A 'Performance' that sometimes captivates, often disappoints

Can you demystify enchantment? Choreographer Rashaun Mitchell, composer Stephin Merritt and designer Ali Naschke-Messing certainly tried in their plotless, collaborative 50-minute theater piece “Performance” at the REDCAT in Disney Hall on Friday.

The endless opening sequence resembled one of those documentary “Making of….” featurettes attached to the home-video edition of a fantasy film that explains how all the special effects were created.

But eventually (later rather than sooner) this deliberately mundane backstage prologue ended, and all the lighting battens rose from the stage floor, revealing Naschke-Messing’s spectacular multilayered starscape of gold-foil patches hung from invisible wires.

What’s more, a tangle of thick gilded ropes suddenly became a wondrous tree and then a burial mound, a giant harp, costumes for the four dancers—and more. A resourceful audience-participation segment helped expand and vary the visual delights.

All of this was flat-out gorgeous, teeming with possibilities. You could stage a memorable “Midsummer Night’s Dream” in this gleaming environment. Or “The Magic Flute.” Or a postmodern “Peter Pan.”

Unfortunately Mitchell’s choreography used it only as a playground for adults, never matching its imaginative splendor. Every so often a cogent solo would demonstrate the skill of dancers previously attached to such major contemporary ensembles as the Merce Cunningham and Tere O’Connor companies.

In particular, the cool, taut Silas Riener danced impressively in his variation on Friday. Mostly, however, the constant motion never yielded potent imagery or patterning, except when the dancers manipulated the design elements. And it would take more than all those sequins stuck to their costumes to make their glitter comparable to the scenic luster on view. Or the rich musical tapestry provided by Merritt.

Throughout "Performance," Merritt sang plaintive ballads with their own references to gold and to dancing, first from center stage and then in the side aisles and finally on a catwalk high above the stage, accompanying himself on a resonant (electric?) ukulele and, for a time, bells or gongs. Arguably his sweetest song: the one about mermaids from Barcelona.

Essentially “Performance” belonged to him and to an army of technicians headed by lighting designer Davison Scandrett. Indeed, at the very end, when multiple points of light (soap bubbles?) slowly descended in darkness from the catwalk to the stage, “Performance” didn’t need dancers at all, just Scandrett’s crew plus an audience with a capacity for wonder. Try to demystify that.

Los Angeles is only the second city where the work has been seen, and one hopes that the choreography will evolve and strengthen to become an equal component in the experience. Right now, alas, it’s faceless and largely useless.

Besides Merritt, Mitchell and Riener, the cast on Friday included Hiroki Ichinose and full-time dancer/part-time vocalist Cori Kresge.

Performances continue Saturday at 8:30 p.m. and Sunday at 7 p.m.

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