Oregon ArtsWatch

 

‘In the Heights’: A transportive musical time capsule

Portland Center Stage takes you to Washington Heights in the early aughts with a grand, energetic production

By SHAWNA LIPTON

The majority of new Broadway musicals are jukebox compilations of pop and rock hits, restagings of campy Hollywood films, and reimaginings of Disney animated blockbusters. Among these iterative rehashings of popular culture, Lin-Manuel Miranda has innovated with his musical mashups and compelling original stories.

Portland Center Stage’s “In the Heights”/Photo by Owen Carey

Miranda is known for being a fresh voice in a medium prone to pandering to tourists rather than pushing artistic boundaries, infusing the mainstream musical theatre world with hip hop and Latin musical influences, and creating dynamic and varied roles for people of color, most famously with Hamilton: An American Musical.

Before he created Hamilton, there was In the Heights, now playing at Portland Center Stage, a high-energy entertainment with an impressive ensemble cast.

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TBA report: aggressive whimsey, meditative chaos, kinetic violin

Martha Daghlian reviews performances by Laura Ortman, Takashi Makino, and Asher Hartman and Gawdafful National Theater

PICA’s Time Based Art Festival (TBA) was held at locations around Portland from September 5th through 15th. The festival brings together a diverse roster of artists and performances. Martha Daghlian reviews three notable offerings.

by MARTHA DAGHLIAN

Laura Ortman (with Marcus Fischer and Raven Chacon)
Lincoln Hall
1620 SW Park Ave
September 6 & 7

Brooklyn-based violinist Laura Ortman (White Mountain Apache) brought her intense experimental style to Lincoln Hall in two performances for the 2019 TBA festival. Ortman was accompanied by Portland artist Marcus Fischer and by her frequent collaborator Raven Chacon (Diné) of New Mexico. A prominent figure in experimental and Native music scenes, Ortman has been developing her unique sound for decades but has recently garnered international acclaim for her video “My Soul Remainer” which was included in this year’s Whitney Biennial (In fact, all three performers were featured artists in the Biennial; Ortman and Fischer as solo artists and Chacon as part of the arts collective Postcommodity.)

Laura Ortman. Courtesy of PICA.

Saturday night’s set began with the dim stage backlit by blazing red light and the slowly building buzz and rumble of looped and distorted guitar and synthesizer. Ortman commenced the evening by uttering a few garbled proclamations into a loudspeaker that sounded like the muffled, staticky voices of a radio station just out of range. 

From then on, Ortman danced around the stage tirelessly, accenting her playing with dramatic lunges and sidesteps. She moved almost frantically at times but maintained a sense of deep focus even in her freneticism. She scribbled away at her instrument as though trying to set it on fire by friction and at one point carried this sentiment to an extreme when she scraped an alternate violin against a mic’d-up panel of wood covered in sandpaper. The sound was nearly unbearable. Then, finally, she picked up the board and knocked it on the stage to release a small pile of sawdust. She tapped and thumped her instrument like a bizarre drum and used a wooden whistle to evoke the tones of a train, a bird, or an idle human. Her playing veered from screeching to cinematic to sweetly melodic, driven by her insistent kinetic energy. 

Accompanying Ortman’s forceful performance were Fischer and Chacon’s heavy (and heavily distorted) guitar/synth/tape loop combo, which, though compelling in their own right, at times threatened to completely obscure the headlining artist’s efforts. In contrast to much of Ortman’s recorded music, which allows the listener to hear every affecting nuance and note she plays, the show at Lincoln Hall was dominated by the monolithic dronescape that continued almost unbroken for the full 90 minutes. Ortman’s violin was like a small bird flying through a hurricane, variously engulfed by clouds and shoved to and fro by the wind. Whether this was a conscious decision within the three performers’ collaborative process or the result of the way the venue’s sound was mixed, it was hard to dismiss the possibility that listeners might be missing out on a certain level of sonic detail. The wall-of-noise effect became slightly monotonous after a certain point, making the moments when Ortman took over feel all the more exquisite.


Memento Stella, Takashi Makino
OMSI
1945 SE Water Ave
September 14 & 15

Memento Stella, according to Japanese filmmaker Takashi Makino, means “remember we are stars.” It is also the title of his most recent work which TBA screened at OMSI’s Empirical Theater over the weekend. Makino’s work is decidedly abstract and has evolved from Stan Brakhage-style direct film manipulation in his early career to his current mode of intricately layered digital footage and lens effects that create wildly flickering hypnotic textures on the screen. Memento Stella is his longest film to date with a run time of 60 minutes. For the Sunday evening showing I attended, the artist was present to perform a live soundtrack on synthesizer. The piece was composed by Reinier van Houdt, who also performed at Saturday’s screening. 

Takashi Makino
Takashi Makino. Courtesy of PICA.

The audience was warned at the outset that although we might recognize specific images, the idea was to relax into the visual chaos and let our minds drift free from representation or narrative. The film began with tiny twinkling shards of light on a black background that resembled a more lively version of television static or perhaps stars moving at warp speed or a cloud of agitated dust particles viewed in raking light. We weren’t supposed to worry about making visual associations but I couldn’t help myself. It took some time to fully settle in and stop trying to make sense of what we were seeing (was that water? It had to be water!) but eventually the vast field of vibrating, swirling forms and particles began to feel absorbing and meditative. Tiny patterns and broad motions clashed and harmonized in turn. The experience was akin to the start of a psychedelic trip or the moment you fall asleep, only to be suddenly startled awake. Makino’s live performance of van Houdt’s soundtrack was also ambient, but its composition contained subtle peaks and valleys that prevented the sonic fatigue that can accompany noise music. 

At certain moments the total immersion became nearly overwhelming and a sort of existential dread crept in to the point that I actually felt afraid for a moment. After the show, other audience members reported having similar feelings of anxiety or foreboding and we all agreed that we felt a bit altered. It was as though we had all had a strange dream together. Maybe the experience wasn’t always relaxing, but it was powerful and unique, and isn’t that what art is supposed to be?


The Dope Elf (Asher Hartman and the Gawdafful National Theater)
Yale Union
800 SE 10th Ave
Additional Performances: September 20, 21 & 22; October 11, 12 & 13; October 18, 19 & 20
Doors open 7:30 PM / Showtime 8:00 PM

The Dope Elf, the latest production of Los Angeles artist Asher Hartman’s excellent Gawdafful National Theater Company, kicked off its month-long run at Yale Union during TBA’s second weekend. It stands out as one of the weirder and more exciting works featured in this year’s festival. Hartman and his crew have transformed Yale Union into a fey sort of “trailer park” in which handmade, treehouse-like structures and repurposed garbage/sculpture hybrids are scattered throughout the cavernous gallery. The company are artists-in-residence in the literal sense – they have been living on set since the production began and will continue to do so through the final performance on October 20. The Dope Elf is a three-part show that unfolds over three consecutive evenings each weekend of the run; I saw what was described as a modified version of Play 1 in a media preview performance. (A 24-hour live stream can be found on the gallery’s website.) Before the show started, Hartman addressed the audience. He explained that the players would be moving around the gallery throughout the evening, and that he would lead us to the next location after each scene. This roving action resulted in a rather fluid barrier between performer and viewer that was fun and kept everyone alert as we tried to avoid inadvertently stumbling into the spotlight.

The Dope Elf publicity image
The Dope Elf publicity image. Courtesy of PICA.

The show began when Michael Bonnabel jumped onto a platform surrounded by faux arcade game consoles made from cardboard boxes (including “Street Frighter” and “Donkey Dong”) and tore into an acidic monologue about a pretentious fellow referred to as “the actor.” Slowly it became apparent that the actor in question was Bonnabel himself – or the character he was playing – which was our first indication of the multiple layers of meaning and identity contained within this rowdy performance. 

The next scene found Bonnabel sitting in one half of a two-bedroom shanty, engaged in a petty domestic squabble with John (played by Philip Littell). From there, the energetic cast transformed themselves into trolls, wolves, aunties, actors, depressed trailer-park residents, concerned family members, and death itself. Zut Lors gave a brief but standout performance as Gingy, a trailer-park troll. Lors is a gifted physical comedian whose facial expressions and excellent timing were genuinely funny, which can be hard to come by in contemporary performance art. She reappeared later as one half of a couple (or siblings? roommates?) opposite Joe Seely and was compelling even in that more subdued role, relaxed in her lines and her movements. 

Although there was a superficial gloss of wacky humor throughout (particularly in the instance of Gingy’s deranged stand-up routine), the underlying tone was one of deep metaphysical disturbances. The wretchedness reached a nadir in a scene in which Bonnabel (perhaps playing Michael, the actor) holds another man (played by Paul Outlaw) hostage in his bedroom, commanding him to remove and replace articles of clothing, psychotically singing love songs to him while mimicking sexual acts, and threatening to tape his mouth shut before the scene fades out. From my vantage point, I was able to see Bonnabel discreetly remove a length of rope and a set of kitchen knives from a duffle bag at the start of the scene (not everyone would have seen this, I just happened to be standing directly behind the actor), and as a result I spent the entire scene worried that we were about to witness a gruesome fictional murder. To my relief, the action never devolved into that sort of spectacle, but that doesn’t mean the audience was spared any discomfort. 

And then there was the titular Dope Elf, played with aggressive whimsy by Jacqueline Wright. The Elf described itself as “a system” whose DNA test results read zero and who seemed to veer from victim to monster to average-joe within the space of a few wild run-on sentences. Within Hartman’s creation, the Dope Elf’s particular brand of “magic” represents the systems and disguises of white supremacy that delude and torture the rest of the characters in the play. The Elf’s confounding lack of identity evokes the supposedly neutral status of whiteness both in racial terms and in the rarefied space of contemporary art, where the white cube of the gallery bestows institutional legitimacy upon its contents. 

Jacqueline Wright as the Dope Elf. Courtesy of PICA.

The Elf made several bizarre appearances throughout the performance, but her final monologue was truly memorable. In a tirade of convoluted and vulgar poetic logic, the Dope Elf managed to communicate the theoretical gist of the work – that living within systems of violence and power leaves people with what Yale Union curator Dena Beard describes as “strangled desire, residual fear, and rage.” The split personalities of the show’s actors were suddenly revealed as reflections of unstable identities locked in a struggle for power, whether magical or political. With that, the spell was lifted and the members of the Gawdafful National Theater Company stepped onto the stage and took a bow. 

Martha Daghlian is a Portland-based visual artist and arts writer. She is the creator of the Grapefruit Juice Artist Resource Guide, a Portland arts directory. More information and work can be found at marthadaghlian.com

Reports from TBA 2019: Ligia Lewis

Obfuscation and illegibility in artist and choreographer Ligia Lewis's "Water Will (In Melody)"

by ELLA RAY

As the culminating part of the BLUE RED WHITE trilogy by artist and choreographer Ligia Lewis, Water Will (In Melody) distorts canonical configurations of body and language by taking up the project of illegibility. Presented by PICA’s 17th annual Time Based Arts festival (TBA), Water Will (In Melody) opposes neoliberal progress and dominant categorization, rejecting the physical and conceptual articulations of representation that are projected onto the Black subject in exchange for something dark, something defined outside of whiteness. Lewis, accompanied by Titilayo Adebayo, Dani Brown, and Susanne Sachsse, presents a two-part performance that uses the four figures to investigate individual and collective ability to escape expectation, both of the theater and of themselves. 

While the puppet-like characters contort and twist their plastic and silk dressed bodies against the black stage, swampy sounds of crickets and trickling water fill the spaces between us and them. The scene is set in a way that references the outdoors and exposes the logistical aspects of theatrical production: off-stage is visible, the curtains are slightly too short, and the lighting equipment encroaches on the stage frame.  The mood is still marshy and gothic as if the theater is amidst a southern swamp. 

“Water Will (In Melody)” Photo courtesy of Sarah Marguier and PICA.

As the performance progresses, the women share the stage through choreographed moments that rely heavily on a combination of mime and bodily movements to reference physical anguish and personal pleasure. The dancers fold over themselves and writhe across the stage bumping against one another against  a loop of layered sounds and parts of speech. The corporeal aspects of Water Will are interjected with monologue spanning from excerpts of Grimm’s Fairy Tales during the opening sequence to a lengthy German speech by Sachsse. In the moments where language is foregrounded it is then disrupted, muffled, cut off, or drown out. This interruption is most obvious in a moment when Lewis spoke while she shoved her hand down her mouth, gagging herself in both a sexual and violent manner that made it nearly impossible to understand her. 

The disruption of intelligibility via the hand is a thread continued throughout the performance. The hands, central to mime gesticulation, are used in Water Will to unveil the interiority of the subjects. The palms and fingers of the performers are used to scratch, please, and undo almost as if their insides are begging to escape their predetermined forms. In exposing the exterior (including the audience, the theater, and each other) to their interiors, we could ask who they are performing for and what are we bearing witness to? 

Between the first and second act, there is a brief breakdown in the proceedings. A spotlight floods the four dancers and they begin what feels like pop-princess choreography set to the sound of an uptempo remix of an Enya song. While forming a straight line, the dancers thrust their pelvises, cross their arms with cheerleader energy, and evoke a familiar feeling of  “positivity.” The sterility of the breakdown deeply contrasts the stickiness of Water Will as a whole. On the Saturday iteration of the performance, the audience responded by laughing and clapping in approval of the breach in plot. In this abrupt and concise interlude it is  apparent that the spectators are complicit in the unfolding of the performance. While the material preceding and following this interruption concentrates on the subtle horrors of desire and possibility, this section antagonistically points at the audience and acknowledges them as part of the larger system that wills some to act on those feelings while denying others. 

The crowd is addressed multiple times throughout the performance. During the second act an intense strobe light turns on the audience. The flashing of various patterns of neon white jolt you into position and disrupt the theater experience. This happens again later with a searchlight that roams the theater, stopping briefly on audience members and then continuing on its path. Although this section of the work lasted a mere 2 minutes, the usages of this kind of lighting amplifies the role of the omnipresent voyeur — possibly referencing militarized and colonial surveillance mechanisms that the gender and racialized body is incessantly subjected to. 

“Water Will (In Melody)” Photo courtesy of Sarah Marguier and PICA.

Throughout Water Will, Lewis is central both in place and attention. This disrupts a multitude of established hierarchies of contemporary performance that attempt to flatten Black femmes, uncomplicating their relationship to the theater and to being watched. As Brown, Adebayo, and Sachsse periodically appear and reappear onstage, they emphasize that the theater is an actual theater, there is an unbridgeable gap between the performer and the audience. Lewis, however, challenges the gap by, getting close to the audience and entangling us again and again in her obsessive pattern. As water begins to rain down from behind the curtains, washing over the jerky yet sensual choreography, the performers appear like towels being wrung out — holding form but seeping from the inside as they glide across the stage and ground themselves in pooling puddles. In this section, Lewis’s distorted face and masturbatory gestures have a pulse of their own. On many occasions Lewis’s movements felt like a mashup of Velvet Rope-tour-era Janet Jackson and Kayako from The Grudge

The 60 minute production ends with Adebayo singing a church hymn while the Lewis, Brown, and Sachsse melt into the darkness of the stage. As the wrestling comes to a halt and water puddles on the stage, Adebayo’s voice sounded as if someone passed her the mic by surprise. Lewis revealed in a recent TBA and PICA sponsored conversation with scholar and curator bart fitzgerald that the song is titled “I Won’t” — playing again with the concept of will and concluding their guttural meditations of escape with rejection of everything that came before. The show closes with language the clearest its been through the entirety of the performance. With no movement or distortion, Water Will (In Melody) asks the audience to listen to what happens after the storm. Eventually the performer turns her back on us, simultaneously acknowledging the audience’s gaze and rendering visible the facade of the theater. In negating the physical gaze and audience expectation, Lewis solidifies Water Will (In Melody) as a mission in obfuscation. 

Ella Ray an art historian, facilitator, and arts-worker whose practice focuses on the Black contemporary art and process. Ella earned a BA in Art History/Critical Theory from Portland State University in 2018 and currently works for the Portland Art Museum and the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art doing work around public engagement and decentralizing dominant culture. 

The beginning of listening

Extradition Series summer concert confronts silence

By CHARLES ROSE

I once heard a joke about the 20th century philosopher and problematic figure Martin Heidegger: he once spent four hours opening and closing the door to his office at the University of Freiburg, trying to understand the action that we all take for granted in all its subtleties. This story is a lie that some cheeky undergrad came up with while struggling through Being and Time, but the joke still points to the crux of phenomenology and its massive influence on artists through this last century. 

Musically, we can trace this perspective to John Cage and his study of Zen Buddhism and the I Ching. Cage’s music demands an entirely new approach to listening that throws out the window all the lavish harmony and rhythms of classical music in favor of the subtleties of individual sounds. Much like his contemporary in the visual arts Mark Rothko, Cage (as well as Morton Feldman and others) sought to tear away all the unnecessary information from music, leaving only the subtle textures and noises within notes and chords that would otherwise fly by unnoticed. The influence of these composers looms over most contemporary experimental music, and the Extradition Series summer concert in July was no exception.

Extradition is a performing series created within Oregon’s Creative Music Guild, a collective of local musicians dedicated to performing improvisational and experimental music. Extradition takes their artistic inspiration from Fluxus and the music of composers like Cage, Feldman, and Pauline Oliveros, and their concerts reveal the subtleties in sounds we hear all the time. The five pieces they showcased at their July 27 concert at Performance Works NW were among the most challenging performances I’ve ever heard live, requiring an intense form of listening that pulled me into the smallest details of every sound while giving space for quiet contemplation. In tight quarters with no more than forty people, I felt like I was participating in a group meditation, with the performers becoming our yogis (dressed in all black rather than orange). 

Matt Hannafin performs Alvin Lucier's 'The Silver Fox' at Extradition's summer concert. Photo by Glenn Sogge.
Percussionist and Extradition Series curator Matt Hannafin performs Alvin Lucier’s ‘The Silver Fox’ at Extradition’s summer concert. Photo by Glenn Sogge.

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Meaning and quality on a shoestring

Opera Theater Oregon's tribute to Guthrie and Hill features expressive performances and timely message

By ANGELA ALLEN

We all know a bit about Woody Guthrie, the 20th-century American social-justice troubadour. Apostles and adopters like Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen and Johnny Cash embraced and copied his music ad infinitum. During these 21st-century trying times, when social justice is taking a far back seat to greed and power-grabbing, why not celebrate Guthrie again?

Opera Theater Oregon’s This Land Sings: Songs of Wandering, Love and Protest took up the cause with an engaging production built on Michael Daugherty’s radio-show-style chamber opera Aug. 24 at Alberta Rose Theater. The house wasn’t sold out, but close enough. Scenery was spare, other than big-screen slides of the Dust Bowl and other Depression horrors, and costumes were non-existent—though conductor/OTO co-creative director/composer Justin Ralls wore suspenders. The outfits leaned toward muted country-folksy with a touch of  frontier vibe rather than showy or elaborate.

Opera Theater Oregon's 'This Land Sings.' Left to right: Daniel Mobbs, Lisa Neher, suspendered Justin Ralls, announcer Thom Hartmann. Photo by Michael Daugherty.
Opera Theater Oregon’s ‘This Land Sings.’ Left to right: singers Daniel Mobbs and Lisa Neher, suspendered conductor Justin Ralls, announcer Thom Hartmann. Photo by Michael Daugherty.

But the music? The singing? The conducting? The ensemble-playing? They were terrific and made up for any deficits in visual design. With this piece, OTO continues to fulfill its mission of presenting contemporary English-language works that shine a bright and piercing light on social, political and environmental issues. If you saw OTO’s 2017 Two Yosemites, composed by Ralls, then you know the group set a high bar for its mission and continues to pursue it with utter sincerity. (Read Arts Watch’s interview with Ralls here).

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Technology is the bridge

CMNW 2019 performer-composer Boja Kragulj talks technology, creativity, education, and making connections.

By CHARLES ROSE

As a freshly graduated composer, I don’t feel a particular attachment to the classical music canon. Of course there are composers and works I have a strong attachment to—Ravel’s La Valse, Beethoven’s late string quartets, Mahler’s Symphony No. 9, Ligeti’s Atmospheres, anything Webern wrote—but I don’t feel the need to listen to something just because our culture deems it important. And it sounds silly to say that I “discovered” classical music—but I didn’t grow up listening to it outside Looney Tunes and movie soundtracks. So when I began listening to Bach, Mozart and Beethoven, I was also listening for the first time to Radiohead, Aphex Twin, Miles Davis, Stockhausen, Björk, Flying Lotus, and so on.

I’ve been perpetually disappointed by how little music education engages with music beyond a tiny corpus of “dead white men.” These guys may present us with valuable techniques and perspectives, but teaching them exclusively while ignoring many other important musical traditions and perspectives is naive at best. Much as we value diversity, I question the value of teaching the same things we’ve always taught, only with a more diverse set of mouth pieces.

What’s the point of allowing more people at the table if we won’t let them speak? Reading the unique perspectives of Pauline Oliveros and Kofi Agawu has been incredibly eye-opening, but I had to discover them outside of the classroom. The onus is on us millennial and zoomer composers to expand our musical minds and build a new musical culture.

Composer, clarinetist, and teacher Boja Kragulj.

What I admire about clarinetist-composer-teacher Boja Kragulj’s music is her dedication to expanding the horizons of music, looking for inspiration from Turkish music, music technology, and her students’ tastes. On June 28th, Kragulj opened this year’s Chamber Music Northwest New@Noon series with an untitled work for clarinet and laptop, creating a haunting and beautiful tapestry of loops, echoes and stretched-out tones. The rest of that first noon program celebrated the clarinet by focusing on its agility and the performer’s skill with extreme ranges and extended techniques, while Kragulj’s work brought forth the instrument’s beautiful resonance and subtle dynamics.

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Saturday night in the marketplace

As an influx of white supremacists swarmed over downtown Portland, Beaverton's Night Market celebrated its city's global cultures instead.


PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOE CANTRELL


The sky was overcast but the crowds were big and enthusiastic Saturday night at this summer’s second and final Beaverton Night Market at The Round – a successful wrapup to the latest annual run of special markets featuring the music, dance, food, and cultures of Washington County’s many immigrant and traditional communities.

Once again photographer Joe Cantrell was on hand with his cameras to capture the sights and sounds of the celebration. In his photo essay In Beaverton, a little night market Cantrell also reported for ArtsWatch on this year’s first Night Market, on July 20 at The Round. As he noted in that story, the event came about in 2015 after city officials asked immigrant groups what they missed most from their original countries: “The favorite answer was, ‘The smells of the food, the night markets where we could sit in the cooling dusk visiting with our community, sharing what we enjoyed most there.’” And so, through efforts of the city’s Diversity Advisory Board, a tradition was reborn. The contrast on Saturday night with what was happening a few miles away in downtown Portland, where the city was dealing with a largely fizzled inflow of nativist right-wing white supremacist demonstrators performing loudly for national television cameras, was striking.

Saturday’s crowds at The Round enjoyed an array of performances: Mesoamerican dance by Hueca Omeyocan; traditional dances from Central Asia by the group Dance Inspired; a demonstration by Lim’s Taekwondo Academy, Puerto Rican and African music by Grupo Borokuas; contemporary Native American music by flutist Sherrie Davis Morningstar and guitarist Joel Davis; violinist Joe Kye; Turkish piano and song by Mesut Ali Ergin. Miss it this summer or eager to dip back in again? Wait ’til next summer. You can’t keep a good Night Market down.


DANCE INSPIRED


The troupe performs dances from Tajikistan, Iran, and Afghanistan.

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