by Review by Christy DeSmith   April 22, 2008

Theater critic Christy DeSmith offers some reflections on the first annual "Unbranded" performances, which invited respected experimental artists working in a variety of disciplines into a conversation via performance.

AT THE CROSSROADS OF MOVIE-WATCHING AND MOVIEMAKING there’s a moony dreamland in which average citizens make and star in their own productions. This territory was explored recently in a live, contemporary dance performance at Northeast Minneapolis’s Ritz Theater. This piece, Like a Movie I Saw Once, centered around a number of characters, all indulging in celebrity fantasies. As the first scene opens, we see a glamorous opera singer (Diana Grasselli) dressed in an opulent emerald-green dress, her rich, burgundy-colored ringlets piled atop her head. Two women, enamored of the singer, stand in the wings, slowly beginning to emulate Grasselli's operatic gestures. As the song progresses, the imitators become ever more exacting in their impersonations. Later, in another vignette, a young girl (Anna Marie Shogren) dances before a hand-held camera, her arms outstretched dramatically like those of an Olympic gymnast. But the scene evolves into an exploitative, rather than victorious moment for the girl. In what feels like a statement on the sexualizing nature of so much filmmaking, the person wielding the camera seems mostly concerned with capturing “money shots,” extreme close-ups of the young dancer’s various body parts.

These brief vignettes excerpted from Like a Movie I Saw Once (a work-in-progress being developed by the well-known Minneapolis choreographer, Laurie Van Wieren), along with five other short works, debuted last week at the first annual Unbranded: a new series that asks experimental artists to address the “challenges of making art in a market-ready, commodity-driven society.” The artists involved are associated with such respected experimental arts organizations as Skewed Visions, Flaneur Productions, Time Track Productions, and Jelloslave; but in keeping with the series’ intent, even though participating artists may have these organizational affiliations, their contributions to Unbranded aimed to break free of the brand identities associated with them.

Van Wieren, herself, appeared onstage in chunky eyeglasses, pin-striped slacks, and a black blazer—a showman’s outfit worthy of Singin’ in the Rain. In one scene she croaked out a rendition of “I’ll Be Seeing You,” the old standard made famous by the 1944 film with the same name. After finishing her cover, she peered over the audience and blurted, “I think we were in the wrong key.” And with a Milli Vanilli-esque shortcut to greatness, when she set out to give the song another go, Van Wieren simply lip-synched her way through the tune as Grasselli, an accomplished vocalist, actually sang the song (and beautifully).

I like contemporary work best when it abstracts these kinds of unusual, but universally recognized, stories. There needn’t be a linear narrative for the audience to follow along. Rather, there's pleasure enough in recognizing fragments of our own truths in these quirky little vignettes. Watching Van Wieren's performance, I was reminded of my own childhood ambitions of pop-superstardom. Like most people, in my rock star fantasies I certainly wasn't dreaming about the years upon years of work required for a pro with Grasselli's skill. I just imagined myself instantly talented--thanks more to something like a magic wand than loads of practice. And that's precisely why Van Wieren’s "I’ll Be Seeing You” bit had such resonance.

Like a Movie I Saw Once concluded with yet another thought-provoking image: One of the cast’s beauties, Megan Mayer, slumped onto the floor near the front row. She then kicked her long, slender legs in the air and rested them against the stage. Her baby-blue halter dress slowly fell to her hips, revealing not only her impressive gams, but also a pair of leopard-print undies. The resulting image was uncannily similar to Hustler magazine’s infamous cover of a naked woman being fed into a meat grinder. I couldn’t help but wonder whether Van Wieren intended a statement on the more dehumanizing aspects of film- and performance-making, where body parts (usually female body parts) get chopped apart and displayed as if in Ed Gein’s basement.

Another piece, Anon, Sometime Before That, featured cellist Michelle Kinney and musician Gary Waryan on tablas (both of Jelloslave) improvising as visual artist Lara Hanson made serpentine strokes across a large, white canvas with black paint. It was the perfect counterpoint to Van Wieren’s playful expressiveness; this remote, solemn piece seemed primarily intended to entertain the artists rather than the audience. Toward the end, Kinney and Waryan’s tentative instrumentation started to take off, hooking onto the occasional rhythm or melody; you couldn't say the same for the visual art, though—Hanson's scribbles and inkblots never amounted to much more than twelve feet of paper destined for the recycling bin.

While no other piece matched the crowd-pleasing achievement of Van Wieren's Like a Movie I Saw Once, none were as isolating as Anon either. Unbranded's producer, Paula Mann, and her company, Time Track Productions, presented a darkly lit, jolie-laide piece, The Wandering Ones, in which three male character-dancers intertwined graceful moves with fight scenes and various acts of aggression. And there was a brave message to be found in two of the evening’s other works as well. Charles Campbell (Skewed Visions) created and starred in Theatre Piece, a perplexing but amusing work for which he dressed in a business suit made of Kraft paper and packing tape. Taking his place under a reading lamp, he began to read aloud from the writings of Samuel Beckett and Antonin Artaud as if he were a buttoned-up pencil pusher regurgitating procedurals from his corporate handbook. Another piece featured Jim Bovino (Flaneur Productions) and Beth Brooks (Margolis Brown Theater Company) decked out in over-the-top spiffs: Bovino in a sombrero and Brooks in gold dress, platinum wig, and Velcro sneaks. Armed with such important scripts as Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf and The Taming of the Shrew, the two desperately chased a spotlight about the stage. These pieces astutely spoofed the sorry state of today’s conventionalized and spiritually vacant theater: there's plenty of compulsion to stage the masters, but little regard for the works’ actual substance. In fact, a concern for the present state of art-making was what tied together Unbranded’s many parts. In the end, this didn’t feel so much like a statement on the branding or marketing. Rather, this collection of unusual work stood in defiance of culture that views art in merely economic, commercial terms. It's a loathsome state of affairs, but Unbranded aired its concerns with humor and delightfully entertaining grace.

About the writer: Christy DeSmith is a former editor at The Rake. She is also a freelance theater critic and was recently named an affiliated writer for 2007-08 by the Theatre Communications Group and American Theatre magazine.

Upcoming performances by some of Unbranded's participants:

What: Laurie Van Wieren's 9 x 22 Dance Lab
Where: Bryant Lake Bowl, Minneapolis, MN
When: Fourth Wednesday each month at 8 pm (doors 7:30 pm): April 23, May 29

What: Skewed Visions presents Jasper Johns, an original study of the landmark American painter by Charles Campbell, Gülgün Kayim and Sean Kelley-Pegg
Where: The Ritz Theater, Minneapolis, MN
When: June 18-21, all shows begin at 8 pm

What: Flaneur Productions presents Heliotrope, a festival of contemporary, underground music
When: May 15-17
Where: The Ritz Theater, Minneapolis, MN

What: MargolisBrown will present Cyclopedia
Where: Illusion Theater, Minneapolis, Minneapolis
When: Coming in September 2008