"What is your position on dismemberment?" asked an audience wiseacre at the start of a post-performance discussion of "RareArea" at UCLA's Royce Hall on Saturday. It was not a malicious, but a humorous and perfectly pointed question.
"RareArea" is the latest creation by George Coates Performance Works, again visually and aurally stunning, but, like previous work by this master of effect and his crew ("The Way of How," "Are Are," "Seehear"), short on logical progression.
It is a theater of images. Images appeared in clusters that segued and seduced without coalescing: A fast-changing succession of massive architectural forms--impressions of layered stone archways--gave way to veined landscapes and gutted machinery surrounding black holes. In them, glowing bodies, floating in spatial darkness and seen through filtered slats, defied gravity at odd angles.
More sights and sounds: two singers floating in blue circles that became yellow balls shot at with a pistol; paired singers enveloped in capes on which projections conveyed illusions of rapid electrical current; illuminated regal gowns moving like astral bodies; skies flecked with cotton balls; a suspended, breathing membrane that hatched, like a Silly Putty egg, to deliver a person desperately trying to scale an unvanquishable high-rise; clothed corpses sliding slowly down a steep center bank.
Those were the highlights.
They were interspersed (something new for Coates) with vaudevillian comedy routines in which actor Sean Kilcoyne provided nonsensical running commentaries on realistic images projected on a screen--first in a movie theater, later on a gigantic TV set. The effect was chaotic, funny, jarring, unfunny--just like life.
Phrases that were sung (by tenor John Duykers and soprano Katya Roemer) were indecipherable. Words that were spoken (by Duykers, Roemer, Kilcoyne and Soo-Young Chin) were indistinct or incoherent. One could make of them what one would, but one could not make sense of them. The same applied to the visuals too, of course--or almost. Symbols emerged in those from time to time, more so here than in Coates' other pieces, and one could draw a few conclusions--all of them open to wide interpretation.
But making sense was never Coates' intent. He shouldn't even be a spokesman for his pieces (as the artistic doublespeak and psychobabble of the post-performance talk made clear). His job is to mastermind magnificent confections for the eye and ear, letting suggestion and imagination marry to consummate the creation.
In this he is unequaled.
With "RareArea" (another name for the planet on which we live?), Coates benefits from the forceful jazz-rock-plaintive music of Marc Ream (far more inventive than the monotones of Coates' sometime partner Paul Dresher) and the incredibly refined projection and lighting effects of Jeff Hunt and Larry Neff, respectively.
The magic they wove Saturday took my mind (yours might travel elsewhere) from the kingdoms of Tolkien to Mayan and Aztec ruins; from the caves of the king of the trolls to the black holes of space and San Francisco's towers.
In all this, there were also vague but unmistakable political allusions dealing with flags and football and other dictator mentalities. The performance ended on the clearest image of all: a minuet of illuminated flagpoles and breaking flags that left no doubt about its message.
But one show does not make Coates a political commentator--yet. His is primarily a painterly sensibility, uniquely expressed with an electronic palette. In his case, it is still the eye's view, not the mind's, that packs the punch.
"We tried to find phenomena that were more evocative than provocative," he said in an articulate moment. That's still the prevailing and correct Coates priority.
Another question: Why only one performance in Los Angeles?
Royce was almost full Saturday and the applause that greeted the end of the show would indicate that Coates, like Laurie Anderson and Robert Wilson, is that rare bird: a member of the avant-garde with a solid mainstream audience.
Given the proliferation of terrible performance art and artists (anyone can become one by self-proclamation), it is always thrilling to encounter the real thing.
And who knows, after all, where such fanciful application of the creative imagination can lead? Sooner or later it will find a way to affect more traditional theater--by infiltrating its ranks or modifying the manner in which we look at it.
For my part, I'll keep watching.