The third (and final) program of the fifth season of the New Original Works (NOW) Festival at REDCAT on Thursday night was handed over to three feminist -- or maybe post-feminist -- artists, with a secure sense of irony but a less secure sense of existence. They explore not just who they are but what they are or might become. Forces we don't understand are at play.
First there was Anne LaBaron's one-woman "cyber-opera" in which a housewife has an erotic, transformative encounter with a vacuum cleaner. Next, the performance artist Kristina Wong undergoes an erotic, transformative encounter with Oliver -- her cat. Finally, the choreographer Rosanna Gamson's powerful dance/theater piece "Tov" is a multifaceted transformative encounter with the troubling history of Polish Jewry.
Machine sex in opera isn't new; Stockhausen indulged in it in his extraterrestrial epic "Licht." Nor is suburban angst, which got a good boost from Leonard Bernstein's "Trouble in Tahiti" back in 1952.
But LaBaron combines the two in her 38-minute "Sucktion." The vacuum cleaner here is an unusually responsive model with a long hose and electronic sensors that sonically interact with a singer's every squeal of delight. But the interaction between acoustic and electronic music -- and between traditional vocal sounds, nontraditional vocal sounds and all those transformative auditory sensors -- is where the interest lies.
LaBaron likes the term "hyper-opera" for this succession of six "songs" to a libretto of typographic concrete poetry by Douglas Kearney. The musical, theatrical and textual material is hyper-complex. The soloist, Nina Eidsheim, explores extended vocal techniques. A sound-designer, Phil Curtis, adds samples from his keyboard. A percussionist, Gustavo Aguilar, is another sonic world onto himself. Nataki Garrett, directing Eidsheim, did not sidestep silliness. But the ear was always interested.
"Cat Lady" worked differently. Wong's stage presence is strong, her material less so. Perhaps it dates me to remain intrigued by the smoldering sexuality of cat women of old -- Simone Simon in the 1942 classic "Cat People" or Nastassja Kinski in the even better 1982 remake. Part sassy stand-up comedian, Wong plays with the audience not unlike the way Oliver plays with her. Her jokes are mildly shocking. Her references are TV and pop psychology, which means smoldering sensuality is in short supply.
But she is genuinely funny, has terrific stage timing and uses media with studied originality. A dancer, Lidet Viravong, Oliver in silhouette behind a screen, was a delight.
"Tov," the title of Gamson's new work for her Rosanna Gamson/World Wide company, is Hebrew for "good" and also one of the language's many synonyms for beauty, implying an inner beauty. "Tov" has a lot of extrovert elements, including much twitching, violent choreography for six dancers.
Gamon's accomplishment is to nonetheless retain that sense of inner beauty. An actor, Paul Outlaw, was the work's wonderfully comforting presence. He served to assuage sadness in "a story of how we start together and end alone." A tenor, Timur Bekbosunov, added honeyed folk song. The excellent soundscape somehow seamlessly mixed Stuart Dempster playing his trombone in a cistern, Chopin and Controlled Bleeding.
These are works in progress. Gamson's has particular promise but needs the most progress. Some images are bland, such as dancing in falling snow or pouring lines of white powder on the stage. But the choreography and music are gripping, the company is impressive and the uses of mixed-media are meaningful. "Tov" is too good for 24 minutes. An evening is called for.
New Original Works Festival 2008
Where: REDCAT, Walt Disney Concert Hall, 631 W. 2nd St., Los Angeles
When: 8:30 tonight
Contact: (213) 237-2800 or www.redcat.org