Randomly spaced ping pong balls hang suspended from grids overhead. A muffled roar – familiar yet eerie – crescendos. The incessant monotony, that of an airplane engine, a distant waterfall, pelting rain, or crackling static creates an ominous sense of terror, of something unseen and impossible to articulate, like an unformed concept that is palpable and moving on Source’s thrust stage in the inky-black pit before us.
In Scent of Sky, dancer/choreographer Naoko Maeshiba and electronic-media artist, Alberto Gaitan explore a realm of sound and kinetic gesture where words are inadequate. Throughout this challenging piece, there are subtle and visual surprises. First the hands of dancer/choreographer Naoko Maeshiba are seen undulating; then gradually a leg, a foot emerge, body part by body part. In dim light, Maeshiba’s face looks mummified, wrinkled and old. Tiny orbs of orange LEDs (light-emitting diodes) flash, like warning lights on airplane wing-tips, from under the dancer’s dark gown. Maeshiba wears a floppy white hat that half shrouds her face as she slowly spins and turns in super-slow Butoh-like gestures and grotesque poses. Butoh is a hyper-slow Japanese dance form, about taboo subjects, that appeared after WWII as protest against Western culture. And although Maeshiba claims her dancing is not Butoh, her study of the discipline is evident in her highly individualized, expressive style.
It’s a small jolt when Maeshiba’s hat falls off and slow illumination humanizes her face as youthful. Then she collapses against the upstage wall like a smashed insect or a broken doll. But the grotesquerie continues to look improvised and spontaneous for an entire thirty-two minutes. During which time, all focus is on the dancer’s poses, as when she stoops and crawls like a crab. Her body is so flexible, boneless, and fluid it’s as if her limbs are caught in underwater currents.
The most memorable moment comes near the end just before she spins around and her eyes blink open, as if she’s waking into consciousness for the first time. Then stripped down to a white tunic, she collapses on the floor, consumed by the dark. That’s the image I take home with me.
Alberto Gaitan, who describes himself as a media-artist in laptoppery (there is such a word), composes a John Cage-like electronic score of cacophony, sound bites of blathering speech, and snippets of classical 19-century musical phrases. But most significant and climactic, through his laptop computer, Gaitan projects “white noise,” a blur of black-and-white dots on the upstage backdrop, accompanied by an irritating buzz, what we see on a television screen after all stations have signed off. At this one peak point, while Maeshiba dances against this projection, Scent of Sky became more than mere experimentation; it became an exploration of infinity, of the unknown. White noise suddenly becomes an allegory for a spiritual search. (White noise can be defined as 1,000 voices talking at once so that the human brain cannot sort out a single meaning.)
My overall sense is that you’re on your own with the Gaitan-Maeshiba collaboration, as you are with an abstract Rothko painting, or Merce Cunningham or Mark Morris modern dance, except that in Scent of Sky, there’s a clash of dark and light, of sound and silence. You make what you will of what you hear and see. I thought of a line of poetry from William Butler Yeats, “Things fall apart, the center cannot hold; mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.” I definitely would like to see more of Maeshiba’s choreography in future, perhaps for an ensemble of dancers.
Three one-acts are tied together of a banjolele-strumming mistress of ceremonies, Armida Lowe, a sultry songster, who wails from her soul songs of pain, abandonment, broken relationships. Her instrument is an interesting hybrid-cross between a ukulele and banjo, although for one break, she solos on ukulele only. Her songs communicate solitariness and strength; not loneliness. She can travel alone but she invites us into one sing-along. She tells us that in 1957 she worked as a singer in a nightclub. The year 1957 must be a set-up for the time period of the next act.
Which is Token, created by Enoch Chan and Kimmie Dobbs Chan, less successful as a multi-media mash-up, even though it’s pieced together with a strong plot line and has a lot of dramatic potential. Token seems to follow a pattern, reminiscent of Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Indians, in which an anonymous killer is at work.
Ten alive-and-well characters interact, kibitz and prey on one another in a street scene under dangling signs, “Bus Stop,” “Pawn” and “Coffee” signs. The first scene establishes the pattern when one young woman, wearing a bright red t-shirt and seated on a wooden bench waiting for the bus, keels over dead and drops a token on the ground. A second young woman, dressed in hippie-like beads and blue colors, reacts indifferently to the death of the woman in red, but snatches up the token, delighted with her gain. In the next scene, the woman in red has disappeared and the young woman in blue has the token and waits for the bus.
Eventually, the eight other self-involved people follow the same pattern. One important character is a blind man who taps around with his cane and orders hot coffee. When the next bench-warmer falls dead, another person picks up the token and falls to the same fate. One by one each who acquires the token doesn’t appear in the next scene. “Where is everybody?” one character cries during the frenetic comings-and-goings. The question is left in the air. The bus comes and goes until then there is one – the blind man, backed by a solo violin playing gypsy airs. Even though not live music, the piped-in recordings seem relevant in that gypsies are wanderers as are the characters. The blind man can no longer buy coffee because no one is left to serve it. Before the final black-out, the implication is that the blind man left on the bench waiting for the bus to an unknown destination, he too will fall dead. And then there will be none.
The concept is provocative and rich with overtones; this theatrical staging less so. It’s because this one-act that now takes twenty-five minutes of playing time, needs tightening, clarification, focus and pacing to really build suspense. The ending should hit us with a bang, not fall the way it does like the token.
Combustion is a 20 minute “mash up” created and performed by guitarist Scott Burgess, Allyson Currin, the speaker, and Kate McGraw, the painter.
A large white drawing board leans against the back wall. A white drop cloth blankets the floor.
Combustion is a one gag show about impending chaos or spontaneous combustion that lurks beneath the calm surface of modern, everyday life. Basically, it is an almost satisfying one-act that builds to one punch line.
Well-acted overall, Allyson Currin, the verbal one, is an obsessive compulsive young woman, who takes off her shoes, tucks her rolled socks neatly inside her lined-up shoes and tells us her “structured” and “disciplined” life is under control. We may laugh and identify, but we know better. Plus we don’t quite believe Currin because she seems hyped with anxiety. She compulsively talks, biting off her words, until we detect that lurking beneath her life’s calm, lays the possibility of “spontaneous combustion.” Her statement “It happens, you know,” sets up an intriguing foreboding. Behind Currin, Kate McGraw, the nonverbal one, draws black squares on the white drawing board, an allegorical depiction of how Currin really feels-boxed in.
A fusion of electronic and satiric elements come from Scott Burgess’ feed-ins of electronic guitar to accompany Currin’s and McGraw’s dramatic confrontations that follow. The triad create an atonal, discordant blend visually and sound-wise. The play gets funnier as McGraw, the painter, reacts to Currin’s dreams of red, green and blue sheep by drawing staccato marks with a black marker for the number Currin counts at night to fall asleep. Scott Burgess mimicks the action with electric guitar.
Somehow, however, this fusion of media, while clever, never explodes from the opening menace which the opening dialogue promises. We expect apocalypse. Or have I become too addicted to horror flicks? Tension is aroused because we expect Currin to lose control at any moment with an apocalyptic revelation. Instead, what actually happens feels anticlimactic, more like a tantrum in a teapot.
Ultimately, in a shocking but mild way we are treated to the sight of spontaneous combustion. In a dispassionate moment, McGraw picks up two cans and splatters the stage and white board with red paint, like blood. And this becomes boxed-in Currin’s big breakout moment. Currin combusts and gets outside her box. Somehow this short never works up enough friction to combust for me. But there are such infinite possibilities with the premise: Couldn’t Currin represent the left side of the brain and McGraw the one dominated by the right? Hopefully this triad will head back to the drawing board.
Reviewed by Rosalind Lacy
The Source Festival continues through July 12. For the schedule, click here.