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An accident waiting to happen …

By
February 21, 2011 |

Rehearsing "Body of Knowledge" are, clockwise from top left, Emily Abrahams, Zack Bernstein, Atali Staffler and Amber Cone. Matthew Dunivan, UC Davis/Courtesy Photo

By Pamela Trokanski

Special to The Enterprise

It could have been science, an experiment in human behavior. It could have been art. It could have been groundbreaking.  It could have been well-done. It could have been some or none of these, but ultimately it failed, for me, as a memorable experience in performance art.

“Body of Knowledge” is a 90- to 120-minute production, directed and choreographed by Karl Frost, who is pursuing a master of fine arts degree in choreography at UC Davis. The program notes that the work “sits in the territory between somatic psychology, experimental theater and human ecology.”

It could have been science. Part of the performance is audience participation in an experiment where we were told we could win money. The dancer in charge of my group told us that data was being collected and that Frost had received a grant to study people’s behavior.

Was this theater or reality? Was it simply a ploy to keep audience members from walking out, as winners were revealed at the end? Was it an experiment in misdirection? Were we participants in a study that was set in the context of viewing an experimental theater piece?

It could have been art. There was contact improvisation, there were spoken dialogues, there were video projections and recorded sound. All the elements of an artistic “happening” were in place.

It could have been groundbreaking, but wasn’t the night I saw it, at least not as performance art. The program notes implied that a rather edgy experience was about to take place, stating that there might be nudity, or adult content. There was a “safe” zone established for any audience member who wasn’t comfortable interacting with performers. (As my friend pointed out, that only served to make her feel that the rest of the space was unsafe, as if dancers might suddenly grab her.)

But ultimately, there was nothing edgy or new in the work. This kind of experimental theater/performance art has easily been around since the 1960s.

It could have been well done, and some of it was. The scenic design by Gian Scarabino turned the theater space into an interesting maze of small performance areas, forcing audience members to pick and choose what they were viewing. The costume design, by Maggie Chan, was variations of white/cream-colored pants and various tops. Simple, yet effective, it identified the performers and provided contrast, for their movement, against the black floor and curtains.

The video and sound designs, by John Zibell and Sharmi Basu, respectively, helped create various environments that helped construct context or serve as foils for the physical and verbal dialogues. Some of the contact improvisation was very good. I saw two exchanges that were breathtaking. Other exchanges, not so much.

A great deal fell short of its potential. The program noted that the performers were “individuals engaged in a process of investigation,” and that they were “less interested in this work as attempt to construct a unified, simple, narrative and more interested in the accident of collage.”

So this became, in my opinion, a crucial element of the work. Improvisation can create wonderful epiphanies of movement and theater, the aforementioned “accidents of collage.” But while all improvisation has structure, there is still a craft to it, and it shouldn’t have an agenda that drives the work.

Unfortunately, there appeared to be an agenda, whether or not it was acknowledged, and that created some clumsy and contrived interactions. There were certainly accidents, but not necessarily ones that made for good theater.

The spoken dialogue didn’t always evolve organically from the physical dialogues, and often seemed stilted and unnatural, perhaps because some of the performers found it challenging to both improvise movement and create coherent dialogues simultaneously. An element of really good improvisation is sensitivity to timing. Some interactions went on way too long, and some never developed to a conclusion.

Someone with less experience in performance art might have found it novel. Someone with a background in behavioral science might have found it a unique way to gather data. Ultimately, for me, it became an “accident waiting to happen,” because there was no real “aha!” moment.

Of course, as an improvisational work, other performances might be more compelling. I saw opening night and only sections of the entire work. Others will certainly have a very different experience. As my companion, previously concerned about possibly being dragged into an improvisation, said, “At least we didn’t run from the building screaming.”

I can’t help but think that if we had, at least it would have been more memorable.

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