Modern 101 

Our Own Voice's Here and Now puts the audience in the spotlight.

Sometimes it's hard to tell when an Our Own Voice production has begun. The company has been known to take some pretty radical approaches to the art of performance, and under the proper circumstances, it's not at all difficult to confuse pre-show mingling or post-show carryings-on with the actual show itself. No doubt, the elimination of these kinds of traditional boundaries fills the Our Own Voice troupe with a certain devilish glee. In terms both social and artistic, the work they have done in Memphis may very well be counted as the city's most significant in recent years. Not the most polished, mind you, or the most professional -- such values are beside the point. But working under difficult circumstances and using a talent pool that has often included children, interested community parties with little or no background in the theater, and mental health-care consumers, they continue to create interactive entertainments that ultimately ask more questions (directly and metaphorically) than they answer. Most of the time, their curious structures are revealing. Admittedly, they are occasionally frustrating. They are, generally speaking, a joy. Here and Now, a dance concert choreographed by Kimberly Baker, is a bit of all three.

The audience was small at TheatreWorks this past Saturday night: a half-dozen heads, tops. Bill Baker, OOV's artistic director, pined for the previous night's large and active audience. He lamented the loss of one of the performers who was hospitalized at the last minute with a ruptured appendix. The omens were all in place, suggesting a less than pleasant theatrical experience. Inside the theater, audience members and performers mingled on stage. Some sat at the various tables scattered throughout the space and filled out index cards. I took my usual place in the back row, beneath the overhang of the lighting booth: comfortable and secure, a seat I am very familiar with -- one that I trust will give me access to all the action but keep me out of it. On stage the mingling and giggling continued. And continued. I began to wonder if this was the show, and if in my usual, secure spot, I was somehow missing out on all the action. But patterns began to form in the seemingly random occurrences under the lights. Or at least I perceived that patterns were forming, and I became convinced that, by not participating, I was somehow missing the point. Just as I was about to relocate, Kimberly Baker, who, at six months and showing, may very well be the most pregnant choreographer working in Memphis today, came out to deliver the longest and most involved curtain speech to date.

"When you see a show, a lot of people have a tendency to compare it to other shows they have seen," Baker said after pointing out the fire exits. "You judge the shows based on other shows you have seen." She repeated the same concept in a number of ways before getting around to her point: "We ask for you not to judge this performance." That's, of course, a tough challenge to a critic and, combined with the loss of a cast member and a tiny audience, the final indicator that two hours of sheer misery lay in store. Then the lights went down, the music started, and all the pessimistic indicators were turned to liars. For all the troubling circumstances and a cast that ranged from experienced adult dancers to young 'uns just starting to get their Capezios wet, what happened was, to borrow from clichÇ, a little magical.

In many ways, Here and Now is a departure from OOV's usual fare. While it addresses issues of psychology, it does not specifically address or filter information through the lens of mental illness. Neither does it incorporate the techniques of Bill Baker's theatrical hero Augusto Boal, the Latin American innovator who erased the boundaries between actors and audience without eliminating the aspects of narrative and spectacle that make theater attractive as an entertainment. Though, in its own way, Here and Now does manage to accomplish many of the same goals Boal set forth in his seminal text Theatre of the Oppressed. But Here and Now is largely based on the work of dance theorist Anna Halprin whose Life Art Process preempts technique in favor of dreamy, repetitive imagery that addresses both the fantastical and the mundane. Halprin's work has often dealt with issues of inclusiveness and access: no dancer too old, young, tall, short, fat, or thin. For Halprin, the dance should reflect the world and reveal its mysteries.

Each section of Here and Now is preceded by a monologue that sounds like some excerpt from a self-help book on dysfunctionality that was given a cursory edit by Marcel Proust. It teeters on the irritating but ultimately falls on the more ethereal side of pedantry. The dances that follow are simple and mechanical, with bits of whimsy thrown in. They are not about technique or virtuosity but rather about answering the questions raised through motion and imagery. Occasionally, a young dancer might break out of the rigidly synchronized mechanics of a dance phrase to brush her hair back. Rather than becoming a distraction, the little irregularities put a ghost in the machine, and the overall texture is actually richer for it. Again, it's not about technique.

The second act is about audience involvement. Surprisingly enough, everyone at Saturday's performance joined in on the action. Needless to say, the moves aren't intimidating and neither are the dancers. For anyone who has ever been drawn to the idea of dance but felt like, for one reason or another, they were too clumsy or that they just wouldn't fit in among dancers, Here and Now is a great opportunity to explore that secret fantasy in a public place -- where you will feel right at home.

Showing through June 8th.

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