sense of musicality and phrasing.

Meaghan Hinkis and Joseph Gorak nailed the virtuosic Don Quixote pas de deux with impressive bravura. Hinkis awed with her confident displays of pirouettes and footwork, while Gorak channeled the athleticism of Baryshnikov in his leaps and turns through the space.

The program concluded with Petipa’s “Carnival of Venice,” a solid display which brought back the full ensemble to enliven the stage.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Momix: Acrobatic Antics and Impossible Illusions

The 2008-2009 Mondavi Center season is officially under way, and I'm thrilled to be back, blogging about the wonderful programs offered this year.

Today I took in "Momix: The Best of Momix" along with an appreciative and packed audience at Jackson Hall. Momix, the brain child of Moses Pendleton, is basically a spin-off of "Pilobolus Dance Theater," another acrobatic, inventive and illusion-based company. You may know Pilobolus from their shadow puppet antics on the Oscars and in the Hyundai car commercials. Momix is no stranger to the commercial scene either - the women of Momix were recently featured in the "Look who we've got our Hanes on Now" campaign.

And that's what's so great about Momix -- they are accessible...and I don't mean accessible in a "it's not really art" way, but rather in a "it's getting a diverse group of people to see and enjoy dance" way.

Case in point: seated next to me was a four year old who was asking the most honest, observant and completely uncensored questions. "How are they doing that?" "Is that real?" "Is she pretending to be dead?". Sitting behind me, a septagenarian couple couldn't hold back the "oohs," the "ahhs," and the "wows!" And as a former professional dancer myself, knowing some of the tricks of the trade, so to speak, leaves me slightly less in wonder, but certainly does not diminish my appreciation of the skill, trust, and coordination needed to accomplish these image-rich feats of acrobatics.

I first saw Momix in 1993 (it was actually my first modern dance experience), so in a way, seeing them again today was nostalgic. The company hasn't changed much since those days of the early 90s - and in fact, several of the pieces on the "Best of..." program were from that era. The company uses large props and structures and fully investigates the movement possible with/in/around/above/below these "toys". With "Moon Beams," 3 women boing, roll, slink, split and handstand around physioballs (those big balls you see people doing sit-ups on in the gym) in the delightfully quirky romp. “Pole Dance” showcases 3 men launching themselves in the air and swirling themselves around the poles with a gazelle-like athleticism. “Tuu,” a male-female duet is like the love child between a Cirque du Soleil hand balancing act and the Arabian duet from “The Nutcracker”.

The classic “Millenium Skiva” features a man and women in skis – leaning impossibly, levitating, and generally using the skis in ways normal people would never think possible. In the elegant “Dream Catcher,” a man and a woman navigate a giant mobius strip, jungle gym, German wheel-like apparatus. The performers’ strong yet fluid movement quality prevents this from looking like another circus stunt. My favorite piece of the evening is probably “Sputnik (Fellow Traveler)” featuring a contraption resembling the Soviet satellite the piece is named for. This prop looks and acts like the space equipment - impossibly allowing the dancers to fly and float in orbit around the woman seated in the center cog. The weightless and apparent effortlessness of this piece is truly hypnotizing. Rounding out the evening are two whirling dervish solos performed by Nicole Loizides, and a few other crowd favorites like “Gila Dance” (a 4-man snake) and “E.C.” (a shadow dance which predates the car commercials).

Can’t wait for the next show! See you there!

Monday, April 28, 2008

Merce @ Mondavi

The Merce Cunningham Dance Company capped its extensive week-long residency at the Mondavi Center with two nights of rich, historical, stunning work last weekend.

At 89, Merce Cunningham is truly a living legend of modern dance. In the 60s Cunningham was a pioneer in shifting the intent of modern dance from meaning to movement. In other words, he wanted to do away with the trappings of symbolic narrative (think: Martha Graham) and focus solely on physical human action. In doing this, he wanted dance to be able to represent nothing and everything - to be determined by the audience. He developed a movement technique specifically focused on the lines and curves in the human body; he rejected traditional compositional forms (A-B-A); he used chance procedures to drive the order of his compositions (to keep things random and free of meaning); and he collaborated with artists who shared his worldview (Cage, Rauschenberg). Forty years later, he still finds ways to mine these ideas to create provocative work.

On Friday, the company opened with MinEvent with the Kronos Quartet (2008). Don’t let that 2008 fool you: this is old school Cunningham. A MinEvent is a piece created specifically for a “particular performance and place” but consists entirely of older material. The newness comes in the arrangement of the activities. The Kronos Quartet, sprinkled strategically in the audience, played John Cage’s equally non-sequitur Thirty Pieces for String Quartet. The music is “a series of very short contrasting solos for each instrument, unrelated to the other instruments’ parts.” The random collage of movement and sound strips both of any meaning and allows the audience to simply view the lines, shapes and formations in space. A duet need not represent a relationship, just the intermingling of two bodies on stage. The interpretation is up to each member of the audience.

Split Sides (2003)begins with a bit of tongue-in-cheek pomp and circumstance. An announcer introduces five VIPs who, in turn, roll some dice to determine the order of the music (Radiohead before Sigur Rós); the dance sequence (A before B); the costumes (color before black and white); the décor (Catherine Yaas before Robert Heishman) and the lighting cues (300 before 200). If you do the math, there are 2^5 or 32 possible combinations for this dance.

Cunningham has been using procedures of chance to compose his work for years. He has also experimented with changing up scenic elements and music on the night of the performance for years. The fact that he highlights and theatricalizes these choices so intentionally now is what interests me. Perhaps he wants to unveil his intentions, perhaps he wants to educate his audience, perhaps after all these years he does actually care whether or not people “get” his work.

Legend has it that in his attempt to appeal more to a younger generation, Cunningham approached both Radiohead and Sigur Rós, thinking one would decline. When they both accepted, he ordered two 20-minute works instead of one 40-minute work, then decided to do the same for the other elements. And thus, the piece was born. In any case, the dice rolling ceremony and the involvement of Radiohead and Sigur Rós certainly make the piece more accessible to a younger generation of dance viewers who are more removed from the tradition Cunningham was trying to break with in the 60s.

The hip bands, it seems, composed their pieces with almost too much reverence to Merce. They departed from their signature voices to create works which are beat-less, lyric-less and have a fair amount of sound experimentation to them. They certainly did their homework, but it’s almost as if they created something that they thought Merce would like (something in the spirit of Cage). I, for one, would be more interested in seeing Cunningham’s work juxtaposed with some of their less consciously composed works.

The dance, which Cunningham creates without regard to how it will fit the music, again highlights the superb technique of the dancers who, with machine-like precision carve out lines in space as they tilt, balance, and leap with remarkable artistry.

Biped (1999), which opened the Saturday performance, was, for me, the highlight of both shows. Projections of vertical and horizontal lines, frame, shape and enliven the space, while digital images of dancers (created through the motion capture animation process) complement and enrich the movement of the live dancers. The motion capture images are simple and stark – sometimes a body is represented with skeletal trace lines, sometimes as lively dots (this was no LOTR Gollum-like situation), but remarkably these abstracted images accurately portray the essence of Cunningham’s vocabulary and allow us to experience it from various perspectives. They put us over, under, above, and inside the action, and their sheer size viscerally envelop us in the movement.

At the start of eyeSpace (2006), a head pops out of the orchestra pit with instructions to “take out your iPods” (pre-loaded with 5 songs by Mikel Rouse), “set them to shuffle,” and “press ‘play’…. ‘NOW!’” My date had a very hard time with this concept. “Why do we have to have our own iPods? Why don’t they just play the music?” After trying to explain Cunningham’s abstract ideas of “randomness,” “chance,” and “personal experience,” I think the epiphany came when I likened the experience to playing Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon” to The Wizard of Oz (being sure to hit "play" on the third roar of the MGM lion). These are two works of art that were created entirely independently of each other, but have some sublime synchronicity when experienced together. The meaning was “found” and created by those first stoners who happened to play their favorite anthem while Dorothy was singing about rainbows. Here Cunningham challenges us to see synchronicities between the music and the movement, and to know that they are entirely invented in our mind.

The dance, itself, has the most playful air of all those on the program. The dancers seem to romp about in groups and in duets - almost breaking their stoic gaze every now and then. It’s as if they can’t help but reveal that they are truly taking pleasure in what they are doing – dancing with each other. Shhh don’t tell Merce.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Poetic Fantasy in Motion: Shen Wei Dance Arts

Last Friday, the renowned Shen Wei Dance Arts, under the direction of Shen Wei, presented two richly textured and emotive pieces at Jackson Hall. Re- (Part One), a quartet created in 2006, was co-commissioned by the Mondavi Center, while Folding, a more epic production, was originally created in 2000 for the Guandong Modern Dance Company.

Re- (Part One) features hauntingly stark lighting by the legendary designer, Jennifer Tipton. The costumes and stage design, by Shen Wei, are similarly simple, but effective. A layer of light snow confetti carpets the floor, giving way/moving with/trailing behind the dancers as they move. The soundscape alternates between traditional Tibetan Chants and silence, and the four dancers move seamlessly, silently and organically. Slow and meditative at first, their movements seem sourced from internal impulses. As the piece evolves, the dynamic shifts as the dancers begin expanding their use of space, sweeping across the stage, and fully inhabiting their own kinespheres. Even as their movements sharpen and crystallize, the dancers retain a remarkable sense of lightness and ease in their actions. They fold themselves into and out of the floor, kicking up the confetti snow and leaving tracers in the air as they drag the particles along with them – a record, however fleeting, of their movement through space. This imagery is reminiscent of the sand art Tibetan monks meticulously create, then leave to blow away in the wind – a reminder to invest fully in the beauty of an image even while accepting its impermanence.

If Re - (Part One) is an exploration in movement sourced from internal impulses, Folding is the opposite. In this piece, Wei uses the set, costumes, dancers and music to create a grand, almost operatic vision bigger than any of the individual dancers. All the design elements come together to evoke surreal, poetic images that are at once very Chinese and universally mythical. The dancers wear “coneheads” (think SNL in the 80s), which distort your sense of where their bodies end, especially when they turn backwards and contort. Their costumes consist of nude (or, for the women, nude-colored) tops with either black or red “monk” pants. The backdrop is a traditional, yet fantastical Chinese painting (by Wei), and the lighting is bright and vibrant. The movement, rather than being organic, is idiosyncratic and functional in the way it services Wei’s grand fanciful vision. The dancers skitter across the stage which, because of their balloon-like pants, gives the impression that they are floating through space. They form surreal creatures by stacking person upon person inside of the red and black fabrics to create 2-headed forms that ooze and move about the space in a slow butoh-esque style. They create illusions of height, depth, mass, and, in the end, appear to climb a “stairway to heaven”.

Both pieces, while different, were lush with imagery and made for an enjoyable and contemplative evening.

Monday, March 3, 2008

ShadowLight: a concert of new dance-theatre works by Marija Krotolica and Randee Paufve

ShadowLight: a concert of new dance-theatre works by Marija Krotolica and Randee Paufve closed last Sunday at the Studio Theatre of the Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts. The concert, presented by the UC Davis Department of Theatre and Dance, represented Krotolica and Paufve’s final projects in fulfillment of their Masters of Fine Arts degrees. In the interest of full disclosure, I use to be a dancer in Randee Paufve’s company (in fact, it was with Paufve Dance that I first came to Davis to perform at the Mondavi Center).

Paufve’s “spasm: as you perceive the edge of yourself at the moment of desire” began the evening. The strength of much of Paufve’s previous work has been in her movement invention and her meditative yet dynamic phrasing choices. She does not disappoint here, especially with her opening solo which begins in, out and on the cusp of a pool of light, but she also makes an interesting foray into the spoken word arena with “spasm”.

As Paufve’s polished dancers speak lines from “Romeo and Juliet,” they move in and out of relationships with one another while creating vivid images of love, pain, lust, passion and desire. While the text is familiar, we do not see Shakespeare’s narrative played out here; rather, we see an evolving landscape of duets, solos, trios and group mingling.

Paufve’s choice to use her professional company adds to the sophistication of the work, and it is especially nice to see an intergenerational cast, including veteran performer Frank Shawl, who has been active as a teacher, dancer and choreographer in the Bay Area for 50 years, and Diane McKallip, who has been dancing professionally in the Bay area for the past 3 decades, addressing and embodying issues of love and desire alongside their 20 and 30-something year-old castmates.

It is always a challenge to give dancers, untrained in straight theater, lines to vocalize, especially from something so canonical like Shakespeare. “spasm” suffers a little because Paufve is so precious with Shakespeare’s words. Since her movement conveys so much in its abstractness, Paufve could stand to fragment the text, use the words more sparingly as texture rather than for plot advancement, or imbed the dialogue so deeply in the movement that they become one. She does the latter quite successfully in the instance when dancer Rebecca Johnson is on the bottom of a dog pile struggling to get out the words, “nay, it is too rash, too sudden too ill-advised.” I would have liked the text to be this vital and inevitable throughout the work.

Krotolica’s work, “Mostly in Blue – the Hidden Syntax of Dreams in Translation,” seems to be a meditation on youthful innocence, as portrayed by UC Davis students Claire Blackstock, Valerie Carlin, Jo-Anna Gallegos and Christina Noble, juxtaposed with a worldly angst, vividly personified by Krotolica.

Krotolica is a remarkable mover and has a commanding stage presence, so I was most engaged by her solos, which took place in a fenced-off space. Her body displays contortion-like facility as she executes strong, slicing, forceful, urgent movements. She occupies every inch of her enclosed space, and moves both in sympathy and in opposition to the frenetic, lively music created by Michael Nyman.

The corps dancers in “Mostly in Blue” wore blue dresses reminiscent of Dorothy’s checkered number from the Wizard of Oz. They dance outside Krotolica’s fence while holding up mirrors, striking tableaus, performing solos and reading aloud from literature ranging from “The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe” to “Little House on the Prairie”. There are a few strong images conjured up by the group, but they are most effective in their ability to create a strong visual opposition to Krotolica’s solos.

I feel like there is much beneath the surface of Krotolica’s piece. Her choices seem so deliberate and her commitment is unwavering. However, this is a piece that forces the audience to read into the action, and make their own interpretations, as Krotolica does not spell out anything for us.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

St. Petersburg Ballet presents "Russian Seasons"

The Mondavi Center was packed on Friday night for the St. Petersburg Ballet Theatre’s presentation of “Russian Seasons”. The company opened with “Chopiniana,” choreographed by Mikhail Fokine, which first premiered in St. Petersburg in 1908. At first, it took me awhile to adjust my eye to the pace of the romantic ballet and to the style of the company in general, as I have become accustomed to the “Western” ballet style dominated by Balanchine’s neo-classical aesthetic of precise athleticism, or more recently by William Fortsythe’s pyrotechnic articulations. Set to the music of Chopin, the piece consists of a series of gradually shifting tableaus, or frozen scenes that come to life slowly and subtly. The corps moves as a unit in architectural formations while several soloists emerge to portray “a young man’s dream”. But, it is far more abstract than the program notes led me to believe, and is best appreciated as a stylized movement poem of evolving landscapes, and a historical glimpse into the style of the world renown Russian Ballet company.

The next piece, “Scheherazade” with music by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and choreography by Yuri Petukhov is based on the tale of a sultan, his wife (Scheherazade) and the story she weaves to escape her execution and win the sultan’s heart. Relying heavily on pantomime, the ballet follows the star-crossed lovers of Scheherazade’s fairytale in a series of pas de deuxs. The young couple is fierce and spunky in their movement vocabulary, while Scheherazade and her Sultan are portrayed with a more lush, luxuriant movement style. The dancer portraying Scheherazade, while exhibiting impressive flexibility and facility, did not carry the emotional weight or phrasing depth I wished for in such a role. The young couple and the executioner infused the ballet with a shot of adrenaline, and displayed the great technique and energy I expected from the legendary Ballet Company.

The highlight of the evening, however, was Petukhov’s “Bolero” set to Maurice Ravel’s famous score. The dancers start hunched over and bunched tightly in a dim pool of light. A cappella, they circle slowly while beating out the familiar opening rhythm with their feet. As the melody begins, a single male dancer breaks away from the group. He is barely distinguishable at first, but his solo becomes more clearly defined as the ever brightening downward spotlight highlights his presence. More dancers begin to break away in a reverse circle, creating a whirlpool effect. The corps maintains the rhythm and the weight of the music on the perimeter, while the soloists articulate the melody with their fluid and dynamic movements on the interior. The back curtain slowly opens throughout the piece, revealing a bright red backdrop as the dance and music builds, culminating in a mass unison flourish. The original soloist exuded a clear charisma coupled with a powerful technique that was not seen from the company until this point. He took his superb technique a step further to transcendence. His phrasing choices and intense focus left me feeling energized and inspired.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Speak Theater Arts Provokes a Racial Dialogue with N*W*C*

Nigger, Wetback, Chink. How does it feel to see these words in print? To hear them spoken? To say them yourselves? They are three of the most offensive, racially charged, incendiary terms in our language. We wince at them because we know they are used to hurt, oppress, demean and devalue.

In Speak Theater Arts' show, "N*W*C*" at the Mondavi Center last week, writer/performers Miles Gregley, Rafael Agustin, and Allan Axibal toss around these terms as they share their experiences and thoughts about racial identity. They're not saying it's OK to use these terms. They're not giving anyone, including themselves, permission to use these words. Instead, by bombarding us with them, they seek to create a dialogue around the labels, how they are used, and how they affect people.

In their 90-minute, slickly produced drama, the three men trade testimonials in the form of role play, rap, slam poetry and hip hop - making us laugh, hurt, empathize and think. Their comedic timing and chemistry with one another make for an entertaining, accessible ride from start to finish.

They begin by pinpointing the moment each first encountered racial stereotypes and realized they were different. For Miles, it was while reading "Huck Finn" aloud in class. At the word "nigger," everyone around him winced and began acting weirdly towards him. That was the moment he "realized he was a nigger. Seemed like everyone else already knew." For Allan, it was when his grade school crush told him he was "too Chinese" to be Tom Cruise (he was convinced he looked just like him). And for Rafael, it was when his father yelled at him for speaking Spanish after witnessing a Mexican man being arrested while on vacation. His father meant, "don't speak Spanish right now" to be less conspicuous, but Rafael heard "don't speak Spanish ever again."

The three continue on, swapping tales from "the summer Miles became black" (by learning Ebonics and revamping his dress code/swagger) to "the year Rafael played his 'race card' and became Latino" (by playing up his diversity in a drama competition to win) to "the night Allan tested his sexuality" (by donning leather pants and visiting a gay club). Throughout these stories we see how racial stereotypes are used to oppress - by categorizing and limiting who certain people can or cannot be. We also see our characters fight the stereotypes, flaunt them, reject them, then embrace them as they incorporate them into their identity.

In a moving section, the men take turns listing all the reasons they would want to be the race of one of their friends. After hearing the affirmations, each is simultaneously flattered, yet frustrated, because even the positives represent a category into which they feel they should fit.

Overall, the play was surprisingly less aggressive than I thought it would be. It played well to the audience because it provoked through humor, inclusion and education rather than through discomfort. Miles, Rafael and Allan revealed some very personal stories, and while each story was unique, they were also universal. They were human stories, and they reminded us of our own lives and struggles with stereotypes of all kinds.

Do you have personal experiences with race/gender/ethnic/sexual orientation stereotypes? Post your experiences/feelings/struggles/ideas concerning stereotypes and your identity. Let's continue the dialogue Miles, Rafael and Allen started...

Monday, January 14, 2008

Empyrean Ensemble: Challenging expectations in tHe sPirIt oF CAGE

As I entered the Studio Theater at the Mondavi Center last Sunday to experience the Empyrean Ensemble, I felt as if I were entering a cafe/cabaret. Seating was set up around small round tables where the audience was welcome to enjoy their food and drinks during the show (Amen!). Since we were invited to join any table with a free chair, there was a wonderful co-mingling of patrons, which might not happen at either a show or a bar. The concert was the second event in the Creativity Project Series, and paid tribute to Merce Cunningham through a program inspired by John Cage, a frequent collaborator of his.

"You won't hear a thing; you'll hear everything" -- John Cage

The first piece, entitled "A Musicircus," was composed in 1967 by John Cage. It starts innocently enough as Thalia Moore earnestly launches into Bach's Cello Suites. Just as I begin getting lulled into the beauty of the piece, things begin to disrupt the melody. First, some plinking from the pianist, then some plunking from the percussionists, who play "found objects" like cacti, mugs full of hot water, and cookie tin lids up in the balcony. Standing in front of her iMac, Pamela Z creates a soundscape with her voice and dynamic gestures. Her BodySynth gesture controller allows her to instantaneously create and manipulate her sounds through her bodily movements. Boom boxes and violins roam the space, and a percussion band (seen and heard through the large window behind the performers) flourishes by. It was just what the title implied: a delightful circus of sound events.

Craig T. Walsh's world premiere of "Cookin' the Books" was next on the program. The three part piece was commissioned specifically for this event, and moved from a frenzy of energy created by the strings to a more epic Leonard Bernstein-esque musical soundtrack dominated by the piano, to a slow mysterious mood. Overall, it felt like a palimpsest of sound - melodies textured and piled upon percussion.

“It’s simply a question of what sounds we intend and what sounds we do not intend...But is this music?” -- John Cage

There's an old rule in writing stage plays: "If there's a gun on stage in the first act, fire it before the end of the second." "Inkless Imagination," a world premiere from Luciana Chessa, had an "everything and the kitchen sink" feel, and I was reminded of this stage rule as I stared at the incandescent light bulb sitting randomly on top of a ladder mid-stage. This piece, to me, was really about creating sounds with familiar objects. Sort of like Stomp (especially with the hanging arc of cooking pans played by the percussionist) mixed with Hollywood Foley artists and a dash of multimedia video. Some of the more interesting choices: an electric toothbrush used in lieu of a bow on a violin, and a remote control UFO (in the form of a Mylar balloon) which hovered noisily over the space. Sometimes I heard a sound and thought, "What made that sound?" then searched the stage for the culprit, and other times, I thought, "What is she going to do with that?" and was surprised by how familiar objects could produce innovative sounds. "Inkless Imagination" felt like Cage for the MTV generation. The sound collage was referential and whimsical, but, in the end it did create an experience of a surreal, almost Seussical journey, while posing the question, "What is an instrument?" Oh, and the incandescent bulb was indeed smashed at the end.

During intermission I had a chance to peruse the interactive installations set up throughout the lobby. In one, a space was partitioned off and filled with hundreds of crumpled up pieces of paper. Audience members walked through. Some stopped to frolick in the paper as if a child in a pile of leaves or a mound of snow. Some tossed the paper, others laid down and made "angels". In doing so, they created a soundscape of rustling paper and appreciative laughter. In another installation, a 20-foot tall piece of rebar emerged from a concrete base and PVC pipe. It was accompanied by a screwdriver and a hammer. Everyday building materials in another context, but here in the lobby of the Mondavi, in the hands of this audience, they became instruments. People "played" the installation alone and in teams - often with a vigor reminiscent of Lars Ulrich (drummer for Metallica). The other installations were a little more technical, but all had an interactive component where the audience members were responsible for creating sounds in one way or another. In the most interesting of these, there seemed to be a complex algorithm where different actions and inactions (pulling out drawers, lifting up tabs) created different sound scenarios. It seemed like a fun challenge to try to "figure out" the algorithm (which created an incentive to interact more with the exhibit). I was reminded of some of the new fancy children's play walkers with different shapes that, when pushed, pulled, twisted or bopped, create sounds and songs.

"There is no such thing as silence" - John Cage






That was my homage to Louis Horst's (blank New York Times) review of Paul Taylor's 1957 "Seven New Dances" (where he did nothing). But in the interest of discussion (and the Creativity Project), I will write more. Cage's 1952 composition, "4'33"" is simultaneously a listening exercise, and a dramatization of music performance. The performers (pianist and page turner) perform everything that goes into a musical piano performance. They come out, acknowledge the audience , and sit down in their chairs. The pianist takes a moment, then opens the piano. The expectations are clear: he will now play the piano. But he doesn't touch the keys . Instead he sits still, but remarkably focused. We listen. Instead of hearing what we expect (fingers hitting keys which then, through the mechanisms of the piano, transform into the sounds we have come expect to hear from the piano), we hear the audience shift, cough, giggle uncomfortably, and murmur to each other. The page turner turns the page. The pianist looks down at the piano and up at the sheet music intensely, then closes the lid. The page turner turns another page and the process repeats twice more. This theoretically goes on for 4 minutes and 33 seconds, though I'm not sure if anyone was actually timing. The piece not only makes the audience hyper-aware of sound, but it reverses the role of the musician. The soundscape is created by the audience, and the pianist gives the audience the silence and the space to create this soundscape. The reversal is somewhat akin to how Stephen Colbert mixes up the host/guest dynamic in his "Colbert Report".

"...have nothing to say and I am saying it and that is poetry"

Maybe it was how the cello moaned it's opening note, but "Coming Together" by Derek Bermel, to me, seemed to be a music visualization of what it would be like if a cow (cello) and a flamingo (clarinet) met in the street, flirted, got in a fight, decided to take a jog, then tossed back a few drinks.

Referencing Cage's use of chance and probability to structure his work, Pamela Z presented a wonderful world premiere composition for the Empyrean Ensemble appropriately titled "Twenty Answers". In it, the performers have to complete 20 tasks which are determined by the answers each receives from their Magic 8 ball. Text from the 8 balls ("It is decidedly so," "Signs point to yes," "Without a doubt no") fill the air. The musicians read these predictions aloud, stating them matter of factly, or with doubt in their voice, or in a whisper, or loud and emotionally. They play snippets of melodies, or create sounds by bumping the 8 ball against their instrument, or they sit in silence. Each time a performer offers a prediction, from "Ask again later," to "Don't count on it," the audience laughs...because we get it. Pamela Z unveils the composition process by stripping it down to a series of instructions. And we attach meaning to the words we hear. When someone whispers, "Outlook not so good" we can't help but project the questions we might have posed that could have elicited this response. And while it is accessible and fun to be sung our forecasts, the piece is ultimately successful because of the way the instrumentals are layered with this text. Over the arc of the piece, the music creates a changing emotional landscape off of which these words bounce or are absorbed.

Throughout the evening, the Empyrean Ensemble paid tribute to the style, ideas and spirit of John Cage. They unpacked the meaning of music by throwing into question what we think of sound, music, instruments, composers and musicians. By doing so, the audience became part of the creative process. We helped literally create music, both with through our actions and through the way we processed the disjointed information they provided. In doing so, the Empyrean Ensemble truly accomplished the goal of the Creativity Project: "to engage audience members in a deeper relationship with contemporary art by creating a context for understanding how that work came to be."