Saturday, May 19, 2007

Somewhere Better Than Here: Big Dance Theater's The Other Here

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Photo by Stan Barouh

I fought a near monsoon to get to Big Dance Theater's production of The Other Here, presented by the The University of Houston Cynthia Woods Mitchell Center for the Arts, a new think tank/presenter for collaborative work. The Other Here, co-directed by choreographer Annie-B Parson and actor/director Paul Lazar, has so much there there it's was well worth the wet trudge. Blending a number of elements, including found text from the million dollar round table for top insurance salesman, two Masuji Ibuse's short stories (The Carp and Life at Mr. Tange's), Okinawan pop music and traditional dance, Big Dance Theater creates a third world.

The power of the piece lies in the energy of juxtaposition, how we know something differently by taking it out of context and placing it in a new environment. Therein lies the genius of mix-masters Parson and Lazar's enchanting new “here.” Ibuse's stories start out quite separate from the insurance salesmen conference, but as time goes on our brains start to weave them together. In the end, it doesn't matter what is what because it's all beautiful and enchanting. Our eyes want to linger in the there of a new “here.” It's an emergent world, one that would not exist without a couple of global scavengers out on the prowl for just the right set of ingredients.
What ever it is, it feels whole and marvelously complete.

Big Dance Theater's performers are each so distinct in their individual performances yet together they make this very elusive story sing. Co-director Lazar swims between Medhi and a the role of an aging motivational insurance legend with a noble ease. Towards the end, the roles appear to merge which makes the piece all the more fun. Big Dance Theater veteran, Molly Hickok, is luminous as Yosuji, Medhi's slacker pipe-smoking servant. Her radiant dancing looks like she's tickling space with a gentle precision that shows just enough flavor of Okinawan form for us to get the idea we are far from home. Jennie MaryTai Lui is also a joy to watch move and is very funny as the Otatsu, Yosuji's disgruntled wife. Jess Barbagallo conjures equal parts Tony Robbins and game show host as the narrator/emcee. Her smarmy charisma could sell a clunker insurance policy to any number of innocents. Chris Giarmo plays Nampachi Aoki with ample charm. Heather Christian pulls out all the vocal stops with her silky tone as the Widow of Nampachi Aoki.

Jennifer Tipton's lighting oscillates between a hotel ballroom's harsh tone to a soft glow of wonderment. The spare but clever set by Takeshi Kata seems in constant motion. Jane Shaw's sound score keeps us guessing as to which continent we are on moment by moment. Claudia Stephens' costumes conjure worlds east and west with her cool looking kimonos. And, of course, Peter Flaherty's projected carp steals the show. Carried around on a portable monitor for a good part of the show, the carp takes the shape of the glue that holds this otherworldly place together. Towards the end, the carp enlarges in a breathtaking moment of transcendence.