A wonderland of sun and clouds intermittently warmed my face on the way to the theatre today. A fresh breeze to compliment the click of my boots – a literal breath of fresh air – and with the freedom of the breeze I became aware that I was free from any expectations as to what I would see at the opening night of Risk/Reward 2016. I had no expectations of the subject matter or mediums I would see. And, I had no expectation that I needed to like what I saw. I was free of any need to ‘get’ something out of these creations.
From my humble perspective, the work created by this year’s Risk/Reward artists is intelligently structured, clearly delivered, and rooted in an appreciation for that special gift of live performance; the simple fact that 100+ human beings are in a room together, each having an individual experience of a shared moment in close quarters surrounded by strangers. Ahhh, the audience, my favorite thing about live performance, and it’s delightful to watch several very different styles of performance rooted in that interest.
Milton Lim’s work okay.odd., demands the most from this special relationship. His work opens with a quietly intimate and professional ritual acknowledging his ancestors and ours. He exits and a video/sound installation guides the audience into a meditative awareness of their breath. From this intimate place of meditative awareness, Lim throws us into a visual onslaught of seemingly random words which command the entire space while the beat drives and shakes the theatre. Observing my breath through the brutality of light and language, I could feel the subtle tightening of my shoulders and ass. I was present with the tension that sneaks it’s way into the never-ending stream of stimulus that greets me daily. At the end of this exhausting immersion (Lim’s description notes that we are experiencing a short length session), Lim comes back on stage to connect and invite the audience to end the experience by sharing a ‘tender touch’ with the artist. The work is passionately ritualistic. Lim believes he can truly connect with his audience and isn’t afraid of pissing them off with a form that is, frankly, uncomfortable. After Lim’s piece I realized my heart was racing and I was out of breath, his strobe affect had sent me into a kind of adrenaline state. Lim’s relationship to the audience is certainly the most demanding on the audience, though other works acknowledge this special gift of audience in their own ways.
Anthony Hudson (Carla Rossi) is using some of theatre oldest forms remade through his dance-drag-song-comedy-multimedia extravaganza. He speaks directly with the audience, sharing and responding. He reveals himself to us as he strips away his wig and white face, he leaves his ‘mask’ behind and his identity becomes more complex. Revelation, comedy and culture are his tools. As he makes us laugh, we want him to be our friend so he can call us out in the midst of this mess of a racist culture we were both raised in.
Comparatively to Hudson’s ease of style, Vanessa Goodman’s solo dance work is marked by a trapped and tortured movement quality, the few moments of release are flung out through barrels of explosion. At the top of the piece her gaze is fixed and searching towards the sky. It is only as she slowly (oh, so slowly) becomes willing and able to hide her torture under a mask of socially appropriate gesture, that her gaze lowers towards the audience. She smiles. She is more accessible to the world and yet further from her self. This simple, slow change in her gaze took my attention away from my empathy for this character putting on socially acceptable mask and toward the question, “Am I complicit in the self-injuring performances given by others around me simply by agreeing to be their audience?”
Aside from my own fascination with how different artists are driven to engage with their audience, it was also simply wonderful to see five deeply disparate forms on the same stage. Goodman’s dance and Hudson’s drag narrative are followed by Lim’s violent ritual of meditation and connection. And, after a brief respite, we sink into Portland’s SNKR and their visual sonic landscape. I was immersed in the color, rhythm and vibrancy of their video creation and struck by the artistry of how they were able to co-mingle the architecture they created on stage with the architecture of the video media. I had no sense of “This piece is about…” and I didn’t need it. I was simply drenched in the moment at hand. Their work gave me new hope for how video and live performance can work together. Finally, Ilvs Strauss’ Doin’ It Right dived into my home vocabulary. Weaving subtle gesture, dance and relationship through a score of music and pre-recorded text, Strauss narrative simply and honestly invites the audience to peer into her personal exploration of that never simple question, “Is there such a thing as right and wrong?”
Thematically, this year’s Risk/Reward line up is all wound up in the experience of where we come from, how we’re negotiating that history, and the immediacy of sharing these questions with the people in the room today.
I walked into the theatre calm, free of expectation. I walked out riled up. Riled up with questions about and appreciation for these artists, the structures and media they created to share with this unsuspecting audience. An audience who didn’t know what they came for. Who didn’t have to enjoy every moment of it. An audience just has to show up and be willing to offer their presence as generously as the performers do each night.