The REDCAT New Original Works Festival has become over the past decade an adolescent summer rite of passage. That is not to say the artists are not adult; they tend to be accomplished creators and performers based in the L.A. area. But the work itself is in an early phase of development.
This year's festival is not so much a place to discover what's next. That remains a tantalizing possibility, but judgment is best left as embryonic as the work in question. Seemingly naïve ideas might grow mightily, and seemingly good ones might not.
These new original works do, though, offer a collective look at what's going on these days, what's on artists' minds in the arena of performance.
The first program Thursday included three fragments, each just shy of half an hour, in various states of completion and polish. Two were pieces for dance, the third a kind of experimental music theater. All had cultural displacement as a theme. (The festival continues for three weeks, with three new works each week, and each program performed three times.)
Wilfried Souly began the evening in the lobby. African rugs laid out a path into the theater. The dancer and choreographer, in white jeans and bare-chested, appeared like a happy-go-lucky voyager headed into the hall. Background music combined African chant and Vivaldi's "Four Seasons." Common to all three pieces, common everywhere, is an iTunes attitude toward musical availability — all music is but a click away.
Souly, who comes from Burkina Faso, did not remain happy-go-lucky for long. His expression could turn unexpectedly anxious. His muscular dance, first smooth, became edgy. He fell to the ground, as though wounded. Anger shot through his eyes. Then he was on his feet, convivial again, beckoning us to follow him to our seats.
The work is "Saana/Foreigner." Two musicians, violinist and mandolinist Tom Moose and guitarist Julio Montero, participate. Their styles range from avant-garde to South American folk, with hints of Minimalism and plenty more.
"Saana" shows a bemused dancer in a new land. Souly projects on a screen behind him standard questions posed to immigrants: Why do you want to travel to then U.S.? What do you do? How will you pay for it?
The questions become startlingly invasive, inquiring as to the size of his and his wife's bed and who sleeps on which side. The music continues to please as Souly becomes increasingly agitated. His movement once more goes from confident to scared and back to confident. He leaves off as if at the beginning of something new and unknown.
Rosanna Gamson, who has had incipient work in the REDCAT festival before that has grown to full-blown success, has another impressive and already polished work, "Still," for her troupe World Wide.
The stage is lined with transparent curtains. The lighting is from large flashlights placed on the stage floor. Six dancers (four men, two women), in tight tops and shorts, react in pairs and larger ensembles to a variety of kinds of music (all recorded) that includes Baroque viol, Astor Piazzolla's tangos for bandoneon and examples from pop and world music. The sound of a train occasionally interrupts. A journey is implied, but what kind of journey is not.
The movement, the lighting, the effortless-seeming flow and the quality of veiled mystery are all beautifully handled. There is no center, no focus. But there is a sense of being watched, especially when one dancer is shadowed by another behind a curtain. Nothing is ever resolved.
The final work, "Iceland," by O-Lan Jones and her company Overtone Industries, is the most ambitious and least finished. A traveler, Vala (Cesili Williams), returns home to her island's remote north. She encounters an airline clerk, Mundur (David O), who, like Vala, is escaping something. Her plane crashes, and she parachutes down into a very strange place, a kind of Land 'O Gears, where people (the Hiddenfolk Ensemble) wear corrugated cardboard vests with circular gear-like images.
O-Lan — who directs and who has written the text and, along with Irish songwriter Emmett Tinley, the music — calls the piece a passage into the "dark night of the soul." This is clearly a peculiar piece, one in which a kind of theatrical naiveté becomes deception, the dark soul to be searched out from the mundane.
The songs are folkish, Broadway-ish and just slightly odd enough to make you question what they are about. The production has a handmade feel, but the lighting is sophisticated. A small instrumental ensemble is conducted by John Ballinger, with a clarinet in one hand and a guitar strapped over his back.
We are left with Vala having just arrived wherever it is she has arrived. The displacement is on many theatrical levels and has just begun, naive ideas beginning to grow mightily.