Holland Andrews at TBA in 2012, Michael Cooper, TBA Press Corps
When I told people here in Salt Lake City that I was headed to TBA Festival in Portland, the typical response was a shrug. “The to be announced festival?” In spite of my bewildered friends, the 10-day event, which ended Sunday, is now in its eleventh year. TBA has a high profile in Portland itself, where every bartender or cabbie I met seemed enthused that TBA was going to be the lens through which I discovered their city. The Time-Based Art Festival (presented by the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art) is a gathering of musicians, performers, visual artists, and everything in between. I went to cover dance, and was happily surprised by the strength and diversity of the music, theatre and visual art I saw along the way.
Nearly all of TBA took place in and around downtown, on the west side of the Willamette. Portland, then in an Indian Summer, felt lush in the blue-green decay of its most grown-up parts. The festival opened with a performance by The Julie Ruin (which I tragically missed due to a late airplane) followed soon after by several performances by the unapologetically poppy duo The Blow (who are coming to Kilby Court on October 18). To me, the great musical discovery of the trip was lesser-known Like a Villain, a project of Portlander Holland Andrews. She might seem lightweight if I describe her via her instrumental repertoire––a looping pedal, a glockenspiel and a clarinet––but she’s no flouncy Portlandia refugee. Her lyrics and delivery gave me chills, especially in “My Dog Ate It,” an astonishingly dark song about homework and school, with which she closed her set.
Andrews’ show was a part of “The Works,” a late-night series in a temporarily vacant warehouse which also included such fare as "Critical Mascara" (a “Post-Realness Drag Ball”), a participatory performance called “Boy Band Audition” and a rather silly lecture by the founder of Vimeo. Other than Like a Villain, my favorite grab from this mixed bag was Ieva Misevičiūtė, whose difficult “I will rip your arms off” exists somewhere between theatre, dance and sketch comedy minus the easy laughs. Such rich intersections of distinct genres and themes were also happily endemic to the more fully produced shows that brought me to TBA.
Miguel Gutierrez’s “And lose the name of action,” made in response to a long period of neurological illness suffered by the artist’s father, is a great example. Some might recall that Gutierrez recently presented the interactive performance "DEEP Aerobics" here in SLC in collaboration with SLUG, SBdance and loveDANCEmore. Here was the most ambitious project at the festival. Gutierrez brought together a profound cast of dancers, schooled them in his own emerging style of vocal music practice and layered over all of this a fractured film-performance inspired by Jørgen Leth’s "The Perfect Human."
“And lose the name of action” is made up of brief episodes, fake deaths and entrances, extravagant costume changes and sudden shifts in lighting. It’s difficult to watch because it implicates you in its subject: the instability and implacability of the human “mind” within a frail body/brain. At the opening, KJ Holmes’ striking white hair and unreadable face are lit by a tiny white box that leaks light, “I am old...” she intones. I believe her, though somehow she looks impossibly young at the same time. The moment is seductive and full of portent. Throughout, I see phantoms of these bodies in future and past states of vulnerability––Hilary Clark has a particular capacity for this, slipping between adult vitality and a strange childlike quality in an instant.
In one scene, the cast sits within the three front rows that surround the white marley floor. They build a vocal rondo out of simple, repeated refrains over which Gutierrez launches into a solo. He pleads with his dad to come back from some liminal space between life and death. It’s poignant and real and I’m shocked how well they all sing. The thick noise underneath their voices (scored by Neal Medlyn) builds until the dancers themselves are inaudible. Overpowered, they slouch toward the floor with arms outstretched, as if arrested in silent orgasm, death or the arrival of the aliens. The ceiling of white muslin, which looks like a UFO or the bottom of a Bundt cake pan, burns with a slow parade of heartbreaking highlighter color. As instructed much earlier, we’re holding hands with our neighbors in the audience. The sound and the colors suddenly stop and there we are, still touching, feeling rather foolish and raw in the bright white light.
Another moment I keep recalling plays on shared anxieties. Gutierrez and Ishmael Houston-Jones read out a skit from hand-held scripts. Between bouts of creepy unison laughter, they argue about the absurd problem of locating the consciousness within the body. They talk around the seriousness of the issue, positing Philosophy 101 thought experiments in a way that elicits sympathetic fear from the audience––are they really going to make such boyish fools of themselves? I don’t realize until later that this is all part of Gutierrez’s strategy to make me uncomfortable. Ultimately, it makes me reflect on being incapable of saving any of these distracted souls, even in the universe of this dance, which I’ve been reminded only exists inside my own skull.
I cherish the long, dense passages when all six dancers become a moving forest of limbs. I am reminded of the work of John Jasperse, a former employer of Gutierrez and the cast member Michelle Boulé, who, if Gutierrez needed one, might be his pure dance muse. Jasperse is expert at the deliciously dense. In group work, he deploys just enough order to give chaos the aftertaste of formal logic. Here Gutierrez is working with a much more diverse cast, especially in terms of age and body type, than I have ever seen in a Jasperse work. It only makes the alchemy seem more powerful.
In trying to wrap my head around “And lose the name” in its totality, I keep coming back to the word “misdiagnosis” which came to me through the program notes. (Gutierrez: “In 2008, my father began to have a series of neurological problems. After years of misdiagnoses ... he returned home in a cognitively diminished state.”) In trying to make sense of the mess of this dance, I am faced with the frustration familiar to anyone who has tried to analyze her own dreams. As soon as one thing achieves a fullness of meaning, meaning crumbles elsewhere in the matrix. Perhaps that’s part of the unique value that movement art in general and Gutierrez’s work specifically can add to the philosophical discussions that “And lose the name” dances around and through. I wish I could see it again, with Oliver Sacks as my date.
Gutierrez is managed by Ben Pryor, whose four-year-old American Realness festival has become an enclave for experimental performance and an important curatorial model for American dancers. Also represented by Pryor, Trajal Harrell presented “Judson Church is Ringing in Harlem (Made-to-Measure).” “M2M,” as Harrell abbreviates this title, is from the series called “Twenty Looks or Paris is Burning at the Judson Church,” two of which he presented at TBA––let’s pause for a minute to decode.
Some readers might have seen the film Paris is Burning when the Utah Film Center screened it last year at Brewvies with director Jennie Livingston in attendance. Finished in 1990, this cult classic is by far the most famous portrait of the black and Puerto-Rican performers of Harlem’s drag balls, from which vogueing, “realness,” and much else now entering the mainstream emerged. Many of the film’s subjects died very young and lived hard, facing AIDS, entrenched racism and homophobia, and extreme poverty. The Judson Memorial Church is a very important site in (post)modern dance history. It was (and is) a place where American dance came down from the high horse of formalism and got messy and experimental, mixing with iconic visual artists like Carolee Schneeman and Robert Rauschenberg. (Maybe you’ve been to a Mudson, a Judson-inspired series run by loveDANCEmore here in SLC.)
The series has at least six different versions or “sizes” including the one I saw. Harrell begins by imagining impossible encounters between these two communities. Sometimes, the voguers go downtown to the Village. In “M2M,” supposedly, it’s the other way round. Perhaps this one is more autobiographical, “Though I am African-American, [Harell is] not a voguer from Harlem.” “M2M” is introduced informally by its handsomest, tallest, youngest performer, Brussels-based Thibault Lac. Lac gives the audience some, though not all of the context I’ve offered above. Then he tells us to forget he’s said anything and to imagine a “new beginning.” He walks off stage left, then back on, then sits in one of three chairs which form a triangle on the dance floor.
The other two seat themselves in quick succession. Lac is the epitome of pale white boy beauty, a gangly, charming Robert Pattinson/Lord Byron type. Czech dancer Ondrej Vidlar is understated, impassive and calm. Harrell himself enters the space with a look of panic, in fact he’s trembling violently. They will stay seated for quite some time as a long, contrapuntal suite of popular music fills the room’s big empty spaces. Harrell will shake as though weeping. He sings mournfully, “I feel the souls of black folk ...” Vidlar, and eventually Lac, contribute small gestures, slowly changing expressions, and an absurd spoken refrain. It’s never 100 percent clear if their dry “Don’t Stop, do not stop” is a reference to Micheal Jackson’s “Don’t stop till you get enough ...” I guess that’s the presence of the postmodern Judson legacy.
The memorable musical presences of the first half of the score––Gillian Welch and Antony and the Johnsons––are not what I expected. I suppose I’d imagined some more direct use of “black” musical voices as a strategy for dealing with the appropriation of Voguing and drag ball culture by the mainstream US media. Harrell offers no such textbook answer. Later on, to more genre appropriate tunes, Harrell will (slowly) pull himself together and the cast will finally get up to spend their last 20 minutes dancing, displaying their integration of Voguing techniques into their personae as postmodern dancers. It’s impressive, but less compelling than the “realness” of Harrell’s staged suffering at the beginning.
This work is as hard to decode as Gutierrez’s, and its monolithic structure is much harder to chew. “M2M,” like the film that helped to inspire it, explores the vibrancy of a subculture suffused with a thread of pain. Like "Paris is Burning" itself, the dance doesn’t seem to know quite what to do with this poignant juxtaposition, or the dramatic tension between Harrell and the two white men who join him. What I do “get” and appreciate about “M2M” is that it brings the conversation back to the suffering that the people in the film went through, albeit in a roundabout way. Too often, "Paris is Burning" is reframed as a celebration of queerness that forgets the issue of race and poverty at play.
Another dance that sparked heated discussions at TBA was “ADULT.” This duet featured San Francisco based artists Laura Arrington and Jesse Hewit, who are both core cast members in Keith Hennessy’s "Turbulence: a dance about the economy." Their work concluded with fierce spectacle––but its heart was in the first act, during which the audience struggled to see a long, neurotic tap dance performed in almost total darkness. Our eyes had adjusted somewhat as Arrington took off her shoes and climbed on top of her partner who lay on a table near the watchers. The scene that ensued was frightening, funny and totally ambiguous. They might have been making love in slow motion, falling asleep on top of one another, or trying to revive one another from death. We all leaned in, and were made voyeurs to images of our own fears.
What a privilege to see “ADULT” in the same week as Nacera Belaza’s performance with her sister Delilla Belaza. Belaza’s three works seemed as one, a series of studies of esctatic bodies in a black box void, in which the lighting elements often seemed to become a third partner. Maddeningly difficult to describe, the Belazas’ movement vocabulary is simple and repetitive, except when it’s not. In the final piece, "Le Temps scellé," the pair moved continuously for what seemed like hours. The expressiveness of posture that makes people watching worthwhile seemed somehow transformed into a collage of changing identities that poured from each performer’s body. I remarked to my neighbor, “She’s broken all of the rules I learned in my college [dance] comp[osition] class. This dance has no sense of space and no physical or musical respite. The movement never stops and never really changes in speed or tone, yet somehow, its fascinating to watch ...”
I congratulate Angela Maddox and her staff for a curation that was not just courageous, but actually started conversations like the one I mentioned above. At TBA, I often found that even the work I didn’t particularly like at this festival had unexpected value when placed in conversation with work that did resonate personally.
That said, my favorite performance was Lola Arias’ “El año en que nací.” It’s one of those rare theatre pieces that wanders into the territory of documentary art, which we so often think of solely as the province of writing and photography alone. It tells the stories of 11 Chileans born between 1971 and 1989. The play begins with a series of laps run around the stage, each representing another passing year. The eldest performer read out the years while playing an electric guitar as each successively younger person joined the fry. Though close in age and untied in nationality, the group explored other ways in which they turned out to be quite diverse. The Argentinian director chose these individuals after an exhaustive search for young people who were interested in talking about their own parents in relation to the collective experience of the brutal regime of Augusto Pinochet. The baton of narration passed smoothly from hand to hand, as real detritus from the performers’ lives passed before an overhead projector. The text was clearly generated from improvisation and its underlying voice slipped subtly between the personal, comparative and collective.
The play was performed in Spanish, with English supertitles projected above the action. The titles frequently failed, which created gloriously awkward opportunities for shared introspection. One performer mused, “We should just do it in English, we all speak it well enough.” But soon the proper cable was jostled and the theatrical ritual ensued in its proper tongue.
What I loved about this piece was how straight forward it was. It had simple objectives which it achieved in style. In one passage, Arias forced conflict in brave, if absurd experiments. At one point, the cast argued flamboyantly over a series of line-ups e.g. darkest to lightest skin color; the person with the most left leaning father on one side, s(he) who has the most conservative on the other; then the same with mothers. (Perhaps unsurprisingly, everyone thought their mother was at least a moderate.)
We were told in alternatingly gory and lavish detail the stories of each performer’s parents. One participant even discovered her father’s true identity through an early reading back in Chile. With a disconcerting casualness, she told us of how her father had gone from being the victim of car accident to a dead pilot to an ex-policeman imprisoned for murder till 2016. The most interesting performance came from a woman whose family had spent most of the regime living in Atlanta, only to suffer a collective nervous breakdown that eventually lead them home.
In the end, as much as "El año" was about Chile and Pinochet, it was also about the beauty of the fleeting, ersatz families that form on tour. Any of us in that audience might have become murderers, but any of our children might have become these heroically stoic young people. This balancing act of positive and negative reminders about the behavior of “normal” people didn’t get sappy at the end as I worried it would. Much of the text near the end of the play dealt with the uncertainty of the future. The last image formed as all of the cast (except Alejandro Gómez, who’d been playing a guitar throughout) went to a bay of lockers at the back of the stage and retrieved their very own guitar and amp and added to a deafening wall of sound. Amidst all of this a final obscene revelation dropped like a bomb, ending the reverie and the play.