September 6th, 2009 5:33 pm | by Jonanna Widner News | Posted In: CLEAN UP, CLEAN UP, CLEAN UP, CLEAN UP

TBA Diary: Last In Translation

Tags: Culture, TBA, Dance
Miguel Gutierrez- Last Meadow
Hopefully all you TBA Fest goers out there made it to the opening Salon chat that took place at 12:30 pm Friday at Pacific Northwest College of Art.

The audience there filled about three-quarters of the 50 or so chairs there, so while the crowd was decent, chances are you didn't make it. Which is a shame, because PICA's artistic staff—Cathy Edwards, Kristan Kennedy and Erin Boberg Doughton—provided a helpful overview of the festival. Fortunately, if you weren't there, you can listen to the Opening Chat, and all the rest of the TBA:09 Salons, here, courtesy of the Portland Radio Authority.

Although much of Friday's Opening Chat was helpful for getting a feel for the festival's themes, one part in particular stood out. During the beginning part of the Q&A section, talk soon turned to an article written by the Oregonian's D.K. Row. In the article, published on Thursday (the opening day of the festival), Row praises PICA's powers-that-be for committing to artists' integrity and refusing to dumb down its offerings. But his thesis is that the fest doesn't have much connection to the city at large. As Row puts it:
But each year, I see, more or less, the same attendees: mostly artists and performers, along with patrons and those associated with the arts professionally. The total attendance for last year's festival was about 25,000 people spread over 10 days. That's not much more than one sold out Trail Blazers game, and it's far from the 75,000 people who course through the Art in the Pearl festival over Labor Day weekend, an art gathering that's artistically and critically pallid compared to TBA. Of course, numbers don't capture the richness of any story. Still, these numbers reveal a dilemma. What is the city's affinity for the festival in the boldest terms?

It's a good question, one that gets at the heart of that old conundrum about the elitism of art (especially avant-garde art): Art is supposed to reflect universal themes and the human condition, but much of it—especially the edgy business we see at the TBA festivals—is so erudite, obtuse, or difficult that it becomes inaccessible to everyone except for a certain class.

That's not to say it's not valuable, of course, and the PICA trio that spoke at the Opening Chat addressed the issue with class and insight (an especially bad-ass moment occurred when Boberg Doughton noted that “Just because you're into the Blazers doesn't mean you don't have a mind for art”).
But the conundrum seemed alive and well at last night's showing of Miguel Gutierrez' Last Meadow. A combination of theater, music (it's set to a stirring, striking original score by Neal Medlyn), dance, and, um…physicality, the work borrows hunks of James Dean's East of Eden, Giant, and Rebel Without a Cause to create, according to PICA's materials:
a non-narrative collage of sensorial confusion, aka an America where the jig is up and the dream has died. Last Meadow is about the space of waiting, when things don't move forward, don't happen as they should, and mixed messages are the only ones we get.

“Sensorial confusion”…well, yes it definitely provides that. The 1 ½-hour performance jerks between chopped up bits of Dean's dialogue, often through the aural prism of disjointed vocal effects and swirling echoes, accompanied by the shocking physicality of Gutierrez' troupe of “Powerful People” (Michelle Boule as Dean and a bearded, befrocked Tarek Halaby as Natalie Wood and other Dean leading ladies).

The cast is indeed powerful, as is much of the atmosphere of the show, but there is a definite inaccessibility going on. (Read WW culture editor Kelly Clarke's take on the show, here). Long, random dance and movement pieces intertwine with psychedelic renderings of scenes from the three Dean movies. Wigs fly off and people drop to the floor. Clothes come off and all of a sudden Madonna is blaring. There is no narrative, and, really, whatever metaphor or meaning that might be gleaned from the performance is lost in an overwrought freneticism.

Here's the thing: Last Meadow was one of the festival's most anticipated pieces, and it's also one the Opening Chat panel seemed most enthusiastic about. And so far, it's been one of the most popular. Hell, about half the audience at Saturday's showing gave it a standing ovation.

But still—and I may be setting myself up as a rube here—I didn't get it. My guess is most people wouldn't. It's a tough watch, because you know there's a message in there somewhere, but it's impossible to find amidst the obfuscating haze. And that swings back to the conundrum. Mixed messages indeed.

Miguel Gutierrez and the Powerful People perform Last Meadow at the Winningstad Theatre, Portland Center for the Performing Arts, 1111 SW Broadway. 8:30 pm Monday, Sept. 7. $15-$20. Miguel Gutierrez also leads his Death Electric Emo Protest Aerobics, a.k.a. DEEP Aerobics at The Works at Washington High School, 531 SE 14th Ave. 11 pm Wednesday, Sept. 9. $8-$10

Photo of Last Meadow by Eric McNatt courtesy of PICA.
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