On the eve of the eighth annual something-for-everyone "Dance Kaleidoscope" festival, Marion Scott's "Visions" program offered something radically different.
Not merely another celebration of anything that moves in Southern California, Scott's selection of modern dance, film and performance art at the John Anson Ford Theater Thursday conveyed a singular purpose: exploring women's perceptions and experiences.
For once, the components of a multidisciplinary event didn't cancel each other out. Neither the extreme variations in quality nor a prevailing intimacy ill-suited to the Ford ultimately mattered as much as the sense of risk, of commitment to an ideal of artistic expression that Scott and many of her colleagues embodied.
From the incoherent rage of co-producer Deborah Oliver's pop-dance duet "Girl Stories, Part VI," through the oppressive solitude in Emilie Conrad-Da'oud's familiar character solo "Alone," to the parodistic Ziegfeld-girl cliches of Linda Albertano's illustrated monologue "Freud's Slipper Shuffle," the program scrutinized women's responses to their situations and crises. And in Rachel Rosenthal's grim performance spectacle "Was Black," this focus expanded through Rosenthal's harrowing performance into a cosmic lament for Mother Earth herself.
Incorporating conventions of the grotesque Japanese butoh dance-drama idiom that was popularized (and glamorized) by Sankaijuku, "Was Black" featured four naked, white-powdered performers banding together on a desperate, perilous journey that may have reflected the Rosenthal family's flight from the Nazis in World War II.
Singing in Russian, Rosenthal served initially as an impassioned accompanist to the visual action but soon became the suffering central figure: baptized in salt and bound with ropes of light bulbs as the slide-screen behind her showed images of flowers that appeared to be aflame.
The work's title manipulates English equivalents of the Russian Cherno and Byl and, by showing a witness to cataclysm becoming an eventual victim, she seemed to be reminding us of our inescapable link to the recent disaster in the Ukraine--of our inability to remain mere mourners.
In any case, "Was Black" represented the only work on Thursday to achieve the physical and emotional scale possible and even necessary at this outdoor venue--and it left many of the other pieces looking paltry indeed.
For instance, compared to the engulfing personal perspective that "Alone" established at the Japan America Theatre last year, it seemed dry and remote at the Ford. Scott's intensity remained remarkable, but her transition from rebellion to acceptance was played out on a very small platform in a very large, empty space.
A promising, unrealized study in the structural use (as motifs) of movements associated with anger, the multimedia "Girl Stories" looked even more inconsequential. Every time Megan Williams' accompanying film showed a furious head-toss in black-and-white negative closeup, this large-scale motion obliterated the cool, constricted dancing by Oliver and Lori Anne DuPeron down on the stage.
A pair of excerpts from Shirley Clarke's color film "Four Journeys Into Mystic Time" provided the only sampling of Scott's own choreography: a postmodern waltz trio in "One, Two, Three" (music by Ernst Toch) and, in "Trans" (music by Morton Subotnick), an athletic solo in which the dancer (Carol Warner) left a ghostly afterimage in her wake and eventually disintegrated into it. In each, Clarke carefully preserved the continuity of choreography and performance but used cinematic fluidity and special effects to heighten their stylization beyond anything possible in the theater.
In contrast, the tantalizing excerpt from Cristyne Lawson's black-and-white film "Sad 70" (music by Lukas Foss) featured highly limited and despairing human movement and lots of virtuosic rain-photography (by Jonathan Blair): textures of wet skin, dripping hair and clinging, gauzy garments inspected through sprays and sheets of water.
As for Albertano, her scattershot, gutless and hopelessly obvious satire on the capitalist/sexist Establishment and her oh-so-knowing delivery occasionally yielded to revelations of genuine performing ability and creative insight. In particular, her rendition of Gershwin's "Summertime," in tandem with some superb voice-multiplication and octave-lowering sound effects by Randy Tobin, emerged as exactly the kind of ominous lullaby appropriate for a newcomer to the bleak world depicted elsewhere on the program.