Every few years Laurie Anderson, who was once dubbed a performance artist for lack of a better descriptor but is simply a performer sui generis, puts together a report from somewhere that is much like our world. She tells stories about places and situations we recognize. She plays something we might recognize as a violin. She uses electronics that have come to seem familiar enough.
Most important, the feelings she expresses tend to be ones we share. When she makes us laugh, which is often, she does so with expert traditional-comic timing, the kind at which Jack Benny excelled.
And yet something is always skewed. In fact, everything is. Anderson has perfected the beat before the punch line, an emphasis that can make the expected unexpected. Her violin, which is electric and produces sonic washes, doesn’t always sound like one. Her gadgets distort her voice. The world she describes is from the outside looking in, even when, and especially when, it’s herself she’s observing.
“Dirtday!” is Anderson’s latest show. She presented it Tuesday night at Campbell Hall as part of the UC Santa Barbara’s Arts & Lectures series. Friday night she brings “Dirtday!” to UCLA at Royce Hall, under the auspices of the Center for the Art of Performance. Dirt Day is what we would call Earth Day if instead of calling our planet Earth, we called it planet Dirt. Change the name and we change the place.
“How much of real world,” she asks, “comes down to words?”
“Dirtday!” functions like a psychological and philosophical cleanser, Anderson wiping away some of the fog that clouds our perceptions. The theme is change, especially the kind we tend not to acknowledge.
People do change, she observes. We’re not the same as we once were. We get old. We forget things. We die. But the world itself does not necessarily change. Her example is that during the Civil War, America was a battleground. Today, America is appearing all too much like a battleground again. Ironically, Anderson’s presentations might seem to have begun to resist change. Rather than attempt to come up with something new and technologically inventive with each appearance, she has settled into a ritual with the stage strewn with votive candles. All she needs is a podium, a chair, her electric violin, an electric keyboard and a device that lowers her voice now and then to male baritone. The production credits list only a lighting designer, Brian Scott, who was kept busy throughout the 85-minute show.
Anderson’s look has changed ever so slightly; she now sports a bushy haircut rather than her trademark spikes.
But that along with her tight white shirt and skinny black tie only emphasized her continued Chaplinesque impishness. You would never know she is 65.
As usual, she set a mood with a droning electronic background soundscape, efficiently otherworldly except for the occasional banal drum machine effects. She’s been practicing her violin, and her loud, immersive waves and loops took on here an impressive Baroque flavor.
The subject matter included what angered Darwin about peacocks, what you see when you close your eyes, chickens that fly in a tent city in New Jersey, why the artist Gordon Matta-Clark split houses in two, what makes the jukebox spin, the purpose of death, and a better use of a pillow speaker than for learning German in your sleep.
If you want to know what connects these subjects, you must allow Anderson to do the revealing. It’s not just how much the real world comes down to words but how those words are presented. I can’t explain her explanations of dying, those words belong to her. Her genius is to find the music and theater to capture that space between the real and the unreal, which she says has become increasingly unclear.
Yet for all that, and for all of Anderson’s broad curiosity, her world seems to have shrunk in recent years. She circles around herself, her dog, her lower Manhattan circle.
Fortunately, Friday’s performance of “Dirtday!” at UCLA represents more than just another of her regular Royce appearances, however valuable those are.
She is one of the new Center for the Art Performance fellows, which will allow her three years to explore the campus resources, in case she wants to become a little more of a Left Coast Laurie, all the better to further blur the lines between the real the unreal.
Laurie Anderson’s ‘Dirtday!’; Royce Hall, UCLA; 8 p.m. Friday; tickets, $20-$60; (310) 825-2101or cap.ucla.edu