On the NW New Works stage, it's all about the idea

Flying paper, the birth of the universe, and a new take on "Little Red Riding Hood." New ideas were abundant among the new works shown during the festival's closing weekend at On the Boards.

Crosscut archive image.

Donna Isobel in "Torn," part of this year's NW New Works festival

Flying paper, the birth of the universe, and a new take on "Little Red Riding Hood." New ideas were abundant among the new works shown during the festival's closing weekend at On the Boards.

It’s all about the idea. It is the touchstone for new work as it develops. The idea can be inspired by anything — a sound, a profound experience, an everyday object, a passage from a book, an image on the street, a fleeting memory. The idea can be modified and amplified as the work develops, carried by the process of creation to some new place. For artists, and for the audience, the idea gives coherence to the work. It is its bedrock, the originating and enduring impulse on and around which are built form and structure. The artist’s imaginative use of the idea is the magic of theater.

Several intriguing ideas were on display at the final weekend of NW New Works at On the Boards: the birth of the universe and of our earth; an updated riff on an old fairy tale; memories of a grandmother; and a deluge of paper.

Of the four works appearing on the bill it was the final one, “Torn,” choreographed, performed, and designed by Donna B. Isobel and Matthew Smith, that I found most engaging. It explored its kinetic and conceptual possibilities with a refreshing directness, in this case dancing with paper — lots and lots of paper. 

We first see Isobel in front of the drawn stage curtain, right in the faces of those in the audience’s front row. In her hands she holds piles of 8½ x 11-inch white paper. She hurls them in the air, surprisingly high, and also offers pieces to nearby viewers. The curtain opens and there is a striking set of paper hung like stalactites from the upper reaches of the stage housing, and large paper mounds, like big bumpy throw rugs, strewn about the upstage floor.

Isobel spends her time in this environment, manipulating individual pieces of paper around her body. She sticks them under a raised leg, adheres them to her back, they tumble around her and she catches them in all sorts of acrobatic ways before they reach the floor. Tricky stuff and done well, with the tension of us not knowing if she will drop or mishandle a piece as it twirls around her body.

Suddenly a throw rug stirs, and we barely see a pair of feet underneath. It crumples up, it twirls, it lies almost flat. We finally see that it is Smith doing the manipulation, and finally emerging he is dressed in the same red velour jumper that adorns Isobel. He does some nifty paper turns himself, they dance for a bit together, both roll around on the floor, and then it’s over.

I noticed in the bios of the two dancers that they both studied at the dance department at Ohio University, a program known for decades for turning out well-trained, thoughtful modern dancers. Here were two more. Both had strong technique, Smith the longer and lankier of the two.

Their dancing was focused and a bit internalized, as if they had handed themselves a task to do, and did it without fanfare. I liked their modesty. At the end of the piece they got into some trouble, seemingly not sure of how best to take the dance to resolution after all that nifty and surprising paper manipulation. In any case, I do hope that they remembered to recycle.

Paper covers a lot of territory, but by far the biggest concept of the evening was offered by the art band The Blank Department, who in their “Order of Magnitude” gave us the creation of the universe and life on Earth as analogous to human relationships. In their program notes they asked if this cosmic history is “subject to notions of direction, meaning and predictability.” Well, if you’re going to have a big idea to explore, why not go for the whole enchilada?

How’d they do? As one can imagine, there’s a bit of turf to cover. The work, in four parts, is alternatively charming, poignant, juvenile, funny, messy, and profound. The band is joined by Basil Harris playing an overly academic lecturer who, standing downstage right, gives us background information on the universe and earth’s development, keeping us posted throughout the dance with notes via a chalkboard that he continually writes upon. The five musicians led by the singer Jed Dunkerley, muse on the big questions, joined on stage by two actor/dancers, Sara Edwards and David Nixon, who perform various tasks.

“Orders of Magintude” quickly moves from the Big Bang to earth’s evolution and the emergence of life. There is a lovely sequence with Nixon and Edwards “evolving” a dinosaur from various parts piled onstage. Unfortunately, over-evolved or bombarded by meteors from space — or whatever catastrophe doomed the dinosaurs — it fell apart as the two actor/dancers attempted to walk it around the stage.

All of this was accompanied by wonderful moving projections by animator Sean Dekkers, a witty panoply of all things evolving. Having just come back from South Africa where I saw some wonderful lizards, I was particularly taken by some squiggly things traversing the back wall, crawling out of the primordial ooze, maybe deciding whether they wished to stay, or jump back into the warm soup of life from whence they came.

The final section, titled the “Ichthyostega’s Lament,” is a sad summation. The Ichthyostega, a very early amphibian, asks itself and us through Dunkerley’s plaintive voice, “What if I told you that, in time, your descendants on the land would evolve into destroyers, would you still set foot upon the sand?” Big question. No answer.

Haruko Nishimura’s “Grandmother Mothra’s Mercurial Tale” opened the concert and gave us a new view of “Little Red Riding Hood.” It was seen in an earlier incarnation in May as part of the Frye Art Museum’s retrospective of the work of the Degenerate Art Ensemble, jointly led by Nishimura and composer Joshua Kohl.

This story came to prominence in Europe in two versions, first in the late 17th Century and then in the more well-known 19th-century Grimm brothers version. But it can possibly be traced back to earlier origins. The tale of the wolf devouring first the grandmother then Riding Hood herself, but being saved by the hunter, has been given many different interpretations as to its deeper meaning.

Nishimura sees the Riding Hood as two intertwined personalities, somehow locked in combat. There is the live version, and one ingeniously presented to us via video shot in a forest. Over time the forest grows more and more dim as night approaches, and finally we see the “darker” electronic Riding Hood transformed into the wolf.

There is a prologue to the video segment with Nishimura in white, singing and speaking, moving with her trademark Butoh-inspired vocabulary replete with obscurity and theatricalized grotesquery. Perhaps a portrait and profile of the story’s wizened grandmother.

The live score was composed by Kohl, who also conducted, and by Jherek Bischoff, who performed it along with four other excellent string players. The music, atonal and lyrical in turn, was a pleasure all in itself.

As to the Mothra of the title, I only know it as a flying butterfly-like monster from Japanese movies of the '60s, who often fought titanic battles with Godzilla. Perhaps the allusion is to the mutability of Mothra and the multiple identities of Riding Hood as seen in this piece. Perhaps not.

The program was completed by Shannon Stewart’s “A Better Container,” and featured a multi-generational cast of women reflecting upon the nature of family and memory. It was heartfelt but did not speak with any substantial or coherent voice.


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