Who knew a boom was happening in contemporary performing arts? Last fall, in “Festivals as Cultural Cuisinarts,” New York Times critic Claudia La Rocco wrote about a number of US festivals dedicated to new dance and theater, along with “work that borrows from many of these traditions but fits neatly into none”—all of which have sprung up in the past 10 years or so. The trend is notable, she believes, because often in the overall “conservative landscape” of the performing arts in this country, “little attention [is] paid to how artists currently approach and consider their traditions.”
With the Walker being “one of the few major American institutions to throw its weight behind contemporary, interdisciplinary artistic practice,” La Rocco also quoted Philip Bither, the Walker’s William and Nadine McGuire Senior Curator of Performing Arts, on that gap between what performing artists are making today and what audiences are seeing onstage: “The norm of what our culture is producing now, that which is most relevant to our times, is viewed as fringe or oddball,” he said. “Internationally, the keys to the big opera houses and major cultural institutions were handed over to contemporary artists years, if not decades ago. That’s not happened in the United States, so those who are trying to support the work of our times are relegated to this odd, hard-to-describe, hard-to-understand, ghettoized zone.”
Of course, the Walker’s Out There festival has been bringing hard-to-describe and absolutely essential performing artists to the Twin Cities since 1989. This year’s series focuses on four individuals from disparate locations: Young Jean Lee (New York), Rabih Mroué (Beirut), Toshiki Okada (Tokyo), and Mariano Pensotti (Buenos Aires). Bither had dual goals in curating this particular theatrical quartet for the January festival. “With globalization, touring has become much more common for performing artists from far-flung places. In part, that means that they can represent more than just an exotic ‘other’ to audiences, especially at the Walker,” he says. “I really do see these four as visionaries, in that they’re charting exciting new directions for theater. But at the same time, the work they’re presenting is grounded in ideas and experiences that are shared across continents today—a distrust of government, a redefining of women’s struggles, or ruminations on young people maturing and coming to terms with some harsh realities.”
“These are master artists, and while they’re young, they’re really quite accomplished,” says Mark Russell, a colleague of Bither’s, who has worked with Lee, Okada, and Pensotti. Russell is the producer of Under the Radar, an eight-year old performance festival that also runs in January at New York’s Public Theater. But despite their international acclaim, he notes that none of these artists has much, if any, name recognition in the United States. Even Lee’s profile doesn’t extend far beyond downtown New York (a condition typical among contemporary performing artists—one that influenced the naming of both the Out There and Under the Radar series). Still, Russell is confident that “they eventually will be the Robert Wilsons, Richard Foremans, or Pina Bausches of our time, and we’re seeing them relatively early in their careers.”
Bither agrees that the four are following in the tradition of Wilson, Foreman, and Bausch as theatrical “auteurs.” “Each has a body of work with a distinctive, identifiable style and vision,” he says. “Perhaps equally important, their work is being seen by a wider range of people—from vastly different backgrounds and cultures—than even 10 or 20 years ago.”
For example, Mroué’s Looking for a Missing Employee, an artful interrogation of Beirut’s history, has already been a notable inspiration in other countries, both politically and artistically. Though his stage work, as well as his films and visual art, have been seen on most continents over the past 10 years, his Out There performance is part of his debut US tour. A charming trickster who is also deeply frustrated by his country’s dispiriting failures, Mroué sets up this “lecture performance” as a riveting and unsettling puzzle, one that leaves audiences not knowing what to believe, or even whether to believe anything.
Okada has made waves with work that appears nuanced and cool on the surface, but surprises with intense, emotionally true-to-life undercurrents that are slowly revealed. It can also be wildly, darkly funny, especially in its spot-on dialogue—circuitous, repetitive, sometimes banal—which translates across Japan, the United States, and Europe. In an age of transnational downsizing, outsourcing, and wage stagnation, there’s another kind of international resonance in Okada’s trio of tales about young office temps suddenly rendered disposable in Hot Pepper, Air Conditioner, and the Farewell Speech.
Lee’s approach in creating new plays is to terrify herself. Deeply in tune with our times, she takes on subjects she feels she has no business confronting, such as black/white race relations in this country, or those she’d prefer to avoid: evangelical religion or, in her newest work premiering at Out There, feminism. She cuts into society’s—and her own—hypocrisies, prejudices, ignorance, and obsessions with the sharpest of scalpels and a scalding sense of humor. Her language is smart, poetic, and often surreal, even hypnotic. Rounding out the quartet is Pensotti, who, like Okada, focuses on a young generation: Argentinean urbanites who reflect a global, media-saturated, self-obsessed population, at once upwardly mobile and economically insecure. And like Mroué, Pensotti has also made films, a background that influences his boldly cinematic meta-theater, in which fast-paced narration mixes private stories with far-reaching historic events. In The Past Is a Grotesque Animal, a quartet of young professionals finds their dreams and expectations thwarted as they live through a decade of economic collapse, career ebbs and flows, affairs and friendships, and terrorist attacks.
“The fact that these four have reached outside their communities and found international recognition means their work has a certain strength,” says Russell, who is also presenting Okada and Pensotti at his Under the Radar festival this year. “You can’t really set out to make a piece with the goal that it will resonate universally. But from the very beginning, Lee’s and Okada’s work has had that quality. Pensotti’s is very specific, but people have picked up on his plays and made them relevant to their locales.”
The relative autonomy these artists have could be one factor in their success at making timely, relevant work. As Bither says, “The individual theater-maker’s creative process is fundamentally different from the more free-form approach of experimental collectives and artist ensembles that we’ve presented in recent years at Out There, or the tightly controlled process at regional or commercial theaters. These individuals are breaking rules and doing away with formal conventions, and also controlling all aspects of their work, from writing and direction to closely overseeing design and staging. But the bottom line is that each is communicating something profound and current—and they’re amazingly articulate about it.”