Performance artist Kristina Wong never imagined that living in her West L.A. apartment with her cat Oliver -- her sweet, reliable companion as a single woman -- would prove as difficult as navigating a bad relationship. But several months ago, she and Oliver became locked in a territorial struggle. Oliver "had this huge problem where he was spraying everywhere," says Wong. "I was a victim in my own home. . . . It became his domain." Soon she began to worry that she was morphing into the stereotype of the single woman that she most feared: a musty cat lady.
Desperate, she consulted a cat psychic, who suggested that she and Oliver were energetically linked. Wong, 30, began to contemplate whether Oliver's anxieties were actually reflective of her own, which sparked an idea for a new solo performance piece. After dealing with themes of war, race and suicide in previous pieces, Wong thought, "Why not cat ladies and loneliness?"
Her work in progress, "Cat Lady," has fittingly found a home at the REDCAT New Original Works Festival -- a three-week program opening tonight that features nine contemporary dance, music, theater and hybrid works by emerging and established artists, all based in Los Angeles. In its fifth year, the festival has become synonymous with the spirit of its acronym, NOW, offering the immediacy of experimental work in progress by the region's artists of the moment. Aside from a select few showcases such as Anatomy Riot and EdgeFest, opportunities for local performing artists to workshop new pieces in development are rare.
Each year, the most vital and promising eight or nine NOW Festival proposals are selected from a pool of approximately 100 applicants, with an emphasis on innovative work that bends genres and traditions. The current roster ranges from nationally and internationally recognized artists such as composer Ann LeBaron and choreographer Rosanna Gamson to local stalwart Lionel Popkin to the upstart theater collective of recent CalArts graduates Poor Dog Group (see sidebar).
REDCAT (the Roy and Edna Disney/CalArts Theater) plays gracious host for such an eclectic guest list. Tucked away below downtown's Walt Disney Concert Hall, REDCAT -- which curates and produces the NOW Festival -- is an extension of CalArts and its experimental, interdisciplinary approach to making art. When the concert hall was being built, says REDCAT Executive Director Mark Murphy, "Frank Gehry referred to [it] as a new living room for Los Angeles, and I thought, 'That makes us the basement laboratory.' "
We conferred with three of the "mad scientists" who will be performing their genre-busting alchemy in REDCAT's subterranean lab during this year's festival -- the contemporary/West African company Baker & Tarpaga Dance Project, the theater/animation performance trio Cloud Eye Control and solo performer-cum-cat lady Kristina Wong -- to see what's bubbling in their test tubes.
FROM CAT LADY TO REDCAT LADY
"As an artist now, I just want to propose the insane," says Wong. She's found a way to weave together the lives of cat ladies and male pickup artists ("two extremes of loneliness internalized by opposite genders," she says) through spoken text, video and a little Martha Graham-style interpretive dance in elastic-waisted pants.
After vying for space with her feline companion, Wong is reveling in the creative space -- both literally and figuratively -- afforded her by the festival. It provides the artists that rare combination of "money and a room of one's own" that Virginia Woolf once deemed necessary to the creative process: compensation in the form of an honorarium (close to $2,000) and access to professional rehearsal/performance space.
"When artists are self-producing, meaning they're renting a theater somewhere," Murphy says, "they're doing their own marketing and they're raising their own money . . . at the same time they're trying to choreograph or develop a new performance. If we can remove those managerial requirements and allow them to focus on the work, hopefully they'll be able to make their best work."
The dual rewards of financial opportunity and "friendly" territory are two themes festival participants Olivier Tarpaga and Esther Baker-Tarpaga, the husband-wife team behind Baker & Tarpaga Dance Project, deal with explicitly in their festival piece "Sira Kan/On the Road," through the lens of immigration.
The couple's romantic and creative union is a story of East meets West. Tarpaga, 30, immigrated to the U.S. in 2002 from Burkina Faso in West Africa, arriving first in New York City. He met Baker-Tarpaga, 33, when she traveled to New York to delve into the city's thriving African contemporary dance scene while still a graduate student in the World Arts and Cultures department at UCLA. The two married and joined forces to create Baker & Tarpaga Dance Project in 2004, settling in Los Angeles.