Performance diary: Rosas and OOIOO

July 23, 2014

7.21.14 — Last week I saw four shows, all of which revolved around ferocious female quartets. This year’s Lincoln Center Festival included a miniseries of Early Works by Anna Teresa de Keersmaker.


I’d seen Fase (from 1982) a few years ago when it was part of a Lincoln Center Festival tribute to Steve Reich — I remember seeing it with Jamie Bishton and loving the duet (although with its conceptual lighting and dancing shadows, you could just as easily call it a quartet or quintet). I bought tickets to all three of the other events. I took Andy to see Rosas Danst Rosas, which was de Keersmaker’s big international breakthrough. It is an iconic piece of work. I remember it vividly from seeing it at BAM in 1986 (in the Leperq Space, I believe). I took my actor friend Bob Boyle, whose comment afterwards was, “I wanted to watch the dance, not learn it.” Yes, lots of repetition, tightly structured in five chapters, four women identically dressed in simple schoolgirl shifts, Rolling on the Floor, Sitting in Chairs, Spinning Side to Side, Forward and Backwards, almost always in unison, keeping count unimaginably to a fiendishly demanding score by Thierry de Mey and Peter Vermeersch. Seeing the piece again at John Jay College, I kept thinking of them as postmodern dance’s version of The Ramones.

Autosave-File vom d-lab2/3 der AgfaPhoto GmbH

Elena’s Aria was less of a dance and more of a performance art piece, not unlike much of Pina Bausch’s work, except with an all-female cast, which is an ATDK trademark. I saw it when it first played at BAM in 1987, but strangely I retained almost nothing about the show. Seeing it again, I understand why – the images are elusive, ephemeral gestures. At the top of the show one performer walks across the front of the stage, sits at a chair downstage left, turns on a reading lamp over her head, opens a small cabinet, reads aloud from a book, puts the book back, flicks off the light, and hits a switch on top of the cabinet that activates a giant noisy industrial fan on the other side of the stage. She walks over and stands in front of it so the air blows her dress in such a way that makes it look like she’s shimmying. At the back of stage is a line of chairs occupied by two women whose hair blows in the breeze. That goes on for about ten minutes. This sequence is repeated three times in two hours – the passages read aloud are from Tolstoy (in Russian, English, and French) and the lyrics from Brecht-Weill’s “Surabaya Johnny,” interspersed with a lot of stillness and a lot of silence, five women (including the choreographer) slumped over a lot of chairs, waiting. Every so often a piece of music wafts in, old recordings by Caruso as if playing on a 78rpm Victrola in another room. An old-fashioned film projector is set up downstage – maybe two-thirds of the way through, someone turns it on and we see a montage of films of demolished buildings collapsing. As with Rosas Danst Rosas, there is a tiny curious coda in which a Mozart piano sonata plays while the five women sit and fidget in their chairs. A succession of adjectives presented themselves as I tried to describe the piece to myself: precise, perverse, aggressive, mysterious, maddening. I took my friend John Werner, new to ATDK – he was rapt and fascinated and we had a vigorous conversation about it over wine and cheese at Kashkaval Garden on Ninth Avenue afterwards.

Bartok/Mikrokosmos (made in 1987) was the only one of these Early Works being seen in NYC for the first time. It was another whimsically structured event in three chapters. In the first, Mikrokosmos, Jean-Luc Fafchamps and Laurence Cornez played seven pieces for two pianos by Bartok while a short woman and a tall man (Johanne Saunier and Jakub Truszkowski) performed de Keersmaker’s first male-female duets, whose loose-limbed twirling and child-like leaping reminded me surprisingly of early Twyla Tharp. The middle section, Monument, was a concert by the two pianists of a piece by Gyorgy Ligeti ostentatiously paying homage to Steve Reich and Terry Riley, titans of the New York “minimalist” school of composers. (I found it fascinating; Andy found it tedious.) The final section was a quartet, again set to Bartok, played by four musicians from Ictus (the Flemish contemporary music group and frequent de Keersmaker collaborators). The four female dancers stamped and circled through virtuosically precise deadpan variations on folk dances with a side trip to the Folies Bergeres, wearing black shifts with heavy shoes they clomped and dragged in a curious and amusing running sound joke.

elena's aria
It was a treat to see these works all in one week – the best kind of festival programming. I have a soft spot in my heart for de Keersmaker’s work, having watched the Flemish performance boom roll out in the 1980s and writing about it for the Village Voice (see “Survival Theater of the Eurokids”). I respond to de Keersmaker’s austere originality with a lot of admiration. Her work clearly bears a family relation to Bausch and Merce Cunningham, you could say, and the process-obsessed postmodernists (Steve Paxton, Yvonne Rainer, et al), yet its fierce female energy is a force unto itself. And the mind-meld among her spectacular dancers is amazing – how they manage the combination of repetition and precise unison is one of the company’s great mysterious achievements. (The company includes one founding member of Rosas, Fumiyo Ikeda; one rising star, dazzling red-haired Tale Dolven, above; and Sandra Ortega Bejarano, Cynthia Loemij, Sue-Yeon Youn, Elizaveta Penkova, and Samantha van Wissen, none of them slouches.) You can see a lot of de Keersmakers’s work online – there are beautiful films of Fase and Rosas danst Rosas along with archival footage of some of the other pieces.

Friday night I made an expedition to Williamsburg, happy to check out the relatively new Rough Trade record store and its cozy concert venue, where the band OOIOO headlined a show to support their new CD Gamel. I’ve never heard of this band, but I came across them on NPR’s First Listen web page, and they caught my eye because this new album incorporates gamelan music, a passion of mine. Gamelan is an Indonesian style of percussion ensemble, and in comes in two varieties, Balinese (very fast, very loud, often in unison) and Javanese (slower, statelier, more polyphonic, which I prefer). I was aware that OOIOO was some version of a Japanese rock band – it hadn’t registered that they were all women until they took the stage, a classic rock quartet of two guitars, bass, and drums, with two guys sitting on the floor playing Balinese gamelan instruments.


The music they play was very new for me – if there is a lineage, I don’t recognize it. There’s a raw punk energy, most notably emanating from the leader Yoshimi P-We’s aggressive, unapologetically tuneless vocalizing, yet there are some gorgeous four-part choral passages and throughout an astonishing rhythmic sophistication, free-jazz arrangements that turn on a dime flawlessly, and what sounds like strange overlapping time signatures, not to mention the gamelan, which is ingeniously integrated into the mix.

Trying to identify the universe of the sound to myself or friends, the best I could come up with was a mash-up of Frank Zappa and the B-52’s with guest vocals by Yoko Ono. Or tUnEyArDs meets Dawn of Midi in Tokyo. But when I check out their videos on YouTube, I see that other viewers have also been watching Sonic Youth, Pavement, and Swans, the kind of noisy skronk that I rarely have much patience for. At Rough Trade, though, I found OOIOO completely compelling and exciting to watch. Toward the end of the show, Yoshimi P-We (who seems to have some renown as a founding member of the noise band Boredoms) addressed the audience shyly and said their name out loud, so now I know how it’s pronounced: oh-oh-ee-oh-oh.

Before OOIOO there was a set by Lichens, the sound artist also known as Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe, who patches pieces into an analog synthesizer and adds spooky strung-out live wordless vocals. At Rough Trade his deck was set up on the floor, not on the stage. Sitting on a bench in the balcony, I had a vantage point from which to observe the phenomenon of a hundred people standing and watching Lichens perform, while behind them another hundred people were hanging out at the bar, schmoozing loudly as if the sound they were hearing was some kind of between-sets ambient DJ mix. At first I felt indignant and protective of the artist. I sensed or perhaps imagined he was feeling furious and/or humiliated at the lack of respectful attention to what he was doing. The schoolmarm in me wanted to go downstairs and shush people. But then I realized that if you’re a sound artist, interacting with the existing sonic environment is exactly what you’re doing, and whatever noise is happening in the room becomes an invigorating collaborator, not some kind of rude intrusion. That shift in perspective allowed me to relax and find the whole thing much more interesting.

My balcony perch also allowed me to watch another hilarious drama play itself out during OOIOO’s set. There’s always that one guy in the crowd who’s a super-fan, knows all the band’s songs and loves to sing along and jump around and perform his super-fandom. This guy was clearly also really high and kept moving through the crowd trying to whip his fellow concertgoers into a frenzy, without success. That didn’t discourage him at all – he kept bouncing and moving through the crowd, made his way to the front of the stage, took off his glasses, jumped onstage and attempted to crowd-surf, not once but twice, not getting very far. Everybody around him saw what was going on, let him bounce, but didn’t feel the need to match him or shame him. Bless his heart.

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