Dance review: Rachel Rosenthal work goes to the dogs (but in a good way)


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Courting and embracing the unexpected comes naturally to octogenarian iconoclast Rachel Rosenthal, whose work blends experimental theater, performance art, dance and, sometimes, music (as with the presence of California EAR Unit members Amy Knoles and Eric Clark in this weekend’s performances at Rosenthal’s Espace DbD). Among the memorable “unexpected” inspirations at Saturday night’s performance of Rosenthal’s all-improvisatory TOHUBOHU! Extreme Theatre Ensemble, was a non-human element: the beautiful white dog Sasha.

In the opening moments of several vignettes—entirely improvised by the numerous dancer-actors and musicians, and lighting/sound designer Kate Noonan—Sasha plopped down on the “stage” of the small performance space, and remained there, a combination mascot, prop and minimalist actor. Sasha endured performers’ dog-like maneuvers and sniffing fest in the first scene, and stayed, statuesquely implacable. A moment of high drama came at the very end, when Sasha turned her head as if on cue, when confronted by the personal space-encroaching Doug Hammett.


Between those dog-focused moments came an impressive, absurdist, alternately funny, primal and kinesthetic performance. It was an engaging confab of dance, enlightened onstage nonsense and experimental music.

Music, of course, is naturally predisposed to the improvisational impulse, and played an important role here. On the fly, the musicians both reflected and affected the actions onstage, also creating on the fly, in symbiotic accord. Varying degrees of concreteness, irrationality and emotional veracity wended through the performance onstage, just as the music element remained in steady, free-spirited flux. Knoles has previously collaborated with Rosenthal, on her final solo piece, “UR-BOOR,” and the musician has an intuitive feel for what’s right, in terms of abstract electronic sonorities, fleeting swatches of grooves, and hints of cultural references (including tidbits of “Spaghetti Western-ized” guitar samples).

Also a virtuoso percussionist, Knoles remained in the digital, sound painterly realm here. Clark’s violin was mostly colored by electronic treatments, although at one point, he suggested a folk melody with pizzicato, but quickly melted back into abstract mode.

Using an array of odd props, including plastic kitchen items, Mexican wrestling masks and Styrofoam heads that became ritualistic objects of desire at one point, the ensemble cooked up strange and inventive non-linear scenarios, but kept things lively, handily dodging overly cerebral dryness. Elements of the world we know snuck into the mix, as with a slightly chilling Abu Ghraib reference, but mostly the performance built a world of its own, a place where stately dogs and easy-access avant-garde notions rule.

-- Josef Woodard