There is no discernible guiding principle for the selection of the New Original Works Festival's compilation of choreography, spoken word, song and enveloping visual images. The minute you might say, “Ah, these are works that look at the world through symbols,” along comes Overtone Industries' Iceland with its old-fashioned love story and its blend of musical theater songs and operatic arias, accompanied by the 10-member Hidden Folk Choir, two soloists and a chamber orchestra.
A Martian landscape. A Brueghel painting in motion. A Golden Gate Bridge puppet.
Perhaps the New Original Works Festival, now in its 11th year, is best defined by what it's not. It's not a festival of one-act plays. These new works don't reveal their insights through characters clashing. The work here is barely interested in characters at all, or their psychologies. The festival does lay claim on a set designer's curiosity in seeing the world through symbols rather than stories, though it doesn't exclude traditional storytelling.
The festival offers a refreshing departure from the commonplace tropes of theater and opera. It must continue if we're to speak in multiple aesthetic languages. There are rare forms of beauty on this stage.
Still, ironically, these forms appear neither new nor original. They recall a line from the late–20th century American poet John Ciardi: “One trouble with this year's avant-garde is that it has already taken it 50 years to be behind the avant-garde of the '20s.”
You might conclude from The Singing Head that the evening will be dedicated to a presentation of moving pictures: Multimedia artist Carole Kim uses multiple scrims to serve up visual splashes of a Korean/Chinese pagoda, juxtaposed against Alicia Gorecki's live drawings projected onto some Martian landscape — through which floats in slow motion the shadowy image of live astronauts (Butoh dancer Oguri along with Roxanne Steinberg), and Moses Hacmon's live video feed. These images are accompanied by Paul Chavez's deliberately abrasive sound design; Mark Dresser on bass, using that instrument to grunt and wail and rouse the dead; and Carmina Escobar's piercing vocals and electronics. It all starts to resemble a Brueghel painting in motion, a dystopia that's both futuristic and retrospective — forcing you to grapple with its mix of visual beauty and aural pain.
Then comes Marsian De Lellis' Object of Her Affection, a one-person table-puppet show narrated by the performer, about a girl whose deepest affections are for inanimate objects — from her childhood blanket “Blanky” to the Golden Gate Bridge to the apartment building from which she leaps to her death. All the characters appear as puppets, from the girl/woman to bridges and buildings. The piece, which questions on a cosmic level our artificial divide between the animate and the inanimate, has the appealing, droll humor and structural unity of a David Sedaris story. REDCAT's curators clearly haven't entirely given up on spoken word and traditional storytelling.
Several pieces presented during the festival's first two weekends consisted of heavily choreographed narratives. (The upcoming final weekend, Aug. 7-9, features John Fleck's solo performance Blacktop Highway and Ate9 dANCE cOMPANY's For Now.) Wilfried Souly moved with lithe, balletic gestures through his Saana/The Foreigner, during which some text appeared projected onto a wall: a series of intensely personal questions from the Department of Homeland Security when he emigrated from West Africa to the United States. The piece was accompanied (on various guitars and violins) with music and songs by Tom Moose and Julio Montero. These songs created a seductive soundscape that expanded the travels of the archetypal “foreigner.”
Rosanna Gamson and her World Wide dance troupe performed Still — which was anything but. Also employing multiple scrims, along with the visual trickery of Tony Shayne's evocative lighting design, it was an impassioned, erotic series of pairings.
D. Sabela grimes' solo hip-hop ballet Electrogynous combined Meena Murugesan's film/video art with grimes' verbal ruminations on the cosmic impacts of 21st-century technologies, and the conundrum that they elevate both personal interaction and personal alienation at the same time. At least, that's what I got from it, since it also seemed to grapple with the state of human existence in the galaxy — a large, ungainly frame, to say the least.
The cumulative impact of the shows presented during the first two weekends was both revelatory and amorphous — revelatory because of the ambiguous complexities that reside in the language of symbols. I think it was Ciardi who described a symbol as a stone dropped into the water, sending out ripples of meaning. Who can determine exactly where the stone landed? How can you mark anything in shape-shifting liquid?
These questions render the stone's drop not meaningless but evocative. Meaning can be plucked from the ripples that roll in, if you're lucky enough to feel them.
NOW FESTIVAL 2014 | Presented by REDCAT | 631 W. Second St., dwntwn. | Thu.-Sat., 8:30 p.m., through Aug. 9 | (213) 237-2800 | redcat.org