Risk/Reward 2014 in Review

Out on the edge of the edge, the annual festival takes the risk of rising or falling off the cliff

There’s nothing quite like the Risk/Reward Festival, the annual independently curated showcase of six 20-minute West Coast performance art pieces that runs three times in Portland in one glorious June weekend. (Well, PICA’s TBA is a bit like it…but much more sprawling: R/R remains concise).

The Neutral Fembot Project took on Cindy Sherman's wig fetish with irrepressible zeal.

The Neutral Fembot Project took on Cindy Sherman’s wig fetish with irrepressible zeal.

If you missed it last weekend, don’t fret; the Risk/Reward organization has started sponsoring a few longer shows, so you can still plan way ahead to catch local choreographer Allie Hankins’ Like A Sun That Pours Forth Light But Never Warmth on Oct. 24-26. Meanwhile, ArtsWatch presents a pretty thorough play-by-play of the pieces below. From a pregnancy belly backpack to an exploding bag of Cheerios, this year’s show was full of surprises. It also revealed a few trends, like cis-woman self-parody and distorted dance music, while honoring a couple of perennial performance-art favorites: looping pedals! nudity!

Risk/Reward’s festival director, Jerry Tischleder, once explained his curatorial philosophy to me:

Often the work artists propose has yet to be premiered. Since we don’t know what we’re going to get, we just choose based on which ideas fascinate us the most. In the end, some of the artists will come up with something out of the blue that’s totally amazing, and some will fall flat on their face. Either way, since each piece only lasts about 20 minutes, unlike a play or a longer work, the audience isn’t “locked in”—and neither is the performer. By the way, you’re allowed to accept or reject any artist’s presentation based on whether or not it connects for you, even if their intention is very serious. It’s not like you’re trying to kill somebody’s puppies.

With that in mind, as well as all due respect for the bravery, resourcefulness, and commitment it takes to create any performance art piece, let’s revisit Risk/Reward 2014:

 

Laura Heit’s
The Letting Go

Risk/Reward’s curators have shown consistent (and regionally appropriate) appreciation for the art of puppetry, first inviting puppeteer Kyle Loven to perform a moon-gazing short in 2011, then sponsoring his return with the 75-minute Loss Machine this spring.

In this year’s regular showcase, puppet artist Laura Heit presented a work that brought to mind Loven’s first: black-and-white, spooky-sweet. She also shares an oblique connection to the recent (unaffiliated) release of Lessons Learned: both she and that film’s creator, Toby Froud, got a boost from the Jim Henson Foundation.

At the start of Heit’s show, several sets of white paper dollhouses were arrayed onstage like a cluster of Christmas villages. Around them hovered four black-clad puppet technicians, a big-screen projection, and a live violist with a looping pedal array. Heit narrated her ghostly tale in a few words: “B,” a guy Heit was dating years back, was haunted by a female ghost, or succubus. This mysterious being hectored her, B’s girlfriend, with typical ghost tricks like turning off lights and hiding Heit’s clothes while she slept. Both Heit and B believed that the ghost was trying to “suck” B’s soul from his body, and on one distressing night, Heit awoke to find a sheet tied around her feet. While most puppet work is proudly fictitious, Heit claims that this particular story is true.

Believers and skeptics alike would easily be “sucked in” by Heit’s bleakly beautiful, childishly simple storytelling. While Jordan Dykstra tastefully layered eerie moans of viola (with a sensibility similar to Alicia Jo Rabins’ recent Kadish for Bernie Madoff), the puppeteers and Heit crept from one paper house to the next, shining flashlights and floating paper figures into the shadowy little rooms, projecting each scene onto the big screen and, through some mysterious device, melding the live elements with Peter Ksander’s animations of ghostly swimming silhouettes on a black background.

Each black-and-white set held a bed and a puppet of B, and hosted a flying white specter with a flowing skirt and hair. Some, but not all, of the beds also hosted a puppet of Heit. Otherwise, the sets varied in scale and detail, allowing the same scene to be shot from different angles, with varying focal points. One rotating tableau of the neighborhood provided a long-distance bird’s eye view, one version of the house unfolded its rooms accordion-style, some larger puppets of boots and feet skittered along the floor to lend the story suspense. At one point, Heit stood so that the live shadow of her legs aligned with the legs of her puppet projection while puppeteers bound her (and her likeness’s) ankles together in a white sheet. Somewhat reminiscent of TBA:12’s animator/performer/projection trickster Miwa Matreyek, this wizardry that synergized live action with onscreen images was a highlight.

 

The Neutral Fembot Project’s
Untitled #__________

A space alien who researched humanity strictly by attending performance art shows (stick with me) might surmise that drag queens know the most about human femininity. Certainly past performances at Risk/Reward and TBA could contribute to that impression, as the likes of SissyBoy alum Kaj-Anne Pepper have assumed, then dismantled, the poses of womanhood. However, this year at R/R, cis-women (which is to say, lifelong ladyparts-havers) lampooned their own gender roles as gleefully as the savviest queen in the biggest boa, starting with…

…Camille Cettina, Anne Sorce, and Grace Carter, who preened, posed, and mugged while changing wigs and clothes in an homage to seminal performance-disguise-artist Cindy Sherman. Sorce and Cettina are two thirds of Push Leg Productions, which memorably adapted Edward Hopper’s iconic painting Nighthawks into a silent movement-theater piece in 2012/13 and is currently devising a new movement tryptich, Hook Line & Sinker. Grace Carter is an actor and filmmaker about town.

Program notes also credited contemp-dance maven Linda Austin, who was in attendance, and photographer Holly Andres, whose influence showed. Andres has spoken before about her affinity for shooting subjects with “mannered” hands: graceful, feminine poses lifted from religious and Renaissance art that are so exaggerated and expressive they’d practically pass for moudras. Carter at least has worked with Andres before, and the whole trio put on “mannered,” self-conscious, hyper-feminine airs along with their glamorous garb.

As the piece progressed, the electronic music distorted. The Fembots also let more of their devices show. Between wigs, they flashed stocking-covered heads. Between outfits, they showed more underclothes. They floundered around with comical props (egg cartons, beer can, suitcase) and applied makeup with frantic, fitful intensity. They donned some of Sherman’s more gender-ambivalent clothes and their corresponding characters with deranged excitement, as if discovering them for the first time through a haze of manic delusion.

Is Sherman herself elated, maybe even manic, each time she changes form? Possibly…but her statements about her work, the precision of her process, and the long span of her career suggest less impulsive giddiness than careful calibration. Sure, some of her images are cartoonish, but more are mysterious, vulnerable and haunting, brought to life by mixed motivations. While the Neutral Fembot Project delivered a few drag-queen-worthy homages to Sherman’s characters, it also reduced her artistic exploration of identity to a frivolous game of dress-up … and though the performance was entertaining, the pose was unflattering.

 

Ilvs Strauss’s
Manifesto

Ilvs Strauss has a knack for simultaneously self-aggrandizing and self-effacing. In Everything Everything Everything, a long storytelling session with music breaks that  she performed with Wesley K. Andrews last October at Action/Adventure, she humble-bragged about wearing a tiger costume to the park and heroically pursuing romance with a shallow straight girl. Manifesto carries over some of those motifs (animal costume, check), but this time Strauss shows as well as tells, and her inner monologue has vastly matured. Musings about beer, crushes and sneaking into festivals have subsided, making room for the significant dilemma of whether or not to bear a child.

Strauss performed a silent movement routine to her own voice-over narration, creating the impression that we were hearing her thoughts and she was acting on them. In a boyish vest-suit, she busted debonair moves to a record-skip sample of Natural Woman. Her disembodied voice-over comically recounted an early childhood memory of waiting for a red sea cucumber to poop, then more seriously confessed her lack of desire to have children. Strauss’s expressive brow and body followed the verbal prompts, emphasizing each individual thought. At a certain point, Strauss broadened the topic to the “feminine muscle” she might flex to create … not only life, but things. Declaring herself “hella [creatively] pregnant,” she instructed the audience to “Wait right here!” and ran offstage, re-emerging in a giant, red, spiky, homemade sea cucumber costume.

Acknowledging that it was phallic, Strauss explained that she also saw it as vulvic, and proceeded to: a) shoot spring-loaded snakes from the costume while doing a victory dance; b) emerge from it semi-nude and curled in a fetal position, in a kind of simulated self-birth; and, c) extract her next costume change from it (to the probable delight of the Neutral Fembots). Now she wore gray beachcomber clothes and blew a conch, and discussed the only circumstances under which she might consider pregnancy: if she were the last woman on earth, or if her sister wanted a baby and required a surrogate. “It’s only nine months!” she reckoned, donning a backpack retrofitted with a stuffed khaki pregnancy belly and saggy cargo-pocket breasts. Even now, she distanced herself from the condition by wearing it backwards, hefting it as a necessary burden that a strong tomboy should be willing to bear. Boys’ choir, whales’ chorus, and the sounds of surf finally carried Strauss’s stream of consciousness offstage … but her choice of props had left indelible mental images of a universal real-life dilemma.

 

Erin Pike’s
That’swhatshesaid

(Ednote: Initially misremembered as a sendup of Hollywood scripts, this piece actually culled its material from America’s most-produced plays. The following is amended with strikethroughs to reflect updates. We all make mistakes.)

Stagehands draped the set in tulle … mostly white, with one or two splashes of ominous red. Little round tables covered in white cloths, a wine glass. Prom? Wedding? Menses? Murder? Erin Pike was about to confront new dramady clichés head-on by reciting a list of one-liners and character descriptors that Courtney Meaker had compiled from real-life movie and TV theater scripts.

As a passage of Christina Aguilera’s What A Girl Wants blasted, then distorted, then decayed (a lot of this treatment going aroud…), Pike strode confidently onstage in a cheap pink evening gown clutching a stack of headshots, all of the same actress. She seemed to be reading casting ads in a rapid-fire cadence: Name. Age. Terse description of ethnicity or body type. Perhaps most tellingly, relationship to the main character: Sister. Aunt. Girlfriend. After each one, she flung one of the headshots onto the floor. Many were defaced by Sharpie doodles: Hitler Mustache. Blackened tooth. Penis. The indignity.

Once the headshots were out of her hands, Pike’s monologue mutated from casting calls to actual script lines, and she changed her voice and stance with whiplash rapidity to match each one. Many, interestingly, were self-descriptive, peppered with “I ams,” and “I’m nots.” Still spewing lines, she toyed with props: a wine glass, an invisible dog leash, an old-fashioned telephone. Somewhere along the way, the dress came off. In rhinestone bra-cups and a bow-backed peekaboo thong, Pike revealed a svelte, youthful body that conforms to industry standards…and continued to make an industry-appropriate ass of herself with trite lines and fake crying, dousing her face in water from an eyedropper and letting her false eyelashes droop onto her fevered cheeks.

One has to wonder whether the male equivalent of this display would be more dignified, or equally, differently, ridiculous. Where women are scripted women to natter on about themselves and beg pitifully for acceptance and love, men also get plenty of terrible tripe: “Always be closing”-inspired salesman bluster, for instance, has run its course but keeps arising. Perhaps in some sectors male character cliches seem cooler … but from a performance-art-fest-goer’s perspective, they’re at least as far short of relevant discourse as any sad-girl shenanigans.

But that’s outside the purview of Pike’s presentation, which made its point: Here’s a big, concentrated dose of what Hollywood theater makes women look like right now. Can you take it?

 

Lucy Lee Yim’s
Devastation Melody

Lucy Lee Yim is part of what may be the fringiest faction of local modern dance, with Tahni Holt, Linda K. Johnson, and FLOCK at Disjecta. Naturally, her creative process would ask: Why dance to music when you can dance to words? Why articulate those words when you could grunt sounds? Why sounds at all, when silence is available? Push push push against norms and expectations, toward originality and abstraction. Further out, and further.

Yim’s costume, oddly, seemed über-traditional, cutting a figure that would easily blend in with a Japanese woodblock print. Her hair fell in long, straight pigtails with bangs; she wore black, loose-fitting culottes and a baggy blouse, accented by two trailing ends of red ribbon on one side of her waist. Her moves, however, were modern, with hints of Graham technique: splayed arms, head-in-hands hunches, flat, bare, folkdance feet.

“My eyes are burning; my thighs are burning!” she repeatedly yelled with increasing urgency. Yim jogged in place, then stomp-shuffled, side-galloped, retreated from the audience toward the back wall.

She gathered her hair, threw it over one shoulder, and let it fall forward again in a gesture of seeming self-flagellation. As she repeated the move, a voice-over chanted “Hate, hate, hate,” then possibly “AIDS?”…then “Ate, eat, eh, uh, age,” as she flattened herself to the floor. Coming up gradually, she swung her head pendulum-like to brush her hair across the floor. “Jjjj,” proclaimed the voice-over as she rose into a skip-hop and left the stage.

Applause.

Pause.

“Still going here. Thank you,” Yim interjected, returning to the stage with a bulging white trashbag, beginning a new mini-monologue that became a repeated refrain:

“I sit at home, in your room, in your bed, gazing at your pillow.”

Yim bent and tied her head into the bag, her rhythmic breaths expanding and contracting the plastic. A simulation of suicide? The room was pregnant with suspense until the bag burst, spilling its contents (Cheerios) onto the black stage floor. Vomit? Brain-splosion?

A seeming external expression of a very personal journey, Yim’s dynamic dance revealed romantic humiliation, self-sacrifice, and catharsis beyond words.

 

PETE (Portland Experimental Theatre Ensemble)’s
(after thought)

Where Yim’s work, inscrutable though it was, had variety and trajectory, PETE’s piece seemed suspended and stalled … maybe even more “unfinished” than its devisors admitted in program notes. It did the least with the most people, and even though all R/R pieces were subject to the same time limit, this one seemed to drag on the longest. Pity, really, especially since in this lineup’s wealth of feminine exploration, it was the only piece purported to be about “boys.”

The co-ed PETE ensemble wore sneakers, brown pants, and blue button-ups. A wide dash of—talc? chalk? sand?—swept along the front of the stage. Two “boys” stood nearest the symbolic dune, dipping their hands into it as Mark Valadez gradually built a swelling wall of staticky guitar noise behind them.

Though it echoed “Letting Go” with its live-looped soundscape, After Thought demonstrated the worst pitfall of that musical form: too many layers creating distortion, degrading structure, homogenizing into tinnitus-tainted mud. Valadez’s soundscape gradually ramped up from ambient and got stuck on grating—not in a chakra-piercing, epiphany-forcing, transcendental butoh way; closer to the “OSHA stipulates that we’re allowed ear protection” zone. The style is not unprecedented, but it’s a form of loop pedal use that seems to have already crested and waned. PETE thanks Ryan Cross and Us Lights for their support, so a great next step in this piece’s refinement might be asking further guidance from those fastidious musical folks.

The choreography was appropriately boyish and cohesive unto itself, with wide stances, some leaping and some convulsing, and some synchronized doubled-over wracking that could pass for barfing? laughing? coughing? head-banging? It was fairly mysterious what the lead “boys” (Jacob Coleman and Judson Williams) were doing with the sand, and what their movements meant to the rest of the crew. Changes in lighting created some compelling moments: when front- and back-lit modes toggled, the ensemble froze. But the piece simply went on too long to sustain the audience’s interest in such a limited repertoire of non-narrative stimuli. Back to the drawing board, boys.

 

 

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