The second installment of the New Original Works Festival 2009 took place this past weekend at the Roy and Edna Disney/CalArts Theatre, and featured two vastly divergent performance pieces — basically night and day of the soul. The first, a piece called 'N1', was a devastatingly beautiful and dark collaborative work among performance-based video artist Carole Kim; choreographer and dancer Oguri; percussionist/composer Alex Cline/and trumpet player and composer Dan Clucas. The second, a show by Jennifer the Leopard, was way more sunshiny and light.
N1 utilized the entire REDCAT auditorium, which was nearly pitch black for the half hour piece. Sound bursts erupted from percussionists, a horn player and a wood flute (or something) played along as a steady beam focused on dancer Oguri, lithe and skinny like a gymnast, on a side platform stage left; audience members had to crane their necks to watch the opening. A live video of Oguri's slow-motion contortions was projected onto a massive black screen, which was transparent enough so that we could see another screen positioned at mid-stage, and another behind it on which other soft white images were projected.
Oguri's movements were pained yet graceful, and as he moved closer to the camera, his face grew huge on the screen before us; he twisted his face into impossible positions, moved from dark expressions to light like a baby, turned disturbed then resolved then revolting. Soon he was on the stage — still behind the black screen — and through the blackened gauze a single spotlight traced his movements, which were at times jerky, at others funny, at others gymnastic.
Cline's music carried the dancer, shot tone bursts at him, pummeled him with bass kicks, pounded. Soon trumpet player Dan Clucas was blowing passages that carried through the room like “Taps” in a cemetery, a single commentator in the abyss, watching a man swirl and squirm in black ink, writhing and twisting.
After N1, the audience was asked to leave the auditorium while Jennifer the Leopard, a four piece “band” of female artists and musicians, got their stuff ready. J Lep, as they're known, had to put ear plugs and mini tambourines under some of the chairs, had to set up the chairs for their onstage fan base, had to arrange four chairs for their mothers.
Where Kim, Oguri, Cline and Clucas traded in solitude and quiet, J Lep offered a more light-hearted performance. The lights were up, and everyone could see everyone else as the four walked onto the stage to huge cheers from their built in fanbase — a few dozen cheerleaders seated in a semi circle around them. The band is decidedly unrehearsed; Singer Stephanie Hutin, while a natural in front of the mic, ain't exactly Mariah, and Lana Kim, who played toy xylophone and guitar, plucked along like an eager amateur. The rhythm section of Lauren Fisher on drums and Marissa Mayer on bass carried the whole boat.
Which is fine; this isn't about musicianship, but about … something else. What, exactly, it is, other than joyous and fun, can be left to art critics. All we know is that though the songs were a little silly, they were smart silly not dumb silly. The highlight, by far, was “This Is a Breakup Song,” the only sad moment of the band's set — though somewhat touchingly so. While the four played the song, penned by Kim, a screen above showed her in close-up staring at the camera, crying. Kim's a convincing actress: as she teared and wept, she ate a sandwich, and the combination was enough to make the crowd utter a matronly “aaaawwwww” as Kim bawled on the screen. After the song was over, in fact, Kim's mother walked over and gave her daughter, who had been playing guitar, a big hug.
Thematically, what was Jennifer the Leopard chasing? (This is, after all, an NEA-funded program, so these questions tend to be asked.) Other than joy and fun and music, it's hard to say. In addition to “Move Your Legs,” a dance dittie in which Hutin commands of the audience to “Move your legs,” “move your hair,” and “move your dick,” the band played a song about Hutin's life “Raised French,” and one called “Looking Good Feelin Fine,” which is self-explanatory. Whether any overarching thematics tied these things together or not is debatable. The notion of “fame” no doubt made it into the artists' statement; the few dozen people onstage danced, donned cheerleaders' outfits and mostly hooted and hollered on cue. But other than “let's do something fun and entertaining,” it'd be hard to be convinced that anything other than the thrill of performance was the underlying rationale.