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PERFORMANCE ART REVIEW

This is definitely a different animal

By showcasing the surreal stylings of Japan-based troupe dumb type, L.A.'s REDCAT shows promise as a cutting-edge venue.

November 07, 2003|Mark Swed | Times Staff Writer

Creeping on padded paws, REDCAT has made a stealthy grab for a corner of the Walt Disney Concert Hall. This CalArts theater (the CAT), a black box named for Roy and Edna Disney (the RED), is a state-of-the-art space for alternative work and won't officially open until next week. But alternative work doesn't necessarily wait for official openings. Ready or not, REDCAT snatched dumb type, the new media and performance collective from Japan, when it could.

The Kyoto-based company made its Los Angeles debut last week with a production called "Memorandum." Wednesday night, it returned to premiere something new, "Voyage," which it has been working on during a short residency at CalArts.

REDCAT is, in fact, pretty much ready, and it is everything that the main auditorium is not. That may not sound like a good thing, given what an attraction Disney is turning out to be. But it happens to be a very good thing.

For all its welcoming friendliness, Disney Hall is still the big-time operation of the Music Center and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and it is not without its glitzy hustle. REDCAT, on the other hand, is CalArts casual, and that means about as casual as you can get and still keep your clothes on. It operates its own inexpensive, low-key late-night bar (soon to serve lunch and dinner as well), open to the public and a scene in the making. Next week, its gallery will open its first exhibition: paintings by the late L.A. artist Emerson Woelffer, curated by Ed Ruscha. Another coming attraction is a small bookshop run by Dutton's, the popular store in Brentwood. While there is convenient access to REDCAT from the Disney garage, students on a budget have discovered the nearby outdoor lots.

But it is the black-box theater and what goes in it that matter most, and if the presentations by dumb type are any indication, REDCAT is perfectly poised to give Disney and downtown just the cutting edge they desperately need. The theater is as well equipped technically as any similar space in the country. It takes only a couple of minutes into "Voyage" to understand what that means.

Enter REDCAT, take a seat, and look out onto the stage. All you see is a black void, a puffy black so sensual that the environment feels like a deep, dark, uncharted cave.

Large, shadowy spheres gradually emerge as a setting for an elegant, acrobatic dancer slowly moving to a soundtrack of strangely compelling swishes of textured noise. Everything appears to float, as if in an unknowable beyond. For the next 70 minutes, dumb type presents a quirky mix of visual and sonic images. Some are rooted to the ground; others free us of the Earth altogether. Still others occupy a surreal nether region, neither here nor there.

Underlying this new work is an unspoken sense of foreboding. Something is very wrong with the planet. The imagination wants to soar free of the gravitational pull, but the body holds us down. Dancers shovel rocks on stage -- a wonderful sound, especially when at first, in the dark, we don't know its source. They are mountain climbers in trouble, lost, calling out to one another. On an existential level, "Where are you?" is the theme of "Voyage."

The company is best when multimedia kicks in. A traveler types on an old Selectric at his desk while video images of the desktop float on the screen behind him. His typing is a cryptic itinerary with disconcerting, small messages ("I want to see you") occasionally inserted.

In the most wondrous scene, a woman lies on a small island, wishing. In an emotionless voice, she unspools a disquieting Christmas list: "I wish I were an angel, I wish I were Little Red Riding Hood eaten by a wolf." She wishes to be punished, wishes for miracles, wishes to forget and to remember. She is engulfed by projected images of lush trees blowing in the wind, or of herself, greatly magnified, lying in the grass. Her litany seems meaningless and fraught with meaning at the same time, and it is unforgettable.

The performers are snappy dancers. As in "Memorandum," they include an irresistible, campy Pina Bausch moment in "Voyage" filtered through a Japanese sensibility. Here we have seven uniformly dressed office girls (six women and one cross-dressed guy) and an astronaut in jockey shorts parading to cocktail jazz. Later a small woman fully suited in astronaut gear lip-syncs to a funky, deep bass rendition of "Over the Rainbow." It's funny at first but quickly turns forlorn.

"Voyage" is a lonely work, not as complex, punchy or in-your-face as "Memorandum" and not as completely worked out. The ending is slightly flat, a return to the outer-space beginning. This time, dancers are overwhelmed by resplendent projections of mountains; they are falling, falling, falling, leaving Earth but going nowhere.

REDCAT, on the other hand, is going somewhere. This is a superb space, and dumb type has the awesome technical expertise and theatrical flair to prove it.

*

'Voyage'

Where: REDCAT at Walt Disney Concert Hall, 2nd and Hope streets, L.A.

When: Today-Saturday, 8:30 p.m.

Ends: Saturday

Price: $36

Contact: (213) 237-2800

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