The Parenthetical Girls go for the fantastical

Now, about those technical difficulties...

Zac Pennington fronts the Parenthetical Girls/Nim Wunnan

By Nim Wunnan

To be grand is not the same as to be massive, loud, or ambitious. Grandness lives or dies by scale and tone, and requires more careful balance than a simple spectacle. Wednesday night’s TBA performance by Parenthetical Girls and a starry roster of collaborators didn’t need to be big or loud to complete the world opened by their cycle of five, expansive Privilege EPs; it needed to be grand and spacious and mythical. It was, and it was worth the hype.

The mix of dance, classical instrumentation, performance, and a stage band was thoroughly mashed and shuffled — the dancers and the orchestra were used in earnest rather than simply standing in as signals that This is Serious and Artistic. Besides a few moments when members of Classical Revolution PDX played up the straight-backed reserve expected of people holding classical instruments perhaps a bit too much, each member of the party was on equal standing.

The long and ambitious evening began with a contemporary orchestral score by Jherek Bischoff performed by Classical Revolution, leading to a solitary but powerful dance by Allie Hankins, then a set by members of Golden Retriever, and finally everything was put to bed by the Parenthetical Girls performance, which fit every name on the program on stage at once at least for a moment.

Bischoff’s compositions rose and fell against themselves intricately, swelling with earnestness while drooping bitterly, managing to feel smug and regretful at once. The mood was a perfect extension of the glamorous brooding of Privilege. The trombone solo felt a little wet and unsure, but overall Classical Revolution were well-matched to Bischoff’s nimble meditations.

Hankin’s dance solo was fantastic, perhaps the most focused and raw point of the night’s pressing, sharp-cornered sensuality. Having rhythmically slapped gold glitter onto her bare neck, arms and torso in homage to Nijinsky, she was alone on stage with the sparkles, a bolt of crimson fabric gushing from the high ceiling, and Ravel’s Bolero (which was first choreographed by Nijinsky). She danced her own repeating cycle to the compulsively rising music, severe and controlled but intense throughout. The sharpest moments were the few deft turns that flung the glitter from her body and then the frenetic, rhythmic leaping that ended her set.

Another instrumental set marinated the mood with the help of Golden Retriever’s wood-boxed synths before Parenthetical Girls finally took the stage.

***

Zac Pennington, the face and voice of the band and Portland’s angular emissary to the pantheon of David Bowie, had been hiding backstage since his brief, crooning intro. When he prowled back into the spotlight, he had swapped his formal black and whites for a vaguely-medical white harness attached to two big, black balloons that floated about ten feet above. This worn over an orange-and-flesh-colored outfit reminiscent of what movies about the future made in the 70’s said we’d all be wearing now. Besides the obvious influence of Bowie and Northern English bands like Joy Division and the Smiths, Pennington’s stage presence includes darker, more theatrical tones that could as easily bring to mind Matthew Barney as they could Nick Cave or Vincent Price.

Parenthetical Girls performed a rising set of songs from Privilege as Pennington strutted and pranced around the stage in full command of the mythology that had built up over the previous hour and a half, backed by projections of himself and his equally-glamorous bandmates projected stadium-sized on TBA’s three giant screens. Classical Revolution and Golden Retriever’s members supported the sound from the side of the stage. Hankin returned briefly, perhaps having something to do with the line of “Valkyries” who marched on and off stage in a loop, delivering small objects to Pennington’s hands with their mouths — which he immediately dashed to the stage without even a look.

***

If Pennington had gotten his way, the night would have been one of the most fantastical and captivating on offer at TBA. Tragically, the sound engineers broke the magic more than he could fix it. Fundamental components were flubbed — like one of the lead mics, the band’s monitors, and all of Golden Retriever’s connections at one point. This all happened during the final Parenthetical Girls set when the stakes were highest. Pennington stopped the show for a grueling minute to clap his dead microphone while eyeing the sound booth icily. Someone hollered “we’re working on it,” and I definitely agreed with Pennington’s response: “Now is probably not the best time you could be doing that.”

The Parenthetical Girls/Nim Wunnan

Parenthetical Girls and their many collaborators did their jobs very well, but the show wilted a little when it needed to blossom the most because of the mishandling. Which brings me to my one, major criticism about the night that has nothing at all to do with the work itself. Earlier that night, a PICA volunteer had blanketed the auditorium with powerful and completely unnecessary flashes throughout The Love Song of R. Buckminster Fuller while taking photos, enough to produce more than a few annoyed murmurs. At the end of Hankin’s piece, the door she fled through got stuck open on the giant bolt of fabric. At least three or four volunteers casually stuck their heads in during the subsequent performances until someone had the sense to shut the door and let the show continue.

By themselves, these moments weren’t mood-killers, but once the sound troubles became impossible to ignore, they just added to the pain. TBA is an amazing and ambitious project that requires a massive amount of coordination and technical skill, so we have to forgive them a degree of chaos. But, besides perhaps some of the sound issues later on, these errors seem to be more of a problem of attitude than logistics. Please, close an open door, turn your flash off, check the mics again, and let acts like Parenthetical Girls build their worlds with as little interruption as possible.

2 Responses.

  1. Allie Hankins says:

    Hello, and thank you for this review! I wanted to clarify a couple of small things: I used Bolero because it was commissioned by Ida Rubinstein, who danced the role of Zobeide in Scheherazade opposite Nijinsky dancing the role of the Golden Slave (the score to that ballet was also referenced in my piece). Secondly, the ballet to Bolero was originally choreographed by Bronislava Nijinska, Nijinsky’s sister, not by Nijinsky himself.

    Thank you.

    • Nim Wunnan says:

      Allie — thank you for the clarification! I missed the feminine ending on Nijinska in my research and wrongly assumed it was Nijinksy.

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