On the fifth floor of the Los Angeles Theater Center in downtown L.A., the members of Cloud Eye Control are trying to create poetry out of collaborative technology. On one end of the large studio, makeshift tables hold laptops and electronic equipment, with a cluster of musical instruments nearby. The middle of the room is dominated by two free-standing screens.
Video is cued up, and multiple projectors transport us to the icy seas and glaciers at the beginning of “Under Polaris,” a retro-futuristic performance piece that has been a year in gestation. Anna Oxygen, the group’s composer and lead performer, seats herself inside a “boat” -- a foam core cutout onto which the texture of a dugout is projected -- and begins to paddle her way through the stormy waters. She’s a scientist on a mystical quest to the North Pole, and she sings, “This is not my land, I am alone here in your hand. . . .”
It’s only days away from the debut of the full-length version of “Under Polaris” at REDCAT, and there still are snags to work out, transitions to be smoothed. This performance combines live action, recorded animation, multiple projectors, mobile props, and a five-piece live band, so there’s still much to do. And, in the spirit of what Chi-wang Yang, the director of the group, calls do-it-yourself aesthetics, they somehow pull it all together.
“We work together very collaboratively,” says Miwa Matreyek, video artist and the third member of Cloud Eye Control. “I see what needs to be done, then go home and work on my computer.” Her work supplies a host of visuals, including props, settings and special effects -- falling snow in one scene, the outpouring of civilization from the heroine’s arm in another.
They are constantly improvising as they go. “Even though we use a lot of technology, we also use a lot of older theatrical conventions,” says Yang.
“The costumes,” says Matreyek, “reference the futuristic, but also ancient-ness.”
Perhaps that is because, as Oxygen says, their work explores “what it is to be human.” Part of that exploration reflects a certain unease with technology.
The three met at CalArts as graduate students, and various collaborations led to their forming Cloud Eye Control in 2007. The name is equal parts serendipity and intention. They brainstormed, then chose three words that sounded right together. “Sometimes Anna’s the cloud, sometimes Miwa’s the cloud,” says Yang. Being a collaborative, no one will lay claim to being the “control.”
“Under Polaris” is the first project that REDCAT has produced in a “hands-on” way, says Mark Murphy, REDCAT’s executive director. He had been aware of the trio’s work individually, then last year invited Cloud Eye Control to present a short piece at the New Original Works festival.
“They are truly exemplary in their interdisciplinary approach to finding a new way to tell a story,” Murphy says. “Their blend of original music and thoughtful theatrical elements is unique.”
REDCAT decided to co-commission a full-length work, along with the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art. The project got a kick-start when Portland philanthropist Leslie B. Durst offered to fund a three-month residency for Cloud Eye Control in her city. She stipulated that the work be related to the North Pole, because of her personal affinity for polar bears.
“It was kind of perfect because we’d talked about our next piece but hadn’t actually locked in,” says Oxygen. “It was a great starting point, there’s so much that can come out of what the North Pole is.”
“We had pretty random ideas at first,” says Yang. “Then one thing that focused us was that we heard a radio show about an Arctic seed vault that was opening up.”
Last year the Norwegian government established the Svalbard Global Seed Vault -- a repository for seeds placed in safekeeping in the event a catastrophe wipes out crops. Thus the narrative for “Under Polaris” evolved -- a scientist journeys to the North Pole, carrying with her the essence of humanity. Along the way, she encounters different animals of the north -- Polar Bear, Musk Ox, Caribou King -- and takes on some of their attributes to survive.
Toward the end of the rehearsal day, Oxygen is handed a wireless microphone to allow her to loop her voice.
She sings a breathy melody into the mike. Word and song merge, and echo hauntingly throughout the large space, a moment of the magic that transports us outside the moment.