The quartet that calls itself We Are the World is defiantly indescribable, a continually mutating art/performance/music/dance-freak amalgamation — the weird and wonderful love child of all things fabulous and strange. Yes, they are "electro." Yes, they are "performance art." Yes, they are "dance music."
In fact, they have been called everything from "Cirque du So'electro burlescapade" and "chakra-healing weirdness" to "techno-philic creep-fest" and "futuristic gangsta witchery."
We Are the World, amazingly enough, is simultaneously all of these things — and none of them.
The group has certainly made an explosive crash-landing at the center of the L.A. scene. It is as if they arrived from some cold and distant planet, a place full of darkness, a deep, howling beauty and a low-lying fog in which strange shapes lurk.
We Are the World is the sum of four formidable parts. Multi-instrumentalist/composer Robbie Williamson and his wife, Megan Gold, are the act's musical element. The group's movement-and-dance element is created by choreographer Ryan Heffington and lead dancer Nina McNeely.
Williamson is adept at epic, synthesized landscapes — ponderous white-noise symphonies and thrusting club beats. Gold's strong, throaty vocals lift these electronic musings and give them an evocative and sensual skin, which in turn informs Heffington and McNeely's alternately spare and expansive movements. It is a creative support system that pushes the boundaries of both live music and dance.
"We wanted to break the mold of your usual 'band plus backup dancer' formula," McNeely says, "and create an experience that tests the senses."
"Basically," Heffington adds, "we wanted an equality between dance and music."
That equality has yielded the unique We Are the World experience, in both its stage shows and its upcoming Clay Stones album (out this Tuesday on Manimal), a propulsive, throbbing, gritty, disturbing, elating and operatic debut. To merely listen to We Are the World, however, is to miss an enormous part of the group's incredible combined dynamic.
"Our goal, which I think we've reached," Heffington says, "is to become a force that must not only be heard but be seen [in order] to understand — to create a space where the individual is less important than the whole."
The four have been collaborating for years, supporting each other in their individual art, music, fashion and dance projects. Gold and Williamson have been working together creatively since they met in Tacoma in 1992. Today, they run Ladyboy Shoes in Echo Park, a shop where they both record music and produce comfortable, stylish, vegan-friendly footwear.
Heffington is fast becoming a kind of cult leader/beloved guru of the L.A. dance scene. His "Sweaty Sundays," a dance class/workout/communal love-in, is a hub of the Eastside scene. Heffington also stages exquisite ballets in grungy downtown clubs and pornographic sex grinds at high-art temples like REDCAT and the Ford. And he occasionally takes his minions to the streets for wild, impromptu "dance attacks."
McNeely, who has been dancing with Heffington since his start nearly a decade ago, is his ultimate female counterpart, with a personal style that is fierce and brazenly sexual. Together, they are the backbone of We Are the World's breathtaking live shows.
The way the quartet now functions is communal, producing work through a process of endless give-and-take.
"Robbie and I give a new song to Ryan and Nina," continues Gold. "One of them gets inspired to create the movement for it. Then we see how the set flows with the new song. 'Does it work with the current costumes?' 'Will it translate live?' 'Would it be cooler if we all tried to play drums live or crawl around on our backs?' You know — the usual 'We are the Weird' considerations."
As a result of these challenges, We Are the World is relentlessly experimental, gleefully playing with an array of soundscapes, movements and imaginative visual creations.
The epitome of the group's collaborative process may be its costuming — a patchwork of ritualistic regalia inspired by varied sources, many of them sacred: Whirling Dervish robes that expand and contract; vaguely papal capes and caps; ceremonial burkas; towering Shriner hats; Helmut Newton–ish bondage gear; the creepiest of Venetian carnival masques; and a hefty dose of mutating/metamorphosing fashion weirdness directly inspired by late, great performance icon Leigh Bowery.
"Becoming masked, I think, has made quite a statement," says Heffington, "taking the sex out of art."
"As soon as we started fully disguising our personal identities onstage, there was a definite change," McNeely agrees. "The demons came out. I felt free to reveal my masculinity and power, like never before. When we are really raging toward the end of the show, it's like being part of a four-headed monster child."
We Are the World, in fact, is constantly mutating. Like a force of nature, the collective entity cannot be contained or controlled, even by its individual members. "If I punch, she kicks, he spits and the other whistles," Williamson says.
"And in the end," he adds, "we all know it's going to look and sound like a bird we all want to fly on the back of."
WE ARE THE WORLD performs a Thursday residency at the Echo, on three consecutive Thursdays: April 1, 8 and 15.
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