“There certainly is a lot of stuff here,” Rinde Eckert mused aloud as he gazed around the cluttered stage at the outset of My Fools, his retrospective show that highlighted the closing night of this year’s Time Based Arts Festival. Framed by a desk on one end and a piano on the other, the stage at Portland’s Winningstad Theater boasted costumes, props of various species, a projection screen, MacBook, rows of little cards mounted on sticks that he carried to each “station” on the stage as he performed there, and above all a wide array of musical instruments. All attested to the New York based solo performer’s vast range of skills and artistic creations. For the next hour, we wondered: with all that stuff strewn about, what was he going to do next?
If anyone is entitled to a Greatest Hits show, it’s Eckert, the supremely versatile singer/writer/instrumentalist/performer/director who, over three decades and more than five dozen works (averaging two per year) has been making some of the era’s most original performance art. We soon realized that the busy stage was meant to evoke the multidisciplinary artist’s fecund career, and possibly his richly furnished mind. So, yes, a lot of stuff indeed.
And yet, Eckert is hardly a Greatest Hits kinda guy. Beginning with his 1980s collaborations with composer Paul Dresher in Seattle, he’s assumed a different persona for every show, so any retrospective is necessarily incoherent. Even Eckert himself seemed bemused by his prolificacy, shuffling around barefoot, digging through the pockets of the rumpled light grey suit I saw him wear during his gripping PICA-sponsored performance of And God Created Great Whales years ago, pulling out scraps of paper that he pretended to consult to remind him what part of the stage he should move to next, what piece of his prodigious performance past he should resurrect. The avant garde theater icon came off as kind of sweetly absent-minded putterer in his the workshop of his memory.
Of course, it was all an act designed to overcome that coherence problem by framing each little episode as part of a larger artistic project. One scrap posited a theater idea in which an artist wanders the stage pulling ideas from his pockets. “How long will the audience wait for an explanation of the artist’s behavior?” another scrap supposedly read. “And what if he were to pick up a guitar?”
Eckert wisely dropped the self-referential meta-frame before the joke wore thin, assuming the role of a reliable, relaxed (so relaxed that the show stretched to double its announced 50 minute runtime), good humored narrator of his own career. As he traversed his earlier incarnations, Eckert occasionally slipped into various guises — an Irish-brogued incarnation of the spirit of his big inspiration Samuel Beckett, a demagogue, etc. Images from various past productions ran continuously on an upstage monitor facing the audience.
Like Eckert’s renowned voice, the music (titles not listed in the program, probably because Eckert decides in the moment which pieces to perform on a given night) covered a range: electric and acoustic blues, Reynaldo Hahn chanson, opera, American and Euro-folk, Hindustani, and various gradations between. And instruments, from euphonium to Shruti box harmonium, piano to South American flute, scarlet accordion to Boy Scout drum and frame drum, tuned woodblocks played with mallet, and a squadron of guitars — slide, another electric, a handmade pint sized acoustic. That last one came with an interesting history that he explained with trademark self-deprecating wryness.
Such behind-the-scenes anecdotes, often humorous, made the show as worthwhile as the music, at least for the Eckert fans — of whom he has many in Portland thanks to previous performances — who doubtless made up the majority of attendees. But My Fools seems unlikely to prove satisfying as an introductory overview for newbies, because as powerful a singer and stage presence as he is, what makes Eckert most valuable is the characters he develops and the big stories he tells in such slant ways. Those qualities are hard to discern in snippets, no matter how engaging and abundant. The evening reminded me of listening to a singles collection from a band renowned for its concept albums, or one of those anthologies of excerpts from novels, or stills from films. They reveal the artist’s skills but as a whole fail to satisfy the way the big picture did.
Maybe that’s why Eckert was so generous in providing so many deep cuts. As audience members began streaming out in order to make the next TBA event on the crowded last-night schedule (maybe not realizing that TBA officials communicate with each other to hold later curtains in such circumstances), Eckert apologized for overstaying his welcome. No reason to be sorry. It produced oddest ending in memory: instead of the performer leaving the stage followed by the audience’s departure, Eckert continued singing and playing, standing alone on that stuff-strewn stage, until almost everyone else had left the building.
Ups and Downs
Including me, as I skedaddled down Portland’s Park Blocks to Portland State University’s Lincoln Performance Hall to catch Alessandro Sciarroni’s UNTITLED_I will be there when you die. According to the program’s description, “Sciarroni’s performances try to uncover obsessions, fears, and fragilities through the repetition of a practice at the limits of physical endurance….Each repetition abstracts the performers’ movements, opening the possibilities of seeing the larger picture: flight, failure, kinetic potential. Stripping away the trappings of the circus, Sciarroni lays bare the essential vocabulary of juggling and the medium’s fixation on practice, discipline, and concentration. Every toss and every catch marks the passage of time….”
I hope the pretentious description and show title didn’t scare off anyone who would have simply enjoyed this aero-balletic, athletic performance simply for its beauty, subtext be damned. I suppose artists need to clothe their work in such art-speak to score a grant or a place in one of the many stops on the world fringe fest circuit; Sciarroni’s work has been performatived in two dozen countries including such venues as Brussels’ Kunstenfestivaldesarts, Vienna’s Impulstanz Festival, Venice Biennale, Paris’s Festival Séquence Danse and more, the program informed us. And who knows, if I hadn’t been so transfixed by the sheer thrill of what was happening onstage, I might have had time to ponder these larger notions, undistracted (as happens too often at some high concept shows) by actual entertainment. But I was too busy being astounded.
Because what this [grant application language alert!] “performative reflection on the passing of time” amounted to, in practice, was some fucking amazing juggling.
Four casually clad guys walk on a stage as barren as Eckert’s was overstuffed, stand roughly at each corner of the stage facing the audience for long enough to make you realize that this is by god ART and not mere entertainment, then one throws a white object resembling bowling pin up high up in the air with one hand, and catches it with the other.
Gradually, they add more pins, one at a time, sometimes two at a time, up to four (and once five) pins moving at once, times four jugglers. Occasionally one drops a pin (intentionally or otherwise was never clear), stifles a look of disappointment, turns to stare at the others briefly, retrieves it, and starts tossing again. Some smile.
At first they seem disconnected then at certain points they’re throwing at the same time. The soft plop plop of pins landing in hands provides percussion augmenting the live-mixed score performed by Sciarroni sitting just in front of the stage at a table with keyboard, electronic accoutrements and even a turntable bearing an LP upon which squats a little toy animal rotating with it.
The tosses continue, hundreds and probably thousands all told over the course of an hour. Up, down, up down, left, right, left right, at first just one at a time, gradually getting more coordinated. Now multicolored lights and shadows are projected, they’re walking as they toss, some throwing pins that others catch. Out in the audience, I hear gasps, chuckles, but mostly we’re too fixated on the fusillade of flying pins before us to pay attention to much else.
At one point there’s a pause (giving the sweating jugglers a rest) as one juggler precariously perches a pin on his forehead while the others watch. Then the pin ballet resumes, the moves growing more complex, more moves (behind the back, across the shoulders, pivoting while constantly tossing, hundreds of tosses and catches before the evening’s over), the throws getting lower and lower (which means less time to react and much faster tempos), the music accordingly increasing in intensity and volume, they’re pivoting, the rhythms multiplying, they’re walking they’re dancing it’s all going sofastandintenseand finally … it’s over.
Sciarrini jumps onstage to take his deserved bows with the jugglers as the audience applauds with unforced enthusiasm. And we walk out into the suddenly calm night, smiling, shaking our heads, bedazzled by the artful athleticism we’ve just experienced. Was it Art? Who knows? It moved me, us. That’s what matters.
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