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Three to Get Ready

New Original Works Festival, REDCAT, 22, 23, 24 September 2011 –

An enthusiastic sold-out crowd saw a triple bill last week of two new dance works and an elaborate puppet/human operetta in the annual NOWFest at REDCAT, a three-week series that showcases new works by Los Angeles-based dance, theater, music, and multimedia performance artists.

Michel Kouakou began the evening with his pseudo-solo Sack, in which he was the primary moving object. A large sack suspended from the ceiling functioned as the only prop — unless one also counts the several stationary dancers who also occupied the stage, all of whom had their shirts pulled over their faces for the duration of the 20-minute performance. Kouakou’s movement cerainly contrasted with the rigidity of his collaborators: throughout the work his dancing was fluid, varied, and rapid. Near that start, he spun his hands in front of himself as if reeling in an impossibly long cable. At another point he was in a yoga-like pigeon pose, sitting near the rear of the stage on one leg; then he ambulated in hopping pigeon poses to the middle, alternately snapping his legs out from under himself, pulling himself forward with the freed limb like a darting crab. Even though Kouakou has danced with other companies, notably the Reggie Wilson Performance Group, and has worked with many international choreographers, his approach to dance is so singular that it is fortunate that he has created his own work that reveals his very deep understanding of the power of movement. The piece itself is personal and raised many questions, especially about the significance of the sack, the unmoving cast, and whatever narrative Kouakou had in mind. Perhaps this reaction speaks more to the nature of such a festival: performers premiere work that is still in process and subject to revision, revision informed by the performance itself, which cannot be simulated in rehearsal. As it was, Sack served as a vehicle for Kouakou to display his considerable virtuosity as a dancer.

Kouakou returned in a featured role for the next work, Victoria Marks’s Medium Big Inefficient Considerably Imbalanced Dance, a work in which five other dancers moved to varying amounts of silence and harshly manipulated music excerpts from Bonobo and Kamikaze Ground Crew. As with the first work of the evening, there were some intriguing moments in Marks’s work, the highlight being a dirge by  two dancers approaching each other from opposite edges of the stage; they reached out with great yearning as they drew ever closer, their bodies growing more tense as we anticipated their meeting. And just when they came together, they missed their chance to finally embrace, sadly continuing their grim procession past each other, eventually reaching each other’s starting points, having never touched. Marks, a Guggenheim, Alpert, and Fulbright recipient, doesn’t pander to the audience or her dancers; while she requires great skill from them, she doesn’t incorporate many recognizable techniques. She draws on  disparate sources in her choreography: perhaps her movement work with elderly men informed some of the original solo and ensemble phrases, such as when the dancers, particularly Wilifried Souly, were called upon to move awkwardly, with tightness in the shoulders and back, as though dealing with an internal struggle through the external mechanism of the body. For contrast, there were humorous juxtapositions of music and movement throughout the work, which according to Marks is rooted in improvisation although this dance didn’t include it overtly.

The evening concluded with the elaborate production Zoophilic Follies by puppet duo Tandem and perverse cabaret/chamber group Timur and The Dime Museum. The narrative was loosely and comically based on the Daedalus myth, and although billed as a puppet opera, Zoophilic Follies was far more opera  than puppet, with extravagant, exotic music composed by Tandem’s Daniel Corral (who served as conductor and accordionist for the band) and otherworldly singing from poly-tessitura vocalist Timur Bekbosunov. The crazy catch-all staging included rear-projected images, handheld puppets and masks sized from a few inches to several feet, actors in the aisles, and complex costumes (by Sandra Burns).  There were committed performances from Dorian Wood (Minos/Minotaur), Abby Travis (Pasiphae), and Maesa Rae (Ariadne). This thrilling, precious project was as entertaining as it was unique, driven by ever-engaging songs, instrumental solos, and tight ensemble playing.  The well-paced direction and video contributions of Caitlin Lainoff and DanRae Wilson were especially notable given the intrinsic difficulties of staging such a complicated work.

NOWFest encourages creative performers to take chances and all three of these works were challenging and risky. The evening was a fitting end to a series that featured the Lucky Dragons, Rosanna Gamson/World Wide, and Cindy Derby, among others. It is fortunate that Los Angeles has a state-of-the-art venue in REDCAT whose management sees the value of mashing up the significant creative energy of such local artist/performers.

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