TBA:11/Rachid Ouramdane + Juniper/Zoe: slap, crackle, pop

Zoe/Juniper "A Crack in Everything" at TBA:11.

The last weekend of Portland Institute for Contemporary Art’s Time-Based Art festival, both Rachid Ouramdane and Zoe/Juniper supplied some of the conceptual rigor that maybe the festival had been lacking until they arrived. I say “maybe” because I didn’t see everything.

Portland’s indigenous contemporary art tends to be more informal and improvisational (although tEEth’s “Home Made,” also in the festival and a major local hit, is an important exception).  So, to see creations that crackled with layers of stage wizardry and never digressed from their intentions was a little startling.

The themes of both Ouramdane’s “World Fair” and Juniper/Zoe’s “A Crack in Everything” were familiar, though. For the past couple of decades our artists have been warning  us that something has gone wrong — as individuals we are isolated, disconnected, crumbling from within at the same time we bristle against each other at our boundaries. Of course, different artists work this theme in different ways and they have different “answers.” Are we just that way naturally? Or is this particular culture more prone to the condition?

Rachid Ouramdane, “World Fair,” Friday night, Winningstad Theatre: I could spend a few thousand words describing the set, the effects and the action “World Fair,” even though it was a one-man show accompanied by a one-man band (Jean-Baptiste Julien). Ouramdane also enlisted the help of a lighting designer, video artist and set builder. So, yes, it’s complicated.

Rachid Ouramdane in "World Fair" at TBA:11/PICA Press Corps

The show starts with Ouramdane standing on a turntable, spinning. After quite a bit of that, just to settle us down maybe, he dismounts, takes off his shirt and starts making big arm “signals,” very precise and very muscular. A long pole with a light at one end (and a camera) and weights at the other dominates the middle of the stage, hanging from a cable and slowly spinning and bobbing. Ouramdane continues his semaphore and gradually it gets more complicated. But we have no idea what it “means” — we don’t have the code book.

This turned out to be a sign of things to come. De-coding anything in the show specifically was difficult. The music ranged from the atmospheric (usually gloomy, sometimes hectic) to something resembling electronica and even punk. And Ouramdane’s movements often seemed like those of the punk stars of the ‘70s, lurching and collapsing, on the brink of out-of-control and then all the way and then falling to the ground motionless.

Meanwhile, video projections filled screens on amplifiers on stage and one that Ouramdane had raised in the corner of the stage. These were usually head shots of Ouramdane wearing various colors of face paint, which again seemed symbolic, but of what?

Without a specific referent, we were still able to get the gist of the show, which both showed how the “perfect” body functions within the machine of society and how it subverts that coercion. The drama came from the props, really. That long pole, a spinning little radar-like machine a the front of the stage, the turntable, the video screens — each imposed itself on the stage, demanding attention both from Ouramdane and us.

Something more complicated than “man versus machine” or “man versus society” was going on, I sensed, maybe something about complicity. Ouramdame left us with lots of images to consider in the future.

Zoe/Juniper, “A Crack in Everything,” Saturday night, Lincoln Hall:  Again, a description of all the effects would take up a lot of space. This show has two different scrims, one with a transparent plastic of some sort behind it. We saw dancing in front of both scrims, between the scrims and behind the back scrim (if I remember correctly). We saw videos on both scrims. The front scrim was removed and the plastic behind it raised to frame the top of the proscenium at one point. A row of stage-level lights at the back occasionally back lit the dancing and blinded the audience for a few seconds.

Zoe/Juniper's "A Crack in Everything"/PICA's Press Corps

Costume designer Eric Andor created gold and black garments, some close-fitting with shiny gold patterns on them and some more like robes.  The dancers also sported gold helmets that fit snugly on their heads without covering their faces.

The program notes stated: “The installation and performance are meditations on moments that divide people’s lives into these linear experiences of time, and how our memory can create its own separate physical life, space, and time.” That sounds more like a subject for a long essay, actually, and what I saw was more like the enacting of a set of related myths, without the benefit of knowing what the myths were “about.” Yes! A little like the same feeling I got with Ouramdane.

The movement, choreographed by Zoe Scofield (Juniper Shuey shares artistic direction with Scofield and also is the production/technical director), who is also one of the dancers, reminded me of recreations I’ve seen of Nijinsky’s “Afternoon of a Faun” (also the helmets) — neo-classical modern, semi-balletic, complex and twisting, with long strides broken by inward turns. It was also expressive, and sometimes I thought of Martha Graham and those big, dramatic gestures. The “mythic” element (unmistakable, really — of the dancers is shrouded completely and acts as a sort of “force” acting against the dancers) also reminded me of Graham, with one major difference.

Graham told specific stories with specific heroines and heroes, usually tragic. “A Crack in Everything” has episodes, not a single story, and it doesn’t have a single heroine, either. (The website mentions “The Oresteia,” which must have been an original inspiration.) The dancers are more “abstract” than that; we don’t follow them as individuals at all.

So, what’s the myth “about”? At one point, two of the dancers, one male and one female, sit facing each other on two white chairs. They take off their costumes. They look at each other. And then they start barking and snarling at each other. (At this point, the show resembled tEEth’s “Home Made.”) A little later, the stage is filled with four dancers, each dancing in that Nijinsky-like way in a line toward the edge of the stage. The shrouded figure attempts to keep them from exiting, picking them off at the edge of the stage and carrying them to the middle, but there are too many of them, they are moving too fast, one by one they escape, and he’s left attempting to do a sort of “duet of coercion” with the last one.

We are isolated. We have a hard time finding agreement. Our tasks are impossible, and we don’t know their purpose, anyway. That’s one way that “A Crack in Everything” is legible. And in the movement, in the video and costumes, the drawing that one dancer makes on that transparent plastic wall (in red, a tracing of her own limbs and trunk as she traverses the stage, quite beautiful in its own way), we start to make sense of ourselves, our condition, in other ways. Because, no, it isn’t an essay.


1. A version of this post first appeared on OPB’s Arts & Life page.
2. I decided not to go to the Mike Daisy 24-hour performance marathon, knowing that the press would likely be out in force.  Dave Miller on “Think Out Loud” Friday said that he intended to go, for example: Here’s the OPB account gathered from 24 tweets.) Anne Adams of Culturephile posted a couple of times.  Mead Hunter’s account for Willamette Week is excellent.
3. We’ve been using photographs supplied by PICA’s Press Corps, and they’ve been exceptional. Thank you, photographers!

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