Love Affair with the Studio Theater Jun 9, 2012

by Shannon Stewart

I left the Northwest New Works studio showcase last night thinking, man, I love the studio theater.  Sitting in the very center of the back row, the familiar black and gray vestibule tucked under the lobby of OtB’s main space held me comfortably within a foray of radically different worlds created by four veteran performing artists.

Many of Seattle's most established choreographers have chosen the studio over OtB's main space in this year's festival.  The urban and cultural development nerd in me wants to theorize about the small space insurgency.

Theory One: When the Oddfellows Building was sold, there was a shortage of both rehearsal and theater spaces and people scaled their work in very dramatic ways (large and small).  We are still seeing the byproduct of the real estate shuffle.

 Theory Two: Because OtB has been somewhat of a creative home to these artists, they needed a new challenge in an organization and festival that feels very familiar.

Theory Three: Tahni, Danny, Corrie, and Catherine were wanting to work in a deeper place, take bigger risks, test their ability to follow their artistic curiosity with and not for an audience.

Whatever the case, I found myself ready and willing to be taken wherever we were going, for whatever duration, for whatever aesthetic, dogmatic, visceral, political, spiritual vision initiated our journey.  That is to say the work was good.  The performers pulled it off.

 I had seen a tiny tidbit of Tahni Holt’s Sunshine in a crowded bar in Portland and was ready for the cardboard, the neon pink, the organically emerging and disintegrating rhythmic timing.  Then, the musical score was with a warped record skipping unendingly (which I loved!).  In last night’s incarnation the warped vinyl transmorphed into small mic’s taped to boxes.  A sample of their banging into one another or the ground developed seamlessly into a loop, creating the bass line of a thin score that dancers Lucy Yim and Robert Tyree, at times danced to and at times ignored. 

 The first thing I noticed aside from the obvious long piece of cardboard snaking its way across the stage with the word “Satisfaction” spray painted in tight interlocking pink letters, and Yim with her head in box slowly pushing her way towards the enormous cardboard box wall whose demise you did not doubt was about to unfold, was the matching sheen of the packing tape in the boxes to the sequins that covered the entirety of Tyree’s black track suit.  Yes, a full black sequin track suit.  My mom organizes pageants (no I was not in any!) and I have seen some crazy sequin work. I was nonetheless impressed.

 Everything that takes place in this piece expresses some element of gratification, mostly in shallow ways, but done so intentionally so that a moment with more depth, can have an unexpected profound impact. Images of models on billboards, celebrity, suburbia, pop culture, cool graphic design was made more superficial with the vacancy of the music score and performers’ focus.  This merged with inanity of the cardboard set, its clunkiness and clumsiness, the lack of precision with which it can be handled, the futility of using it to create an image, a shelter, a structure with any sort of reliable strength or longevity.  I thought about the economy, the fallacy of being able to “make a living” as an artist, but also the beauty of persistence in continuing to “make” under any circumstance. 

Danny Herter’s at one mentality used lo-fi aesthetics and deadpan humor to reduce epic tales of Gilgamesh, Enoch and the Book of Genesis to absurd vignettes, with ADD interferences (“Rainbow!” and my favorite, a dance of the spirit animals).  Herter has timing, wit, and a cast of multi-talented performers.

 In order to understand Corrie Befort’s Pinto as a solo, one must understand Befort’s penchants for sculpting set, sound, video, and costume on equal par as her body in space and the composition of her inner landscape. Pinto opens with a small square video of the quintessential northwest mountain scene—a river of clouds rushing to erase and reveal stark mountain ridges and peaks, steely green/blue under the blinding, diffuse gray/white.  It’s like countless car rides I’ve taken across mountain passes, falling asleep with my face pressed against a the cool damp window and opening one eye to take in rapidly changing scenery – even the most strong, stout ridge of earth’s crust pushed up into the sky can at once be erased by an accumulation of drops of water.  Nothing is graspable.  Nothing is permanent. 

The stage is split between living and dead, inside and outside, and the two mingle and get confused with one another. Befort, hunched over an old wooden chair, set in front of an enormous gray platform, creates the image of a small, old creature (a pinto horse), its graceful distended belly at rest amongst a cubist mountain range, counter set to the warmth of the other side of the stage--a piano recital set in the living room of a cabin with a beautiful elevated upright piano, played by a youthful, disaffected Adrienne Varner flanked by wooden coat rack with a fur coat hanging lifelessly (?).  All of these bits are equal parts Corrie’s solo.  When at last you are transfixed on solely the movement of her body, it too is not graspable, it is like vapor, no bones, no muscle, and I felt the audience lean in and almost through her presence.  A sharp exhale might have erased her image.

The evening closed with technical goddess Catherine Cabeen.  The scene was set in a familiar diagonal trajectory.  Cabeen’s costume and opening movements were also familiar, beautiful, objectifiable.  But here is where the familiar ends.   This one, you have to see for yourself.

(more coming. . . )