Temperatures dropped sharply inside the Kennedy Center last night; they rose again exponentially. There were other, sometime violent, meteorological disturbances. In short, in the space of 80 minutes, the multi-media NeoArtic asks us to journey with the work in a disturbing yet also strangely beautiful and elegiac investigation into what science writer Elisabeth Kolbert has termed the earth’s “sixth extinction.”
Speaking of weather, the Terrace Theater at times felt a big draft, as a stream of impatient or underwhelmed audience members got sucked into exiting. But, if you are of that important, intrepid group of adventurous theater-goers who seek out cross-disciplinary work or an arts enthusiast who cares deeply about our environmental crisis, this is one you may not want to miss.
Evocative. Contemplative. Fragile. Disturbing. Mesmerizing. Immersive. These were some of the words audience members used to describe their experience.
Director Kirsten Dehlholm has tackled a behemoth theme in this work with her company Hotel Pro Forma in what she herself spoke of as the hardest work she has ever done. NeoArtic has taken the company three years to achieve its heavily conceptual vision.
To mount the work, Dehlholm assembled a most talented, even brilliant team of collaborators at the Hotel Pro Form (HPF), an international production house dedicated to large-scale performance art projects. Chiefly, the highly talented and vocally gorgeous Latvian Radio Choir, led by Kaspars P Putninš, that has been an important Latvian cultural institution since 1940 in the landscape of that country’s rich vocal tradition, grounded the work in sustaining the human scale.
The aural landscape that the twelve singers from the choir provided on stage throughout the evening was guided by Putninš, not so much conducting but seemingly using his hands like a Magus to pull out of the air and shape the vowels coming across the space from the stage and sending them like meteor showers out to the audience. The purest of vowels creating shimmering sonorities, strange haunting intervals and “impossible harmonies, and chants that begin to throb subliminally are this group’s hallmark sound.
NeoArtic was organized into twelve songs, divided in their composition six-and-six between two composers distinct in their compositional approaches. Andy Stott is clearly both composer and “techno geek” with a gift for compiling environmental and techno-tracks into complex, layered electronic scores. Krists Auznieks, who was on hand for the performance, is a composer well versed in setting choral music and songs. His work stood out, giving the performance its clearest moments of emotion. He allowed the singers to bring in humanity, and in his musical gems, certain songs began to tell a story.
closes February 16, 2019
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Additional collaborators included Icelandic poet Sjón as librettist and Pakistani-German costume designer Wali Mohammed Barrech, making this truly an international creative team. The contributions of these two were keenly important to my experience of the work.
In setting the words of the piece’s organization of 12 songs, Sjón provided the framework with different emotional tonalities so the other artists could respond, and in turn gave us, the audience, important handholds. Some of his text rolled out to the audience like precious koans floating above the flotsam and jetsam: “The home you leave is never the home you return to…” and “How many hues of blue can you live without?” Compelling and emotionally satisfying. Most of us humans are, after all, language blessed and language bound.
Yes, alas, how can a reviewer even describe the evening, the experience was such a personal one as a ‘scene’ unfolded with each song? Better to list: Plastic, Dust, Mud, Minerals, Infinity, Respiration, Turbulence, Chance, Electricity, Temperature, Optics, and Colours (a & b.)
Barrech’s costume designs were an inventive and eclectic assemblage of capes, hoods, rubber boots and gloves, and visors that had the humans on stage reminding me at times of Mongolian tribesmen and at others seemed to evoke hazmat workers, perhaps landed in the future from some other planet, sent to test the apocalyptic landscape of earth.
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The lead character of the show is Earth herself, not impersonated, but a presence depicted sliced and diced on the giant screen through various manipulated video mappings and documentary footage. The first image which carried through the first movement “Plastic” was a rolling sea made up of a colorful, congealed plastics like a quilt covering our formerly ‘blue’ pristine planet. Floors, walls and even sky, it seemed were filled and brought the audience right into the endlessly shifting virtual world.
One of the most moving scenes of the evening was when the full stage was projected in white hills of snow and looming icebergs. The images drew us in (forever it seemed,) over this icy landscape closer and closer to the giant pinnacles. But then white began to break up, white walls ‘dropped” tumbling-down, and black holes appeared and spread. Soon the space was filled with blackness with only the tiniest isolated white ‘islands.’ This artistic recreation of the disappearing polar caps made me gasp and feel weepy.
Set designer Anne Mette Fisker Langkjer had used canvas tent-like shapes to create walls for projects and the same canvas to cover, if somewhat treacherously, the floor. (The half-blind (visored) singers were forced to pick up their wellington boots and carefully, almost monotonously, negotiate the tricky terrain.)
Video designers Adam Ryde Ankarfeldt and Magnus Pind Bjerre, inspired by Sjon’s text, added greatly to the power of the evening with their brilliant interpretation of Earth in the Anthropocene era. Together this creative team showed a remarkable cerebral energy and talent in the work. No thrown together performance art piece, as lamentably such art often is, there was a process at work here driven by the highest rigor in the incorporation of the various disciplines.
My question for the work is – as is crucial for any performance piece – about intent. If, as Derek Goldman, Co-Founding Director of the Laboratory for Global Performance and Politics at Georgetown University, who led a post-performance discussion opening night, raised the issue of his (presumed) work’s intent to motivate action, then I would have to say the work on some level failed. Perhaps there were not enough handholds. Perhaps the subject felt too vast or the approach too impersonal.
Perhaps to answer whether the intent of NeoArtic was action, we should take our cue from Dehlholm’s spoken words. “I am actually fatalistic. I don’t see much hope.”
Yes, I came away as if we were experiencing a beautiful, terrible and terribly sad elegy.
But isn’t theirs a vital question so many artists working in several disciplines and forms today ask themselves, what can they/we contribute to the issue of global warming and other causes of environmental degradation?
I would urge artists and others impassioned by this critical issue to go more deeply with Derek Goldman and some of the artists at Georgetown University’s Davis Center on Friday Feb 15 at 11 a.m.
And for Earth’s sake, experience this work. There are only three more performances tonight through Saturday. World Stages brings to the Kennedy Center urgently needed voices.
NeoArtic. Concept by Hotel Pro Forma. Directed by Kirsten Dehlholm. Musical Direction and Conducted by Kaspars Putninš. Music by Andy Stott and Krists Auznieks .Lighting Designer Jesper Kongshaug. Set Designer Anne Mette Fisker Langkjer. Video Designers Adam Ryde Ankarfeldt and Magnus Pind Bjerre. Costume Designer Wali Mohammed Barrech. With members of the Latvian Radio Choir. Produced by Hotel Pro Forma. Presented by the John F. Kennedy Center as part of World Stages. Reviewed by Susan Galbraith.
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