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REDCAT'S New Original Works Festival Shows How Visual Innovation Can Make Theater More Relevant 

Thursday, Aug 8 2013
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You'd think it would be a given in a movie town such as ours that, even on our local stages, pictures and moving pictures would be the prevailing language that conveys meaning. But other than dance, most of the stage work originating locally is as language-based as British theater. There's a preponderance of dramas and comedies that unfold in living rooms and kitchens and trailer homes and offices, locales created by designers who presumably make their living by creating sets for TV.

One big exception to all this dialogue is REDCAT at Disney Hall. You can blame its pedigree for that: Back in the late 1950s, when Walt Disney conceived of CalArts in Valencia — a training ground for visual and performing artists — he wanted classes for movement, music and language to be under one roof, so young artists would cross-pollinate and generate hybrid works that might push through the boundaries of convention where the play's the thing.

CalArts is the administrative patron of REDCAT, where curator Mark Murphy introduces audiences to eclectic performances in which linguistics mostly play a minor role in the waves of dance, new music and visual design that wash over the stage.

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This is the 10th year of REDCAT's NOW (New Original Works) Festival, which shows snippets of works-in-progress by lesser-known artists, with hopes that they may soon be greater-known. Each of the festival's three weeks presents a different trilogy of performances. But in the first two of the festival's three weeks (the closing bill will be performed this weekend), Walt Disney's original idea clearly has come to fruition.

Christine Marie & Ensemble's "4 Trains" takes the concept of 19th-century railroad tracks, and the psychic impact of industrialization, and weaves them into the 21st-century tracks of fiber optics — itself an extension of the industrial revolution. There was no explanation of any of this. Rather, there was a large projection screen suspended from the stage's center. To Dan Cantrell's evocative soundscape, performers danced and cavorted in front of looming, projected images of train track. For one scene, we were invited to don 3-D glasses to see beams of steel hurtling toward us. Images of despondency mingled with images and sounds of exaltation. There may have been some words thrown in, but I don't recall any.

A similar technique used for a different purpose informs Samantha Goodman's "Depth of Surface." Five dancers and two composers (jazz pianist Reggy Woods and cellist Isaac Takeuchi) created a landscape of dance and sound — sometimes romantic, sometimes dissonant — bodies moving in juxtaposition to the projected images of water, so that whether they were in or on or under, the water became a visual depiction of human power being tested against the liquid forces both within and beyond us.

Particularly beautiful was a two-person creation with much playful dialogue in both English and Thai. Creater-performers Waewdao Sirisook and Ronnarong Khampha's "Fauwn Leb/Identity" started as a fingernail dance — a man and a woman in separate pools of light and in traditional costume twisting wrists and fingers (hers had foot-long nails) while rocking their torsos up and down, mostly standing in place, to the rhythm of a finger cymbal. The formalism, elegance and restraint melted with their quasi-striptease into bathing suits, their "crossing over" from their own isolated circles of light, until those circles yielded to longitudinal strips. There was a choreographed struggle between hanging on to the past and moving on to the future. The isolated pools of light returned at the end, though the performers didn't conclude where they'd started. True, there were fragments of that initial elegance and costume, and the long fingernails were reattached. This is probably what "assimilation" means.

This kind of visually based theater is what the Europeans and Central and South Americans have been doing for decades. That became evident in the Radar L.A. Festival two years ago, which showcased a smattering of some local companies but mostly Pacific Rim troupes. Its offerings suggested that much of the rest of the world treats its theater as a blend of poetically visual elements, accompanied by wordplay. Unlike us, they've moved on from 19th-century psychological realism.

There are some notable exceptions to our word-centric theater culture. A few local companies are dedicated to "text" and choreography and tableaux — established gypsy companies such as Critical Mass Performance Group, Theatre Movement Bazaar, Ghost Road Theatre Company, Rogue Artists Ensemble and City Garage. But they remain solidly in the minority, and that's the mark of some kind of discomfiting entrenchment.

After all, we live now in a culture where, from wide-screen TVs to Android phones, the "news" comes primarily in pictures. That renders big swaths of our theater increasingly disconnected from the way we live.

Which may be one reason why dance-heavy plays feel so current and alive right now. Over in North Hollywood, at Zombie Joe's Underground, director Denise Devin slides the company's calling-card macabre-goth sensibility into what's new for this troupe — a vivid and gorgeous evening of mostly traditional dance called Dancing on the Edge.

Presented on the venue's tiny, bare stage, the show borrows from the company's long-running spectacle of disgustingly funny horror tableaux, Urban Death, in that it consists of almost two dozen dancelets, all in under an hour. And though one ballerina gets shot in the stomach midleap, such glibness is tempered by a more mature investment in themes ranging from despondency — "Hurt," choreographed by Carrie Nedrow and performed with spasmic rigor by JJ Dubon — to jealousy to redemption. The recorded musical selections range from Nine Inch Nails to Debussy. The dancing styles are all over the map, from ballet to hip-hop, and the execution by the dancers is superb.

NEW ORIGINAL WORKS FESTIVAL | Week three continues with Daniel Corral's libretto Dislike, about online anonymity, with a performance by an eight-piece accordion orchestra; Morgan Thorson & Meg Wolfe's "The Other Thing," a performance dance piece about human connection; and Paul Fraser, Genevieve Gearhart & Deena Selenow's "Toxikos," a pop-theater event that reimagines Philoctetes | REDCAT, 631 W. Second St., dwntwn. | Thurs.-Sat., 8:30 p.m.; through Aug. 10 | (213) 237-2800 | redcat.org

DANCING ON THE EDGE | Conceived by Denise Devin, with choreography by Donna Noelle Ibale, Randall Morris, Carrie Nedrow, Jade Waters-Burch and Cody Whitley | Zombie Joe's Underground Theatre, 4850 Lankershim Blvd., N. Hlywd. | Sat., 11 p.m.; added perfs from Sept. 8, Sun., 7 p.m.; through Sept. 21 | (818) 202-4120 | zombiejoes.homestead.com

Reach the writer at smorris@laweekly.com

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