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Body Language 

The post-human illusions of osseus labyrint

Wednesday, Jan 27 1999
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Photo by Gregg Segal
"All hail, Macbeth! That shalt be king hereafter!" cry the three upside-down witches, hanging naked by ankle straps. Uncurling, they flap their arms, bent and rigid like prehistoric buzzard wings. In unison all three contract back up to their feet, then fall slack except for their bellies, in full spasm. Released from their harnesses, they contort into a circular formation on the ground, preparing for Macbeth's entrance: "By the pricking of my thumbs, something wicked this way comes . . ." Enter Macbeth the graceful gimp, each foot turned out at a disfiguring 135-degree angle.

This is only osseus labyrint's second dress rehearsal with the witches (played by Hannah Sim, Carol Cetrone and David Hardegree) rigged up to a pulley system. As if it were the most natural thing in the world, Sim directs them from her upside-down position while her partner, Mark Steger (Macbeth), critiques from below. Even at rehearsal speed and without proper technical support, this combination of gravity- and modesty-defiance is captivating, even hypnotizing.

Ten years ago, in San Francisco, Steger and Sim formed their movement-based performance project self-described as "a laboratory of random mutations." Although they've lived in Los Angeles for the past four years, most of their extensive and usually site-specific work has been done in Eastern Europe and Asia, performed in such environments as ruins, catacombs, a psychiatric hospital, industrial factories, even in a tree! Steger and Sim have performed on a few local stages -- in Dance Kaleidoscope and at LACE's 20th-anniversary party, for instance -- but The Tragedy of Macbeth, which they will premiere at Highways next week, with six "actors" and two onstage musicians, represents a significant departure.

From what I knew of their work before visiting rehearsals -- it's endurance art but not dance, performance but not performance art (as the self-indulgent bore it's come to be known as), butoh but not butoh, and theater only in a Robert Wilson stretch of imagination -- I couldn't guess how they would interpret Shakespeare. But the metaphysical mayhem of Macbeth offers a wealth of possibilities, and, not surprisingly, Steger and Sim say that, while they'll deliver those lines "that we're really in love with," or incorporate them into the soundtrack, the original text serves primarily as a departure point. "It's not taking place in 11th-century Scotland, rather some kind of timeless milieu."

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Steger and Sim cite animation as a strong influence on their conceptualizing process. Some of their signature actions -- "inchworming," "newborn-bird neck and eye movements," "tantrums that evoke a turtle fallen back on its shell . . ." -- possess elements of autism, which would fail to go beyond the humorous or absurd but for their precise, succinct movements, and their seemingly effortless synchronization. The hyperflexibility of their limbs and their trained ability to simultaneously loosen and freeze different parts of their bodies, creating isolated spasms, result in movement of a mutant nature, the antithesis of ordinary human experience. This, combined with their specialized physical appearance -- naked of not only clothing but hair and fat; extraordinarily muscular, striated bodies -- transcends their often truly spastic, goofball actions. Osseus labryint seductively defy any form of naturalism and normality, not because they are wrong, but because they are obsolete.

Over the past two decades, European techno­body artists Stelarc and Orlan have overtly made this point -- the body's obsolescence. Stelarc's full-body meat-hook suspensions defied the notion of what the body can withstand and survive, while his more recent mechanical third arm and computer-controlled surgical implants speculate on the end of the natural body's usefulness. Yet in a way, Stelarc's concepts have been overshadowed by actual medical-implant advances. Likewise, the profundity of Orlan's facial surgeries has been rendered obsolete by the real-life spectacle of plastic-surgery cat woman and New York socialite Jocelyne Wildenstein. Sim and Steger, meanwhile, low-tech and surgery-free, stake their claims for the body's obsolescence simply by performing: Their joint image, twinlike and androgynous, is a science-fiction nightmare. As man and woman, they create the illusion of a spare, post-human race.

Osseus labyrint's challenge is not only to mutate Macbeth to suit their style, but to integrate the rest of the cast into their species. Hardegree, from San Jose, has worked with them on past projects, but for local legend Carol Cetrone (who usually performs solo as Perpetua), this show is a foray into a boldly different direction. As I witnessed at rehearsals, Sim and Steger have been mercilessly whipping (and shaving) them into shape, priming them to spew out the curve-ball prophecy of Macbeth's demise -- when the forest of Birnam is made to move upon the castle at Dunsinane. "That will never be; who can impress the forest; bid the tree unfix his earth-bound root?"

Osseus labyrint will perform The Tragedy of Macbeth at Highways in Santa Monica, February 4 through 7.

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