Risk/Reward Festival review: value proposition

Annual showcase takes audiences on the journey from artistic concept to realization

Here’s the deal with Portland’s annual Risk/Reward Festival. Artists take a risk by trying something new, often a segment of a work in progress, in a forum where audiences expect various levels of development. Audiences take a risk on new, unvetted work. The reward for the artists: audience feedback, a deadline to get work going, some ideas about how to proceed. For audiences: the thrill of seeing new, sometimes experimental work aborning — and this year, at whatever price they want to pay. More than ever, that deal is a real bargain.

Now in its 10th year, this year’s festival risked one filmed and five staged contributions, and produced as many different outcomes: a concept that seemed promising but the execution shaky, or simply incomplete; another that felt conceptually underdeveloped; another that seemed overextended — and one glorious creation that brought together a powerful concept with an exceptionally moving performance.

Linda Austin Dance’s ‘A world, a world.’ Photo: Chelsea Petrakis.

You could spot the driving concept for Linda Austin’s A world, a world on the floor, in the music, even on the dancers’ bodies: collage. Both costumes and floor design resembled a scattering of fragments, and the dancers “produce a constant low-level, barely or sporadically decipherable humming, mumbling, and singing of a textual collage from news headlines, songs & poetry, periodically going to headphones mounted on a movable step unit, to receive and channel sound bites referencing the worlds of politics, pop culture, ‘high’ culture, science and philosophy, riffing on these sound bites until they need another ‘hit.’” Austin’s program note explains. What showed up on stage was strolling dancers forming then abandoning various groupings and formations, gestures falling in and out of group coordination, while chanting random snippets of songs and other pop culture ephemera that elicited occasional chuckles of recognition.

For me, none of the movement nor its interactions with the chants proved involving enough to sustain the piece’s length, nor could I discern a connecting narrative or other thread. And the concept — collage — itself, while fresh back in Dada days or even a Cage/Cunningham/Rauschenberg mid-20th century happening, wears out its welcome pretty fast in the 21st century. Still, this excerpt of a work in progress is only a part of a larger structure; maybe it will grow either tighter or richer in development, or gain significance in full context.

Still from Kiana Harris’s ‘DIVINE.’

I found a similar disconnect between announced conceptual ambition and actual artistic execution in Kiana Harris’s dance film DIVINE, projected in the lobby before the staged events and in the theater afterwards. Harris’s mission “is to reclaim images of femininity in a non-exploitative representation from a black women’s lens, and have it be one of many tools to drive black liberation.” On screen, this amounted to 20 minutes of repeated handsomely shot, slo-mo images of conventionally pretty black women and girls doing a repetitive dance step, accompanied by white wafting clouds and gauzy gowns, intercut with a repeated fragment of a conversation between two black moms about non exploitative images of black women. The fact that a black woman was behind the lens didn’t make what appeared on screen any more compelling than a mediocre pop music video. The intermittent sound cut outs didn’t help. (For a less sentimentalized image of black female empowerment, OAW’s Oregon ArtsBitch recommends this Meshell Ndegeocello video.)

Queen Shmooquan’s ‘Dark Wave.’ Photo: Chelsea Petrakis.

Queen Shmooquan’s Dark Wave similarly suffered from diffuse content. Once you grasped her in-your-face approach of intentional tastelessness meets absurdist social satire, the amusement came down to the sporadic effectiveness of the act’s individual sketches and garish devices. Everyone guffawed at the anti-Trumpery of course, and a segment spoofing standup comics drew appreciative laughs from the collision of recorded voiceover (telling the lame jokes) and her character’s sometimes exaggerated, sometimes divergent facial expressions. But too much of the rest seemed forced, with overextended or ham-handedly unsurprising swipes at easy targets. With severe tightening, it could work for audiences (maybe those who enjoy Carol Triffle’s offbeat characters, for example, or certain Time Based Art Festival acts) who resonate to her concept — particularly when delivered by such a gifted movement artist whose every gesture and motion is so precisely calibrated and extremely expressive.

Like the Queen, Pepper Pepper’s segment involved lots of frantic on-stage costume switches. Actually, the show began even before the act started, as the audience returned from intermission to find one of Portland’s most riveting performers perched on a stool onstage, resplendent in a sparkly purple sequin leotard, spiky heels, and Phyllis Diller fright wig. Projected messages invited audience members to take selfies and send them out on social media, and only then Diva Practice would begin — a fun way to incorporate social media, publicize the show and involve the audience. After a sufficient number of likes were received, the screen then urged audience members to shine their cellphone flashlights on the stage while singing ‘Happy Birthday,’ and Pepper then blew them out like so many candles, one of many effective interactions with the audience, who assisted in some costume changes directed only by an impatient gesture.

Pepper Pepper’s ‘Diva Practice.’ Photo: Chelsea Petrakis.

That’s because Pepper uttered only a single word throughout the performance, although she repeated it many, many — ultimately, too many — times. It was a provocative minimalist concept: cleverly demonstrating how that lone term, at least when used by a performer as subtly expressive and imaginative as Pepper, can assume many meanings based on context, inflection, facial and body gesture and so many other means. Still, as with the above acts, once the conceptual point was made, further repetition didn’t extend interest, no matter how many items of clothing were donned or doffed. Fewer costumes and more vocal variety (timbre, rhythm, space) might have helped. Much more successful were Pepper’s interplay between projected text and stage performance, and a hilarious karaoke sketch in which Shirley Bassey and Liza Minnelli (in full Cabaret Sally Bowles incarnation) kept colliding.

Donal Mosher & Shannon Stewart’s Strange Gardens also got off to a promising start, with Stewart appearing in colorful blob garb that we later realize is a kind of representation of microorganisms, and then Mosher artlessly narrating in a soft Louisiana drawl his beautifully shot black and white video of his encounter with HIV. Then Stewart, who’d been lying covered by a diaphanous fabric, slowly began to emerge, her perfectly lit bare back moving with Butoh-like subtlety and intensity, evoking all sorts of ideas about bodies and viruses and more as Mosher, now in darkness, slowly provided an ominous, eerily percussive soundtrack by slowly rubbing together the pages of his script right next to his microphone. Then it just stopped.

Shannon Stewart/Donal Mosher’s ‘Strange Gardens.’ Photo: Chelsea Petrakis.

The program notes make clear that the full production will incorporate a lot more material, but what the audience actually saw onstage felt frustratingly incomplete. Unlike the preceding segments, where I wanted less, this time I craved more. But I’ll look forward to seeing the whole thing, just as Carla Rossi’s segment last year developed into a full-fledged show a few months later.

In fact, the only performance that felt fully realized was the second. But Calgary performance artist Pam Tzeng’s magnificent “A Meditation on the End” by Jo-Lee alone was worth the price of admission — no matter what price you ponied up under this year’s admirable new pay-as-you-will arrangement. Here again, for me, the concept didn’t quite match what I saw on stage. But it didn’t matter.

Pam Tzeng’s “’A Meditation on the End’ by Jo-Lee.” Photo: Chelsea Petrakis.

Tzeng approached the audience bearing a red bundle that looked like the symbolic representation of a human body, which she gently placed on the stage and unwrapped — to reveal a skeleton. To the accompaniment of Krzysztof Sujata’s breath-rhythmed electroacoustic sounds, the pair engaged in a series of initially ritualistic, then by turns humorous, poignant, and (as both the previously somber music and simple lighting grew more intense) urgent dances, with Tzeng (a trained biologist) adroitly maneuvering the bones into an ironically lifelike spirit. Moving with equal precision and fluidity, Tzeng also used an expressive tool often more or less verboten in modern dance (with some conspicuous exceptions): her face, which reflected the gamut of emotions we encounter when confronting death and memory of life.

Tzeng’s program described her concept as the story of a woman gradually discovering that she’s dead, ultimately bidding farewell to life, involving “fragmented memories of an imagined ‘other,’” along with the Buddhist concept of the intermediate state of ‘bardos’ between life and rebirth, and more. But I experienced her dance as its mirror image: a living person dealing with the memory of a lost loved one, a piercing representations of the process of coming to terms with grief and loss. Sometimes we dance with our memories, reliving old delights; sometimes we struggle and flail as they become our captors, our masters. Eventually, maybe, we come to terms with where they are, and aren’t, as Tzeng seemed to when she finally laid her bony partner to rest. Maybe the feelings of grief at what’s been lost are the same from either side of death’s great divide. It was hard to tell exactly, through the tears.

“A Meditation On The End” by Jo-Lee – TRAILER from Pamela Tzeng on Vimeo.

Not every successful performance needs to evoke the deep, heavy emotional responses I felt in Tzeng and Mosher & Stewart’s creations; sometimes fun or bedazzlement can be enough, if well executed. Some of the lighter works on this year’s lineup may eventually get there; others won’t. It’s to Risk/Reward’s credit that this year’s incarnation, like the others I’ve seen, offered such a wide range of approaches and styles. The festival’s ecumenical curatorial spirit reduces the risks, at least for audiences, and increases the odds of sufficient rewards. And the bargain continues to pay off. But really, the ultimate rewards won’t be known until later, when these works are (I hope) honed to a sharper edge by having rubbed against the responses of real audiences. Risk/Reward isn’t just a present product but also an investment in the future that will pay dividends in future, fully developed performances. Here’s to the next decade of artistic risks and rewards.

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