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Transcending Language: Chris Strouth on Kid Koala’s Nufonia Must Fall

To spark discussion, the Walker invites Twin Cities artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, composer, producer, writer, and filmmaker Chris Strouth shares his perspective on Kid Koala’s […]

Kid Koala and the Cecelia String Quartet performing Nufonia Must Fall in the McGuire Theater, April 2, 2016. Photo: Jayme Halbritter Photography

Kid Koala and the Cecelia String Quartet performing Nufonia Must Fall in the McGuire Theater on April 2, 2016. Photo: Jayme Halbritter Photography

To spark discussion, the Walker invites Twin Cities artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, composer, producer, writer, and filmmaker Chris Strouth shares his perspective on Kid Koala’s Nufonia Must Fall at the Walker Art Center last weekend, a performance copresented by the SPCO’s Liquid Music series. Agree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments!

There are things that can’t really be described, in part because we don’t have a language that can accurately explain what it is that we have witnessed. Nufonia Must Fall is one of those things.  The simple explanation is to say it is “a motion comic animated in real time with a live soundtrack.” I fear that is about as descriptive as calling War and Peace an adventure story.

It might be easy to pigeonhole Kid Koala (Eric San). Musically he was an architect of the new alternative hip-hop/turntablist movement of the late ’90s, with a discography that is chock full of some of the high water marks of the cove where pop, rock, art, and hip-hop meet. He’s worked with Gorillaz, Peeping Tom, and Handsome Boy Modeling School and has his own bands like Deltron 3030 and Loveage. But then there is Kid Koala the author/illustrator of two graphic novels; this show, Nufonia Must Fall, is based on his 2003 book of the same name.

The live version of Nufonia Must Fall is hard to put neatly into one category: is it a film, a concert, a play, a dance? Or is it secretly a Charlie Chaplin silent film reimagined for the post-nuclear age? The story is as deceptively simple as it is ancient, though with a decidedly modern twist: robot meets girl, robot gets girl, robot loses girl, robot goes on vacation with girl. But it’s done in a way that if it doesn’t pull on your heart strings a little, you might be the one who is the robot.

The stage is set with Kid Koala upstage right with enough musical hardware to make Kraftwerk feel a little insecure. He is joined upstage left by the Cecilia String Quartet. The rest of the stage is filled with a number of small sets, four cameras, and a small army of puppeteers, cameramen, and the like, with the results of their action shown on a large screen at the back of the stage. But this basic description doesn’t come close to describing the joy of seeing magic as it’s performed and the magician’s perspective at the same time. It’s a process that serves as a metaphor for the piece itself: extraordinarily complicated but made to seem easy, almost effortless. That is one of Kid Koala’s gifts.

Puppeteers in Kid Koala's Nufonia Must Fall in the McGuire Theater, April 2, 2016. Photo: Jayme Halbritter Photography

Nufonia Must Fall puppeteers during the performance. Photo: Jayme Halbritter Photography

What makes Nufonia Must Fall really connect is that it never feels precious or dainty. It’s accessible but not cloying, smart but not pretentious. It’s the craftsmanship of an old master handled with the informality of a neighborhood shopkeeper.  It’s an attitude that takes the big invisible wall that lives between the first row of the audience and the stage and tears it down, Berlin-style.

One could argue Kid Koala is a postmodern Charlie Chaplin. More than just a performer, he becomes the architect of the experience, an auteur in the truest sense of the word. Only his version of Chaplin’s Little Tramp is a tape machine robot, always recording but not always experiencing: a piece of out of date technology we can all identify with deep down inside, a robot that is the most human.

This might be kindled from one man’s imagination, but it feels like the full group collaboration that it is. The direction by K. K. Barrett is imaginative and fun and gives real fulfillment to the idea of the motion comic. It’s handled with such subtlety and skill that it makes the whole production feel as though it’s unfolding for the first time.

Like Chaplin’s best work, Nufonia is a story that transcends language. Simple and direct, the work does not have to be seen as a metaphor, despite working as one. And that is one of its points of genius: it can be savored just as an experience, or as something more profound. The viewer simply takes from it what they would like.

In spite of Kid Koala being a musician, this isn’t a piece about the music, per se. The work is more of a digital foley: musical sounds make the soundtrack for his city, the melodic heavy lifting provided by the Cecilia String Quartet.  Never are more notes used then needed; this simplicity reinforces the sheer overall charm of the piece.

It would be so easy for this story to fall into the trap of being filled with an overblown sense of self-importance or preciousness, given the puppets and animation. Instead, the honesty of Nufonia washes away any and all pretense, and connects to our inner kid. It allows us something so rare in art today: to have a sense of wonder and delight, while at the same time pushing boundaries of stagecraft and form, all in an environment that encourages the audience to let go of intellectualism and just enjoy it. I for one had started to forget that art could be delightful… Thank you for the reminder.

Aging Magician’s Theatrical Sleight of Hand

To spark discussion, the Walker invites Twin Cities artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, Twin Cities-based actor/singer/writer/director Todd O’Dowd shares his perspective on Aging Magican, […]

Photo: Jill Steinberg

Photo: Jill Steinberg

To spark discussion, the Walker invites Twin Cities artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, Twin Cities-based actor/singer/writer/director Todd O’Dowd shares his perspective on Aging Magican, which had its world premiere at the Walker last weekend. Agree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments!

Going into the McGuire Theater to see Aging Magician, the new opera co-created by Paola Prestini, Rinde Eckert, and Julian Crouch, I had a strong hunch it was going to be good. After all, the creative team is impressive as all get out. Prestini is considered one of the shining lights in modern classical music. Crouch, best known for co-founding Improbable Theatre and co-creating Shockheaded Peter, is a proven director and designer. And I have had a performance crush on Rinde Eckert for a long time; not only for being a hero of modern opera and an amazing performer but also for creating some of the best theatre I’ve seen in my life (including the brilliant And God Created Great Whales). So, as you can see, my expectations were high. What I was not prepared for was an imaginative, delicate, and soaring look into the life and death of an ordinary man that turns into a transcendent experience for him and the audience.

The plot of Aging Magician is as circuitous as it gets. The main plot of the story is about Harold (played by Eckert), a watchmaker who lives a solitary life in his drab studio where he repairs watches, fields calls from his nagging sister, and secretly works on his book, which tells the story of an aging magician who dies before finding an heir for his book of diagrams and secrets. As we see the Aging Magician (or is it Harold?) fighting for his life, we see Harold (or is it the Aging Magician?) on the F train to Coney Island (or is it to his death?) reminiscing about his past, all the while being haunted by the voices of children (played by the Brooklyn Youth Chorus).

This circuitous narrative is part and parcel of Eckert, Crouch, and Prestini’s theme of how time and memories circle back on one another. At one point, Harold laments that clocks are no longer made with gears and hands that move and orbit like planets. So too does the narrative circle back upon itself with references to the planet Neptune, Coney Island, Harold’s father’s death and his mother’s increased Catholicism (in a gorgeous sequence set at a church with the Chorus singing a prophetic bit from the classic Latin requiem mass – “Lacrimosa dis illa / dona eis requiem / Libera Domine”, which translates to “Mournful be that day / Grant them Rest / Deliver me, O God” – calling back to earlier in the opera when the chorus sings similar words in English), and a brief history of the career and death of the early 20th Century magician William Robinson, best known as Chung Ling Soo. Another haunting image that keeps repeating is the image of Harold with his hands up, which is seen in projections, in repeated gestures by the performers, and ultimately in a stage-spanning sculpture that becomes a playable instrument (created by Bang On A Can member Mark Stewart). While the dark themes and imagery could cast a pall on the proceedings, this is far from a dour show. If anything, the magic trick the show is saying is that life is both fragile and strong, depending on the outcome and how you view it.

This fragmented nature of the story gives Eckert and Prestini a chance to take the repeated bits and turn them into musical and textural leitmotivs that are built upon as the opera goes on. Prior to this, I had heard Prestini’s work compared to that of Philip Glass, and I can see it now, especially in how she writes for the string quartet that plays the score (in this case, the American Contemporary Music Ensemble). The other thing that I noticed while watching was how easy the score was for the singers; by that I mean that the Prestini’s score and Eckert’s libretto were written by people who understand how the human voice works as an instrument and built their score accordingly.

It has to be said this is a truly beautiful production; possibly one of the grandest I’ve seen on the McGuire stage. Crouch and his design team of co-scenic designer and costumer Amy Rubin, lighting and projection designer Joshua Higgason, and sound designer Marc Urselli have created a truly unique world, with everything working in perfect clockwork harmony. One of the touches that I was impressed by was that the set pieces and costumes were all black with smudges of light blue, giving the look of chalk drawings or an inverted daguerreotype. The other major defining aspect of the set is the use of paper – the stage is littered with it – as prop (morphed into various shapes, and in a stunning moment, as body of a young boy), projection medium, and both (after a projection of a train on the papers held up by the chorus, they ball it up and hurl it at Harold, singing “Wake Up Harold!”). Crouch and the cast manage to perform some spectacular feats of stage magic and object work (at one point, the cast turns the crumpled up paper into the birds of the “Trick of the 1800 Birds”) and the work is staged with so much sensitivity to Harold and his story that none of the theatrical tricks (and there are a lot of them) never call attention to themselves and – this is crucial in a work that deals with the notion of magic – never pulls you out of the story to marvel at the mechanics of the storytelling.

Of course this story lives and dies on the performers, and Eckert is brilliant as Harold. If the whole point of Aging Magician is finding the extraordinary in the ordinary, then  Eckert literally embodies that point. At first blush, he looks so non-descript in his tan jacket and pants, that were he not seated on center stage in a pool of bright light it would be hard to distinguish him as the center of the tale. But then he opens his mouth, his mighty tenor comes pouring out, and the show is transformed. It’s this dichotomy of heroic voice in an average shell that anchors the opera. He has help, of course, from the brilliant work of the Brooklyn Youth Chorus and the American Contemporary Music Ensemble, but it is his beautiful, generous performance that drives this story and keeps the audience with him on Harold’s magical mystery tour.  It’s the kind of work that evokes admirable envy and envious admiration from performers watching the show (including me).

At the end of the day, Aging Magician has many tricks that it plays on its audience. It turns an ordinary man’s life and death into a tale on time’s slippery nature. It uses theatrical sleight of hand to hide the clockwork precision that drives a seemingly intimate tale. And most importantly, it takes everyday people and objects and turns them into something beyond their normal scope in a tale that encompasses us all.

If that’s not magic, I don’t know what is.

“Don’t we need goggles?” Gender Tender responds to Halory Goerger and Antoine Defoort’s Germinal

To spark discussion, the Walker invites Twin Cities artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, choreographer Syniva Whitney and actor Will Courtney of Gender Tender share their perspective on Germinal […]

Germinal by Halory Goerger and Antoine Defoort. Photo: Alain Rico

Germinal by Halory Goerger and Antoine Defoort. Photo: Alain Rico

To spark discussion, the Walker invites Twin Cities artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, choreographer Syniva Whitney and actor Will Courtney of Gender Tender share their perspective on Germinal by Halory Goerger and Antoine Defoort. Agree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments!

WILL: Does starting from scratch mean you don’t know anything? Well, they knew who they were…

SYNIVA: …they knew each other’s proper names. They were going by their real names.

W: They knew what a guitar was but they didn’t know what a computer was. No one mentioned their sex or gender.

S: They did all appear to be white….that’s my assumption.

W: This was a really unusual play. It was interesting how the performers had control of the technological aspects.

S: Did they? I thought there was a sense of another somebody or some bodies behind the curtain, or under the floor, following cues about when to do certain things. This was in the program info a quote from the artists in an article by Kate Bredesen:

…we decided to start from scratch. And this itself became the starting point for what would become Germinal. This would be a piece that would build itself.

S: The performance makers identify primarily as visual artists and in conversations about the concepts behind art making we can’t escape discussing creation…making and presenting art means knowing we will always be influenced by and compared with the art, histories and ideas that came before, the art of the now and what is yet to come. I felt an installation artist’s approach at play in a traditional theater space. They were embracing the cheesy nature and limitations of common elements found in black box theaters and the materials afforded artists in these spaces as though they were visual art materials (text, voice, song, movement, technology, props, effects). The black box was approached as a new kind of white gallery cube. I felt the influence of the cataloguing, titling and research tactics of the museum at play in the content of this work as well.

W: I’ve never seen somebody chop a hole in the stage with a pick axe before.

S: That’s true, I haven’t seen that before. What did you think of it?

W: It seemed really dangerous to me…

S: For who?

W: I felt like it was a dangerous thing to do. What if a wood splinter flies off? I’m sure they thought about these things. It seemed dangerous for us all. I was like “Don’t we need goggles? Doesn’t everyone need goggles?” Ondine was like a danger Gallagher. I found it very satisfying to watch.

S: Why?

W: I guess because it was really happening. Something was being destroyed for real. It wasn’t acting like you’re making a hole in the floor it was just the act of making a hole.

S: Isn’t performing just doing, talking, walking, kissing… aren’t we really doing stuff?

W: Yeah!

S: So why was this different?

W: I guess I’ve seen shows where people are miming digging a hole and they just aren’t. I’ve never seen an actual demolition of a built stage before.

S: It was weird…so meta. A demolition of a carefully wrought installation that was a fake stage over a real stage. When it first started and it was all light and space investigations I thought this might just be an installation on a stage run the same way as it would be in a gallery, or in the natural environment, that it might not have a narrative trajectory. That feeling wore away and it became clear this was carefully scripted, more like a magic show with a musical ending. And wow, audience members were laughing so hard through a lot of this. It was awesome to be around people that were entertained and enjoying themselves. I felt a bit awkward because I wasn’t finding it funny.

W: I thought it was genial but I didn’t find it to be hilarious.

S: People around me were REALLY laughing hard. I felt like Grumpy Cat.

W: So did they build a world? From scratch?

S:  I don’t know. They made a play. My point of view as a queer black artist influences my take on this hardcore. Aren’t people always making their own worlds? Directly or indirectly, abstractly or literally, in fantasy or reality. When people exist outside the normative, the safe, the accepted, we have to create worlds for ourselves to move and make in, we have to fight for space for our histories to exist in.

W: Always. I read in the program the title comes from the title of a French book about people on strike wanting a better world by Emile Zola. Something about the desire to make a better world where none exists….

S: The tone of this in the show made me uneasy. It seemed like colonialist ideas about discovery were at play but it didn’t read as tongue in cheek for me…what’s underneath….yikes, such a heavy metaphor with that floor: the literal floor that they bust through to discover what is there they can use onstage like drilling for oil on stolen land.  Human made resources underneath a built structure that has to be destroyed to access them. I kept thinking about burial grounds and decimated cities with new corporate developments being built on top of the survivors, their culture, their knowledge…

W: The underlying thing, the unspoken truth…the dark…

S: Yeah so, maybe it was a conceptual sign of our times. Knowing but not knowing…caring but not caring…

W: …funny but not funny.

S: We know there is always someone behind the curtain. Holograms exist…we know we are usually being deluded. We know people have made some terrifying stuff in the name of investigating what is technologically possible…we know people can make a black hole, a bomb that leaves no survivors.

W: It’s a TED talk…

S: …with a fake hot tub center stage instead of a red dot.

W:(laughs)…in a fake swamp.

S: Right, a TED talk! Germinal was part PowerPoint lecture…categories, groupings, labels, diagrams. Even though it was absurd the performers were soon experts at everything they investigated or presented even when it made no sense. Maybe this is French and Belgian humor lost on me in translation.

W: Was it supposed to be funny? It was presented with a lightness that was surprising but I had a sense from the visual elements that I’d be experiencing a super abstract and serious performance.I thought the performers were excellent, it was really good…but I didn’t think it was laugh out loud funny.

S: I found it melancholy…and everybody around me was laughing their asses off.

Germinal continues in the Walker’s McGuire Theater tonight (Friday, January 29) and tomorrow night (Saturday, January 30) at 8 pm. Halory Goerger will also teach an Inside Out There Workshop on Saturday, January 30 at 11 am in the McGuire Theater.

Starting from Scratch: Germinal’s Recipe for the Universe

Astrophysicist Carl Sagan once stated, “If you want to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe.” French artists Halory Goerger and Antoine Defoort seem to have taken this to heart in making Germinal, a show that completely reconstructs existence itself (on an 8x10m scale).  The show begins its three performance run at […]

Photo: Alain Rico

Photo: Alain Rico

Astrophysicist Carl Sagan once stated, “If you want to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe.” French artists Halory Goerger and Antoine Defoort seem to have taken this to heart in making Germinal, a show that completely reconstructs existence itself (on an 8x10m scale).  The show begins its three performance run at the McGuire Theater this Thursday as the final piece of Out There 2016. The duo’s webpage for Germinal contains a section titled, “WHAT CAN BE MORE INFORMATIVE THAN AN EXCERPT OF OUR INTERNET RESEARCH HISTORY”, and the subsequent hyperlinks would provide a unique glimpse into the foundational elements of this performance, were they not half-defunct and primarily in French. With a little detective work, however, I was able to reconstruct the search results that helped bring this piece to fruition.

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In any form of construction, tools are required, and the directors note their perusal of French industrial equipment supplier Manutan in acquiring a “single pouch leather tool belt” (now unavailable) and “baseball diamond hardhat” (an updated iteration of which, pictured above, is now for sale). Research was also put into the acquisition of laminate flooring from French DIY and home improvement store Brico Dépôt. This was presumably used to build the two-ton stage setting in which Germinal’s world begins; Kate Bresedon’s preview piece notes that the performance “follows the discoveries of stage layers and objects, all of which are considered, then used or rejected in this construction of something from nothing.”

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The performance also gives a nod to Civilization V, the latest installment of Sid Meier’s 1991 strategy computer game series. The game’s goal of guiding an ancient civilization into the future is strongly at the center of Germinal. Another link references the “Abre des technologies” (or “technology tree“), the visual representation of hierarchical resource upgrades present in games such as this. The abre des technologies originated, ironically, in a 1980 board game named Civilization, bearing no direct relation to Sid Meier’s. It’s no wonder that Civilization was one of Germinal‘s working titles.

Perhaps one of the best illustrations of the range of material from which Goerger and Defoort drew is the list’s inclusion of both the French wiki page for solipsism and the professional services section of French Craigslist-counterpart Le Bon Coin. Building a society demands both abstract thought and practical skill, and Germinal has these in spades, using them to create a truly inventive performance. The final defunct link, to the lyrics of the Lou Reed ballad “Perfect Day” (on which David Bowie contributed keyboards), may be best left to christen the final product: a world in which joy can be found in the simplest experiences, provided one is willing to create them.

Germinal by Halory Goerger and Antoine Defoort will be performed in the Walker’s McGuire Theater Thursday – Saturday, January 28-30, 2016 at 8pm. Join director Halory Goerger for a discussion about his past and present projects at Inside Out There, January 30 at 11am.

Press Play, Repeat: Gender Tender responds to Rabih Mroué’s Riding on a Cloud

To spark discussion, the Walker invites Twin Cities artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, choreographer Syniva Whitney and actor Will Courtney of Gender Tender share their perspective on Riding […]

Yasser Mroué in Riding on a Cloud. Photo: Joe Namy

Yasser Mroué in Riding on a Cloud. Photo: Joe Namy

To spark discussion, the Walker invites Twin Cities artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, choreographer Syniva Whitney and actor Will Courtney of Gender Tender share their perspective on Riding on a Cloud by Rabih Mroué. Agree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments!

WILL: My brain is doing flips about this performance. Is this a play? Is all of it true? Is all of it fiction? When I saw the stage set up with the table and chair off to the side, stacks of cassette tapes and DVDs and electronic devices on it and the big white movie screen set up I thought it was going to feel really choppy. When Yasser came out and began to play the films and tapes, to sing, to watch himself on screen, it became immersive. I loved the way these presented excerpts became a singular experience. The convergence of all these possibly un-mixable techniques became one thing. Was this style an attempt to create a performance about what it felt like for Yasser when he woke up in the hospital after he was shot, after he was in a coma?

SYNIVA: Was his brother Rabih there in the hospital?

Yasser (from the program notes and projected introductory performance text): This is my real story yet these are not my thoughts. These thoughts are mine, yet this is not my real story.

WILL & SYNIVA: Is the director intentionally using this mix of devices used to remember things (stories, songs, photographs, recordings) to create an atmosphere of remembering? We keep thinking about the things we are told Yasser did to come to grips with what pretending means.

WILL: Oh, like when he was talking about going to see plays and saying if somebody died on stage he would shake and cry and be sure that they really died and then be really confused when that dead person came out for their bow at the end of the play. I wondered if that was a true story.

SYNIVA: Wasn’t this written and directed by his brother Rabih? Did any of these stories even happen? Yasser also talks about hanging out with Lenin and Tchaikovsky and that’s impossible. He also mentioned letting his brother the director pick out some videos from many he’d made during his recovery. He talked about using a camera to document things to help himself understand the difference between knowing what a thing is in real life (for example, he had no problem with knowing what a knife was when the knife was there with him but when he saw an image of a knife in a photograph he wouldn’t know what it was).

WILL: Am I going to cry?

SYNIVA: You’re discussing this performance like it’s a documentary. I don’t think it was, I definitely think Yasser and his brother are sharing art inspired by life with us but I doubt this is anything but poetic. I can’t tell if the details are real or imagined…like losing his virginity to a nurse in the hospital while he was recovering. The films throughout were beautiful, surreal…weird. I couldn’t tell if these were really from the supposed collection of videos Yasser made while relearning representation or if these were films his brother made for this performance. There was the film that showed images of a location we are told is the actual building where the sniper that shot Yasser was hiding. A film of Yasser putting his injured hand on a torturous looking wooden board from an impossible angle. Watery images of people walking down city streets, wavering, blurring, images of static, images of television test patterns. These were not pieces of story they were pieces of art.

Rabih Mroué: (from an interview on the Walker website): For me, how I understand art, art cannot heal any person or people or group. On the contrary, art is like a tool to make things more complex. It’s trying to understand, but at the same time by seeking understanding you bring up more things. It’s exactly like when you ask a question and then you try to answer this question.

WILL: I keep thinking about Yasser saying he couldn’t tell what was real or not after the brain injury.

SYNIVA: Could he tell what was real or not before the injury?

WILL: Was he saying his brain re-learned what is real? Or did he just learn to tell himself…”ok, let’s say that’s real”?

SYNIVA: Like an actor does. They are aware of doing it. They are aware they are part of the created story. They are aware they are fictional.

WILL: Does he look around at everyone and read their faces like a script and wonder…is everyone else freaking out? No? Ok, I guess what I’m seeing isn’t a thing to freak out about.

Rabih Mroué (from the interview, again): Actually it [art], has no aim. It’s just the pleasure of thinking, of being a human being. It’s thinking and being a human being. It’s the celebration of the human.

WILL: I was in a weird in between sort of magical place with Riding on a Cloud. It was a movie and it was a play, Yasser was playing himself but Rabih directed it, Yasser was acting like himself but he was also really himself. Fiction and reality. This is a fake real story…or a real fake story. This was present in the structure. There were so many…

SYNIVA:…fragments. How can we, the spectators, construct anything except poetry from bits and pieces?

WILL: It reminded me of the structure of memories. Slivers that you can piece together. Fragments that everybody watching might piece together differently.

Milan Kundera (via poem hunter on the internet): ‘I think, therefore I am’ is the statement of an intellectual who underrates toothaches.

SYNIVA: Wisps, shreds. I loved this performance.

WILL: Sometimes things would overlap that didn’t have anything to do with each. Other. Things. Non-sequential.

SYNIVA: Yasser’s physicality was controlled, methodical. He’d take a tape out, put it in the player, speak, record his voice, play it back, put a DVD in, press play. Talk. Sing. Eject, get the next one ready, press play, eject, press play.

WILL: The way the brain jumps from thing to thing, like, oh! That song makes me think of this.

SYNIVA: That Kundera poem makes me think of that.

Hamlet and Yasser Mroué and Shakespeare: The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks/That flesh is heir to, ’tis a consummation/Devoutly to be wish’d. To die, to sleep;/To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub;

SYNIVA: History is like this, too. We think we remember but we are really retelling stories we’ve heard, describing images we’ve seen but not experienced. We end up putting the pieces together. We rely on the memories of others. We rely on the face looking back at us in the mirror to know we are getting older. But we can’t see ourselves getting older.

WILL: This performance was like being inside the images inside of someone’s thoughts. Like being able to watch somebody think. I keep thinking about watching Yasser watch himself projected on screen…did he cease to be a performer at that point?

SYNIVA: Could he even recognize his own face?

***

Riding on a Cloud continues in the Walker’s McGuire Theater tonight (Friday, January 22) and tomorrow night (Saturday, January 23) at 8 pm. Rabih Mroué will also teach an Inside Out There Workshop on Saturday, January 23 at 11 am in the McGuire Theater.

Watching Them Listen: Gender Tender Responds to Daniel Fish

To spark discussion, the Walker invites Twin Cities artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoingRe:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, choreographer Syniva Whitney and actor Will Courtney of Gender Tender share their perspective on Daniel […]

Photo: Paula Court

Photo: Paula Court

To spark discussion, the Walker invites Twin Cities artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoingRe:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, choreographer Syniva Whitney and actor Will Courtney of Gender Tender share their perspective on Daniel Fish. Agree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments!

The stage was filled with bright yellowish green tennis balls. As we entered the theater the multitude of orbs were ordered in a grid-like manner across the entire stage; tennis balls created a weird modular snow drift upstage. A loud machine to the far left served even more tennis balls that continuously ricocheted off of a poster taped haphazardly against the exposed back wall of the theater. This was the first image of a person present. Not an image of Wallace himself but of a white blond tennis player I didn’t recognize caught in the midst of returning a ball, hair flying out behind them, racket in hand ready to go. As the performers entered the machine was turned off and we lost it’s rhythmic puffing. They entered casually as though arriving for a weekly tennis lesson. Two people were mixing the audio recordings of Wallace’s voice right there out in the open as well. They faced center and were seated on black meditation cushions at a small sound board table to the far right.

The ghost of the author’s voice was present. In the beginning we could hear a bit of what I assumed to be Wallace’s voice (noticeable but not understandable) coming out of the ear pieces from the mound of headphones lying on the floor center stage. As the performers put them on his voice left the space and we were suddenly in the loud silence of watching them listen. They began to give this simple act of listening a presence and then a voice. They began to speak aloud interpretations of the words of a literary artist I’ve just discovered decided to commit suicide after a lifetime of struggling with depression. A meandering anxiety ensued in layered voices and singular voices, voices dropping in and out, voices occasionally repeating text over and over again, sometimes in unison, sometimes monologuing excerpts from his writing with the feeling of a deadpan Shakespearean aside in a casually choreographed, possibly improvised, muffled and ridiculous shifting field of felted rubber balls. Simple lighting changes cued reconfigurations of people, action and text. At a halfway point in the action the performers took a generous amount of time rounding up the pool of balls that had been taking up most of the stage using their shoveling arms, throwing hands, an actual broom and a lot of picking up and sending them all to the back wall. The result was the creation of an even more menacing drift of accumulated mass produced fluorescence. This simple, wave-like action transformed the space gently, anxiously and without fanfare, without voice.

We rushed home buzzing after Thursday night’s performance of Daniel Fish’s A (radically condensed and expanded) Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again After David Foster Wallace. Inspired by what we saw Will and I traded a few questions we came up with in reaction to the work. This is our exercise in giving each other a bit of our voice, our style…a bit of textual material for another body to interpret. Instead of redelivering the text as the performers did we will respond to the other person’s questions. We will then chose one word (THE WORD IN ALL CAPS) from our response and share only that word with the original question writer who will then write a poetic and non-traditionally formatted footnote in response to the singular word. Extensive and tangential footnotes were a trademark of Wallace’s. We admit we’ve never read any of his books.

-Syniva

WILL: Where was the physicality of the performers movement coming from?

SYNIVA: Sometimes I felt like the movements were devices they’d come up with to remember the structure of certain pieces they’d heard many times before. Similar to the way a spoken word artist uses their arm movements and vocal pauses to create rhythmic interest for the listener and to memorize poetry. I also thought the movements could be the unthinking result of only focusing on speaking the text rapidly and fidgeting with the considerable pressure to get it right and make it clear.

W: FIDGETING: Can also be referred to as shuffling, twitching or jiggling. May lead to such physical activities as “bouncy knee”, “slide foot”, “air grabs” and excessive blinking.

S: How can something be expanded and condensed at the same time?

W: Signals are required. The pressure must be increased. Flattening occurs. Stuff spreads out. It’s bigger on the inside.

S: STUFF: See The Story of Stuff, a documentary film I’ve been told is great but have never taken the time to view. You might want to. Consider sitting in the middle of your living room and taking a mental survey of all of your stuff. Start with with the things you can’t see, like the stuff under your bed or the contents of the junk drawer in your kitchen. Begin to italicize in your mind the stuff you’d be sad to lose in a fire. Also consider things and junk.

W: Is that Steffi Graf?

S: No I think it’s Tracy Austin, the tennis player from a Wallace text we heard delivered in the performance. I take it from all the tennis talk and from the set design David Foster Wallace was a big tennis fan. I’ve never heard of her (Austin) but I loved the quip that Wallace thought tennis was more abstract than boxing…that it was combat at a huge, geometrically pleasing distance.

W: ABSTRACT: A bunch of different colored cubes. Or it could be a bird. Or feelings.

W: Will someone get hit with a tennis ball?

S: Yes and no.The possibility of tripping and falling hung over the action as the performers rushed across stage, sat on tennis balls, and generally seemed to be dealing with the objects under their feet and their unknowable rolly-ness. At one point a performer did about a thousand jumping jacks while delivering Wallace’s text about all the privileged people in a men’s restroom and lists of possible bathroom related bodily functions. I was afraid  they’d trip over the headphone connector box center stage and sprain their ankle.

W: JUMPING JACKS: There are over 47 varieties of Jumping Jack. Do you want all of the dates? The record for consecutive jumping jacks in a row is 27,000 (citation needed).

S: When does the story become the character?

W: The exact moment the eyes blur and look up. And in. I’m looking right at you but I’m also at the pool, in the bathroom or at the game. The stage ripples. An optical illusion made by a grid of soft round shapes.

S: BLUR: Blur is an English rock band, formed 1988, London. Blur is a band I thought I liked when I thought Jell-O shots were a good idea. The feeling of failing at focusing.

A (radically condensed and expanded) Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again After David Foster Wallace by Daniel Fish continues in the Walker’s McGuire Theater Friday – Saturday, January 15-16, 2016 at 8pm.

The Walker will also present a free film screening of Daniel Fish’s Eternal on Saturday, January 16 at 1pm in the Walker Cinema.

Backstage Haiku

A recipe for four thousand happy puppies? Or Daniel Fish prep?   Crew chief Christian shoots a quick pic of four thousand tennis balls from the catwalk as the crew loads in for our upcoming performances of Daniel Fish in the McGuire Theater!  To answer your burning question:  justusedtennisballs.com

A recipe for

four thousand happy puppies?

Or Daniel Fish prep?

 

Crew chief Christian shoots a quick pic of four thousand tennis balls from the catwalk as the crew loads in for our upcoming performances of Daniel Fish in the McGuire Theater!  To answer your burning question:  justusedtennisballs.com

Answering that burning question:  what does four thousand tennis balls look like?

Tracey Austin would be proud…

Literary Karaoke: Daniel Fish’s Intimate Interpretation of David Foster Wallace

David Foster Wallace has a reputation as being hyperarticulate; the author’s friendships with dictionary-authors and dictionary-siring prose only further warrant this truth. Who better to try their hand at its interpretation than a director whose last piece was given a 53-word title? A (radically condensed and expanded) Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again After David […]

Photo: Paula Court

Photo: Paula Court

David Foster Wallace has a reputation as being hyperarticulate; the author’s friendships with dictionary-authors and dictionary-siring prose only further warrant this truth. Who better to try their hand at its interpretation than a director whose last piece was given a 53-word title? A (radically condensed and expanded) Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again After David Foster Wallace is Daniel Fish’s ode to the late icon and will begin its three performance run at the McGuire Theater this Thursday as part of Out There 2016.

Unlike recent cinematic adaptations, Fish isn’t dramatizing the page or impersonating the author. His source, instead, is a breadth of audio recordings in which Wallace converses, is interviewed, and reads from his own works. The piece asks four actors to interpret this speech as it is sent to their headphones from a console under Fish’s control. Each performance varies in timing, execution, and excerpt selection, with the effect being best described by the Village Voice as “part séance, part theatrical eulogy, and part eerie karaoke show.”

In using his own speech over a script, the audience is beholden to Wallace’s raw verbal idiosyncrasy. As Fish told the New York Times, it is through this that he wishes to achieve “a kind of intimacy” and a “pure engagement with his words”. This intimacy was a major factor in Fish’s curation of sources. In lieu of his political commentary or the offbeat affairs of his novels, Fish mined from short stories and essays that celebrate and critique many broad but omnipresent themes of modern life.

Many of these are addressed head-on in one source, an unedited 84 minute interview with Wallace for German public television channel ZDF from late 2003. A high definition video of this interview has just been made available online, giving you a glimpse inside the performers’ headphones as they channel the honesty of expression present throughout his body of work. At one point, Wallace expresses his author’s desire to “jump over the wall of self and inhabit someone else,” and Daniel Fish’s creation has certainly given him a chance to do just that.

A (radically condensed and expanded) Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again After David Foster Wallace by Daniel Fish will be performed in the Walker’s McGuire Theater Thursday – Saturday, January 14-16, 2016 at 8pm.

The Walker will also present a free film screening of Daniel Fish’s Eternal on Saturday, January 16 at 1pm in the Walker Cinema.

I have the feeling there are more selves here, more selves than I can safely explain: Gender Tender responds to RoosevElvis

To spark discussion, the Walker invites Twin Cities artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, choreographer Syniva Whitney and actor Will Courtney of Gender Tender share their perspective […]

Kristen Sieh and Libby King in RoosevElvis. Photo: Nick Vaughan

To spark discussion, the Walker invites Twin Cities artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, choreographer Syniva Whitney and actor Will Courtney of Gender Tender share their perspective on RoosevElvis by the TEAM. Agree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments!

We ran home after Thursday night’s performance from the TEAM to respond to the evening’s work while still marinated in the experience. This is a festival of performance alternatives so we thought why not craft an alternative kind of response for our speedy Re:View. We structured what’s below using a few techniques we use in our own creative process and mixed those gestures up with our feelings and ideas about this approximation of a line of text from the show:

“You’ve only known me for three days, you don’t really know me, you only know what I’ve presented to you.”

We’ve combined observational writing (what we recall was presented), time limits (what we’ve only taken 30 seconds to write and resisted editing, so we don’t really know it) and the structure of a conversation (a thing people do to get to know each other.) These responses are in our own order and are not meant to reflect the real sequence of events in the show.

-Syniva

WILL: Roosevelt tells a boxing story about Harvard. He got punched once after the bell because the other fighter was hard of hearing but he was cool with it because he’s cool. Roosevelt dons white boxing gloves and begins punching all over the place. He asks the tech to “Play my Planet Earth video please!” Buffalo footage begins to play. “Tatanka, ” he whispers and the audience busts out laughing. He runs to the screen and begins punching the buffalo projected there, the curtain ripples with each blow. Loud punching Foley effects happen in time with the punches. Teddy is just punching randomly at the buffalo and then…POW! Catches one in a close-up right in the nose. Next: a wider shot of the buffalo all peaceful on the range. Roosevelt runs back and forth punching several buffalo…then a super wide shot…he screams and swings more wildly punching all of the buffalo. Meanwhile, Elvis is karate chopping pizza boxes in half. Roosevelt begins a balletic dance sequence still in boxing gloves. He hisses, “YES!” every time he lands a jump. Elvis does a karate dance solo. This is not the exact order in which these things happened.

SYNIVA (30 seconds to respond to the above after hearing it read aloud): Reminds me of a girl I knew at Bryn Mawr College all sharp points and desperate edges . Brilliant, fragile seeming, but somehow the most likely to kill for profit (succeed?). Maybe she was lonely.

SYNIVA: Ann sits on a bed in a motel room. They are halfway to Graceland, I think. Ann drunk dials their former online hook-up. This person is also Teddy Roosevelt and they are seated in one of the directors chairs to the far left of the stage, mutton chops still in place, his long, thick brown hair is now in a ponytail. He answers the call, asks if Ann is fucked up…they say yes. Teddy now speaks in the voice of Ann’s old flame. Ann attempts to talk about their true self, they say they are not a man or woman they are a power, a force of nature. Ann states an alternate dimension would be a better place to live and wants to know what she thinks about this, is this a joke to her, or is this more, is this somebody worth loving? She responds that she thinks Ann is depressed and “yes”, she did tell the story to all her friends at the bar and they did laugh about it.

WILL (30 seconds to respond): This was heartbreaking, but somehow it felt like the truth, or Ann felt it was the truth. The old flame was cruel, or too blunt. They don’t really know each other.

WILL: Ann comes home from the meat packing plant with a six pack of beer in a black plastic bag. They toss their phone on the table. They throw their hat on the dish rack.They put the six pack in the fridge and grab a single beer. Ann twists the cap off (there is no sound) and throws the cap in the direction of the sink, nods decisively, then drinks deeply. They lean on the kitchen table looking toward the audience. A strangled breathing sound comes from Ann’s mouth. It could be the sound of suffocating or the faraway sound of an arena crowd. A conversation begins between Anne and Elvis. Advice is given about girls. This whole scene happens again later in a different way as if Elvis is the sympathetic best friend Ann comes home to at the end of a hard day.

SYNIVA (30 seconds):  Hard to breathe, I have the feeling there are more selves present here, more selves than I can safely explain, more ghosts of those that understand me in the air than I care to remember, avoiding thoughts of my past selves that came to a bad end.

SYNIVA: An image of the Badlands is projected behind 2 rowing machines. Darkness falls onstage. The campfire light is shining on the faces of RoosevElvis because a stage tech came out and shone tiny footlights of orange at them. Elvis brings Teddy a weenie on a stick to roast and sings an out of tune and off key song he wrote on a ukulele. Elvis then admits to just writing the title, his friend Red wrote the lyrics. It’s about the love he feels for his dearly departed mother, his best friend. Elvis asks Teddy if he is like him, does he have an Ann like presence in his body too that he has conversations with? He says no but then wistfully gazes at the fake campfire and begins to embody John Muir. The performer deftly moves between Teddy’s can-do manic patriot rant and Muir’s relaxing Scottish brogue. Muir attempts to convince Teddy he could give up all the achievement based shit he does to fill the void in his heart and spend more time getting in touch with his true self while out in nature.

WILL: I’m thinking about bears. And trees.

WILL: Ann has checked into a motel with RoosevElvis. They are on a road trip. Roosevelt is restless and Elvis is asleep. Teddy wakes Elvis and they argue about rich kid privilege. Elvis accuses Teddy of feeling superior to other men because he doesn’t know what it’s like to be a man without means. Teddy says he is superior to other men. The audience laughs. Ann comes in and out a few times drinking a beer, disheveled. The argument becomes heated. Elvis jumps up on the bed and strikes a karate pose in his silk robe. Roosevelt suggests they take this outside. They do.

SYNIVA: Femmes do also struggle with violence. Giving and receiving it. And we may not just be the means to a satisfying end.

SYNIVA: The characters shift through performed versions of history, celebrity, fantasy and other more internal experiences of who they are and who they might become. RoosevElvis are now Thelma and Louise in the convertible at the point of no return. There are a billion armed policeman behind them. They kiss, they hold hands, they wax poetic. This is a film. This is not happening on stage. They drive to their deaths into the heart of the Grand Canyon. The original version of Thelma and Louise has played throughout the performance on the TV set in Ann’s apartment and the TV set in the motel room. Things are always projected on screens. Sometimes we see the Badlands, sometimes the meat packing plant. There has also been footage of Mount Rushmore. Throughout the performance footage has played on a small TV screen, a set that  looks more like a monitor you’d view security footage on off to the side of the stage, lower than waist height. This footage is of two waitresses in the back of a restaurant prepping food, talking, working standing. There is no soundtrack. There is a moment onstage at Ann’s kitchen table when RoosevElvis appears wearing pink waitress uniforms with white aprons but it seems dreamlike to me now, I’m not sure it happened.

WILL: It was like stepping with my own feet back into my own head. Sometimes I feel like my life is a TV show, too. I’m there but I’m also looking at myself. Also, I’m someone else.

….

RoosevElvis continues in the Walker’s McGuire Theater tonight (Friday, January 8) and tomorrow night (Saturday, January 9) at 8 pm. The TEAM will also teach an Inside Out There Workshop on Saturday, January 9 at 11 am in the McGuire Theater.

2015: The Year According to Daniel Fish

Daniel Fish. Photo: Tei Blow To commemorate the year that was, we invited an array of artists, writers, designers, and curators—from graphic designer Na Kim to filmmaker Tala Hadid, artist Adam Pendleton to the Black Futures project—to share a list of the most noteworthy ideas, events, and objects they encountered in 2015. See the entire […]

2015-header
Daniel Fish. Photo: Tei Blow

Daniel Fish. Photo: Tei Blow

To commemorate the year that was, we invited an array of artists, writers, designers, and curators—from graphic designer Na Kim to filmmaker Tala Hadid, artist Adam Pendleton to the Black Futures project—to share a list of the most noteworthy ideas, events, and objects they encountered in 2015. See the entire series 2015: The Year According to                                 ..

Daniel Fish is a New York–based director who makes work across the boundaries of theater, video, and opera. Drawing on a broad range of forms and subject matter including plays, film scripts, contemporary fiction, essays, and found audio, he’s been called “an auteur force in the American theater.” Fish’s work has been performed at theaters and festivals throughout the US and Europe including: VooruitFestival TransAmériquesBAM Next Wave Festival, Noorderzon Festival, the Juilliard School, and the Royal Shakespeare Company. He has taught at  Juilliard, the Yale School of Drama, Bard College, and Princeton University. In January, he’ll present A (radically condensed and expanded) Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again After David Foster Wallace and screen Eternal as part of the Walker’s Out There series.

Here, he reflects on the loss (of great artists) and discovery (of new images and ideas) that the past 365 days have held.

2015-01

photo: http://www.contemporaryartdaily.com/

Best use of party streamers and mannequins

Called Schauspieler (German for “actor”), Isa Genzken’s show at David Zwirner Gallery kept taking me by surprise, especially when it reversed the viewing experience and was suddenly, quietly looking at me.

 

2015-02

photo: Kenneth Saunders via http://www.theguardian.com/film/2015/oct/08/chantal-akerman

Greatest loss of a filmmaker

Chantal Akerman’s final film, which premiered in New York City the day after her death, is a slow, challenging, and deeply human work about her mother. Her work is fearless, and she kept searching.

 

2015-03

photo: http://www.davidzwirner.com/exhibition/gordon-matta-clark-2/

Best use of arrows

Gordon Matta-Clark’s drawings: I could look at these all day long.

2015-04

photo: imago / DRAMA-Berlin.de

Photo courtesy DRAMA-Berlin.de

Greatest loss of a theater artist

Bert Neumann, the great stage and costume designer, graphic artist, and wild mind of Berlin’s Volksbühne. A  huge influence and inspiration to so many people working in theater, many of whom are unaware he’s influenced them. A hero is gone, and an era ends.

 

2015-05

Photo: Paula Court

Photo: Paula Court

Most haunted performance

The Vine of the Dead, Jim Findlay’s gorgeous, long work about ghosts and his family, splayed out across the boiler room dungeon of New York’s Westbeth apartment building.

 

2015-06

photo: http://www.iaap.org/news-2/obituaries-2/1270-lee-roloff.html

Photo: IAAP

Greatest loss of a gifted teacher

Age 88, professor emeritus of Performance Studies at Northwestern University and Jungian analyst, Dr. Leland Roloff taught me that “language is psychic breath.”

 

2015-07

IMG_4310

Best book I somehow missed reading until this year

James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room. Read it if you have not.

 

2015-08

Most challenging film

Nearly 13 hrs of seductive, wearying, funny 1970’s  French guerrilla filmmaking, the re-release of Jaques Rivette’s OUT no. 1 manages to call up associations of both Molière and the October Paris attacks.

 

2015-09latest

Most effective object of the year

The gun.

2015-10upside down

Most ineffective object of the year

The gun.

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