Risk/Reward 2016: Creative tensions

Multi-disciplinary performance festival explores the contrasts between multimedia elements

Ah, summer: that season when the only arts our sun-drunk brains are capable of handling are explosion-laden superhero films and simplistic beach read books. Or so the entertainment-industrial complex would have us believe.

Not in Portland. Portland Center Stage devotes its annual July Just Add Water festival to workshop readings of new plays in progress. The end-of-summer Time Based Art Festival is dedicated to edgy, category-free performance and visual art developed by fringe festival-style artists from around the world. The city’s season of experimentation really gets started with the annual Risk/Reward Festival of New Performance, “a developmental platform for the creation of new performance works,” according to its mission statement, which cites criteria including “adventurous,” immersive,” and “cross-disciplinary”; it’s like a mini-TBA Festival, but geared exclusively to artists from our region.

Anthony Hudson as Carla Rossi at 2016 Risk/Reward Festival, Photo: Chelsea Petrakis.

Anthony Hudson as Carla Rossi at 2016 Risk/Reward Festival,
Photo: Chelsea Petrakis.

This year’s ninth annual edition, which ran June 17-19 at the valuable arts hub at Portland’s Artists Repertory Theatre, showcased new works whose quality and appeal often matched and sometimes surpassed those higher-profile incubators. The most successful drew their power, and often their humor, from the interaction of two or more media forms—artistic friction that struck sparks.

Container

The festival jolted to a start with Vancouver, British Columbia-based dance artist Vanessa Goodman’s solo, Container. An initial fragment of cheesy retro Euro-pop music (which would return later) gave way to an appropriately tense electronic score by Vancouver’s Loscil. Along with simple, dramatic lighting by Vancouver’s James Proudfoot, it made an effective setting for Goodman’s herky-jerky movements (sometimes reminiscent of David Byrne’s dance spasms in Stop Making Sense) as she lurched around a constricted section of the stage, giving an unsettling impression of someone trapped in a confusing, ominous cell, as the title suggested.

Vanessa Goodman starred in 'Container' at Portland's 2016 Risk/Reward Festival. Photo: Chelsea Petrakis.

Vanessa Goodman starred in ‘Container’ at Portland’s 2016 Risk/Reward Festival. Photo: Chelsea Petrakis.

Over the course of four sections, the mood lightened a bit, especially after Goodman donned a white shift (or did it suggest a hospital gown?). Eventually, the Europop returned, and her movements gradually grew more orderly, suggesting a narrative involving a character confronting changing circumstances.

Despite Goodman’s astonishing technique, it’s hard for any soloist to sustain interest over 20 minutes under such constrained conditions: Goodman’s intentionally limited but unifying twitchy physical vocabulary and use of such a small slice of the stage. Still, I’d certainly check out anything this vital artist has to offer.

 Looking for Tiger Lily

Goodman’s program note referring to “heritage, culture, and resilience” suggested an interpretation of her dance as a metaphorical depiction of adapting identity to culture—an idea taken up more explicitly in Anthony Hudson’s solo multimedia theater piece Looking for Tiger Lily.

Well known for playing with identity in his recurring role as satirical drag clown Carla Rossi (who got a cameo here), Hudson’s new first-person work-in-progress draws on his Native American heritage, including some absolutely hilarious family photos revealing how different he looks from other relatives whose ethnicity is more obvious. Although he spent most of it in his own skin, not Carla’s, this autobiographical multimedia show resounded with the virtues of his Carla performances: sly juxtaposition of narrative and projected video/still imagery (a la John Oliver routines, you’ll love this), scorching wit, and a brilliant ability to keep audiences off balance. Just when you’re laughing out loud, Hudson/Carla suddenly reels you back in with a devastating, non-pontificating reference to the injustice, identity crises, and vulnerability young “half breeds” (yes, there’s a non-gratuitous Cher sighting) face. Then—whiplash!—he’s got you cackling again, this time a little uneasily.

Anthony Hudson in 'Looking for Tiger Lily' in 2016 Risk/Reward Festival at Artists Repertory Theatre, Photo Chelsea Petrakis.

Anthony Hudson in ‘Looking for Tiger Lily’ in 2016 Risk/Reward Festival at Artists Repertory Theatre. Photo: Chelsea Petrakis.

America’s unconscionable mistreatment of its native population, from military repression to mid-century media misrepresentation, is easy enough to skewer and spoof, but Looking for Tiger Lily ventures beyond easy black-, er, make that red-and-white distinctions, exploring more complex and personal dimensions of growing up caught between cultures. Touching on Disney’s Peter Pan, mid-century cigar-box Indian depictions, the absurdity of racial classification, and poignant family memories, Looking for Tiger Lily promises to be one of those rare identity-oriented shows that might actually appeal to audiences much broader than than those directly implicated. I can’t wait to see whether and how Hudson sustains its humor and emotional impact over the course the full show at Portland’s Hollywood Theatre September 30-August 1.

Milton Lim/Hong Kong Exile performed at 2016 Risk/Reward Festival. Photo : Chelsea Petrakis.

Milton Lim/Hong Kong Exile performed at 2016 Risk/Reward Festival. Photo: Chelsea Petrakis.

okay.odd.

“Breathe. Let go. Focus.” Another Vancouver, BC, performer, theatre director/designer Milton Lim (who’s the theatrical third of the tripartite multimedia company Hong Kong Exile), served up another single-narrator performance, one the program note accurately called “part spiritual retreat, part commentary on our image-inundated, affect-obsessed society.”

Slyly disguised as one of those guided mindfulness  meditation sessions led by a soothing-voiced narrator,okay.odd bombarded viewers with a rapid fire fusillade of projected (not so) free-association words and eventually images. As with Hudson’s show, much of the humor derived from the contrast between what you’re hearing and what you’re seeing.

Like much minimalism (and Goodman’s piece), okay.odd drew its monomaniacal intensity from the repetitive, single-minded power of its concept. It’s almost exhaustingly compelling, which I guess is part of the point. The program called this incarnation the “short length session,” and unless the longer version (which premiered in British Columbia earlier this year) brings in some different elements, I’m not sure how much more I could take of what’s basically a one-trick show, brilliant though that trick is. But it certainly makes me want to see where else Lim might take it.

Milton Lim/Hong Kong E Artists Repertory Theatre, Photo by Chelsea Petrakis

Milton Lim/Hong Kong Exile’s ‘okay.odd’ at Portland’s Artists Repertory Theatre. Photo: Chelsea Petrakis.

SNKR

The most substantial creation on this year’s Risk/Reward festival, this duo performance by composer Seth Nehil and video artist Kelly Rauer (both familiar figures on Portland’sp avant art scene) was also the most elaborate and fully realized. An interaction between installation, live manipulated sound, video and some movement, SNKR really has to be experienced live to be fully appreciated.

Rauer expressionlessly strolled across the stage scattered with accoutrements like metal bowls, deploying duct tape, sheet metal, and microphone dragged across the floor, while Nehil recorded, looped and otherwise electronically manipulated the resulting sounds, constructing a soundscape. Rauer’s movements onstage echoed some of the projected action, sundering the barrier between screen and stage, recorded and live action.

SNKR at 2016 Risk/Reward Festival, Artists Repertory Theatre. Photo: Chelsea Petrakis.

SNKR ingeniously amalgamated these seemingly prosaic elements into an absorbing, often delightful polyvalent entertainment. There was always something worth paying attention to, and I was always wondering what was going to happen next.

Doin’ It right

In contrast to the crisp professionalism of the rest of the show, Risk/Reward 2016’s closing work, Seattle choreographer (and analytical chemist) ilvs strauss’s Doin’ it Right (the title of the Daft Punk song that became a recurring motif between each scene shift and an earworm for days after) was easily the most intentionally amateurish of the whole lineup — and I mean that in a good way.

Ilvs Strauss, 'Doin' it Right' at Risk/Reward Festival. Photo by Chelsea Petrakis

Ilvs Strauss, ‘Doin’ it Right’ at Risk/Reward Festival. Photo: Chelsea Petrakis.

A silent quartet of identically dressed dancers enacted or reacted to several voiced-over stories about relationships — between lovers, parent and child, and more. Their relaxed, ingenuous movements conveyed a loose, inviting vibe, like we were in the midst of a group of friends chatting about their lives, but through movement rather than verbally. There’s not much more to the concept; emotional connection, humor and art emerged in the subtleties of the performers’ facial and physical expressions juxtaposed with the narrated text.

If Doin’ it Right felt like it came from a completely different, perhaps less daring artistic source than the other acts, it also ended the festival with a welcome warmth and charm that nicely balanced and complemented the sharper, often chillier cutting edginess of the other entries—the reward the audience had earned by taking those risks with the other artists. It helped Risk/Reward ignite Portland’s summer of experimentation like sparks from a warm campfire.

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