TBA dance: new forms and new connections

Reviews of three TBA Festival dance concerts: Alessandro Sciarroni, Michelle Ellsworth, Amy O'Neal

This year, I chose to see just three of the performance pieces offered by Portland Institute for Contemporary Art’s (PICA) Time-Based Art Festival (TBA): Folk-S by Alessandro Sciarroni, Preparation for the Obsolesce of the Y Chromosome by Michelle Ellsworth, and Opposing Forces by Amy O’Neal.  For me, TBA is similar to standing in the cereal aisle at the grocery story; overwhelmed by the possibilities, I tend to chose none. Real life is also happening simultaneously, which makes seeing everything that I want to see, impossible.

So I did some choosing and I’m glad I chose what I did, I walked away from these performances with three vastly different experiences and many lingering questions, which is a good thing.  If a dance leaves a lasting impression, good or bad, the choreographer their job.

Some similarities between the pieces: each choreographer intentionally created ways to connect with the audience outside of the traditional audience performer relationship; all subject matter involved research around identity shared through social commentary context; all three choreographers successfully transcend established choreographic forms and created new ones.


Early Morning Opera, Tyondai Braxton: Incomplete enchantments

Intriguing TBA Festival shows demonstrate that less isn't always more.

A pair of white telephones. A few white cardboard file boxes, one sporting an old fashioned typewriter on top. A black office chair. Those are the only obvious props used in Early Morning Opera’s new production, The Institute of Memory, one of the more intriguing offerings presented at Portland Institute for Contemporary Art’s 2015 Time-Based Art Festival. Its creator Lars Jan and a colleague stride onstage wearing all-white suits, and the whole set is lit by a piercing white fluorescent light fixture that turns out to play multiple functions.

All this black and white design might lead you to expect a comparably simple. But just as that typewriter conceals a video and music controller, the simplistic accoutrements only amplify by contrast the ambiguity of the enigmatic character the story revolves around: Jan’s father, who spent most of his life in Poland before fleeing to the US in the wake of the Nazi invasion in 1939 and subsequent Russian domination of the country.

Lars Jan built "The Institute of Memory" at PICA's 2015 Time-Based Art Festival. Photo: Sophia Wright Emigh.

Lars Jan built “The Institute of Memory” at PICA’s 2015 Time-Based Art Festival. Photo: Sophia Wright Emigh.

After an opening scene involving a couple of soldiers in a forest that doesn’t quite make sense until the end, followed by a couple of other seemingly unrelated scenes, writer-director-actor Jan breaks the fourth wall to set up the journey he’s taking us on: a quest to recapture his father’s deliberately concealed past, why he kept it hidden from his son (who grew up in his mother’s home after she fled her husband when Jan was a child), and how their relationship evolved as Jan tried to learn more. The prospect of solving that mystery is what keeps the audience engaged in Jan’s personal story. Ultimately, though as presented in this incarnation, the answer proves less satisfying than it might have.


Philippe Quesne’s heavy-metal fairy tale

In a fairy tale, anything's possible as 'La Mélancolie des Dragons' delightfully demonstrates


Fairy tales have a certain framework. They start with “Once upon a time” and they end with “happily ever after.” We’ve come to expect that whatever comes in the middle of those words could be wacky, wild, unpredictable, delightful, frightful and most importantly, unknown. Often there is a forest involved. And magic.

This fairy-tale structure creates a framework, a basket if you will, in which an artist can explore the confines of the strangest of stories without “losing” the audience. Why? Because the audience knows exactly what the contract is: We’re in a fairy-tale and in this world the possibilities are limitless.

 Philippe Quesne’s La Mélancolie des Dragons/Photo by Martin Argyroglo

Philippe Quesne’s La Mélancolie des Dragons/Photo by Martin Argyroglo

It is not accidental that the opening of Philippe Quesne’s La Mélancolie des Dragons, part of PICA’s recently concluded TBA:15 festival, begins with A VW Rabbit (with an enormous trailer behind it) sitting peacefully on a snowy stage surrounded by white-blanketed trees in the middle of the woods. It cues a fairy-tale world and voilá, simple as that, the audience’s permission for whatever will come next has been granted.


TBA:15: The dance of the cook, the cook of the dance

Radhouane El Meddeb takes to the kitchen and a huge plate of couscous arrives

Radhouane El Meddeb took about an hour to prepare couscous with a heavily spiced stew of meat and vegetables in two rotund couscoussiere boiling on a low yellow platform of Ikea tables on the main stage at TBA:15’s The Works Wednesday night. He kept an iPod on another platform at the opposite end of the stage and used the space between to apply some heat and pressure to the the pacing, marching, and sometimes-dancing that one inevitably does while running a big cook up.

As he flitted between tracks on his iPod, stages in the feast, and intensifying passages of dance and engagement with the crowd, the whole piece began to feel like a recipe in itself. With a swagger underpinned by a solid, generous love for what he was doing and the traditions behind it, Meddeb mixed a few, rich ingredients and applied energy to produce a certain concoction that he served to the whole room.

Radhouane El Meddeb’s "Je danse et je vous en donne à bouffer"/Photo by Carollina Lucchesini

Radhouane El Meddeb’s “Je danse et je vous en donne à bouffer”/Photo by Carollina Lucchesini

The mood of Meddeb’s Je danse et je vous en donne à bouffer oscillated between the sort of lighthearted or distracted prancing one does while on the schedule of a recipe and then, during the longer boils, something deeper and reverential as Meddeb clearly channeled his memories of other times and places where he was present for the preparation of this kind of feast. TBA’s notes mention how he “carefully observed his mother and his aunts preparing couscous and the national dishes served at his family’s gatherings from marriages to circumcisions to mourning rituals…” In the same way that the audience was aware of the ingredients for the feast and yet the specific magic of their preparation wasn’t made explicit, we could see that El Meddeb was remembering and reliving and paying homage without knowing exactly what he had in mind when he stared into the middle distance, palms up, between steps in the recipe, or when he suddenly changed tracks from traditional chants to Nina Simone’s “Don’t let me be misunderstood.”


Caught (up) in the act

Jazz by Paal Nilssen-Love and Ken Vandermark; Sound art by Aiko Suzuki

Music is very nearly my constant companion. As I write, make art, do chores, drive, sleep or endure an Abba earworm, tunes are always in the picture, whether as a minor distraction, or on occasion, actual entertainment.

I was not what you’d call an “angel” as a kid, but I wasn’t a reprobate either. I did the naughty things other kids did, certainly things I shouldn’t have, but I did seem to get found out with more frequency than others, and perhaps more harshly punished, which included being grounded for long stretches of time. I mention this because during these terms of backyard incarceration, I avoided a sense of isolation by idling away the days with a portable radio at my side.

Chicago’s WLS-AM and WCFL-AM battled for my pre-teen attention. And when the FM dial started to become more populated, I listened to hippie-rock on WDAI (94.7) and a late-night alternative program, Triad, which took over a classical station out of Elk Grove Village (106.9) at 9:00 pm. Call it escapism; I thought of it as the outline for an escape plan.

That plan didn’t pan out, so I enlisted in the Navy. With my first paycheck I bought a little red Hitachi transistor radio. Radios after hours were forbidden in boot camp, but I hid mine in my pillow. While listening to that radio in my bunk I learned Picasso had died.


Still mighty and Tiny after all these years

Ten Tiny Dances continues to inspire, provoke and amuse 13 years later

Thirteen years into Ten Tiny Dances, the dare of choreographing for a stage four feet on a side continues to draw experimentation out of the performers who step up to the challenge. The variations at TBA:15 Works again delivered surprises, stumbles, and intensity. Founder Mike Barber kicked the night off with a triumphant parade of the night’s performers with a good bit of boxing-ring bluster. There was a good-natured swagger to this intro that felt mature in a way, a comfortable bravado that comes from doing something weird quite well for more than a decade.

Keith Hennessy’s first performance starred a little girl who entered the stage with a sassy, confident visual gag. She stood to be measured by Hennessy, and then to prove that she was exactly four feet tall, she then measured the edges of the stage with her own body. Running off into the wings, she returned riding a sort of glittery palanquin composed of three adults under a shimmering, gold sequined and bedazzled sheet, hyping the crowd to the tune of Beyonce’s Run the World (Girls). The four of them definitely floundered a little to get her postures and positioning right, but it was hard to care with how infectiously charismatic this little girl was, riding like a queen on this giant shimmering alien-camel-thing.

Ten Tiny Dances in a previous incarnation. Photo by Chelsea Petrakis

Ten Tiny Dances in a previous incarnation. Photo by Chelsea Petrakis

Choreographer Wade Madsen followed with a McLuhan-esque tromp through a landscape of audio samples. He set himself up as a sort of marionette to the sound, and when his gestures and expressions lined up with the frenetic score, it worked.