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Field Notes: September and October Performances

Our first month of performances has gone by in a colorful and inspiring blur and it has me waxing a bit philosophical (and verbose).

We started the theater season off with a powerful bang from London’s Complicite. “Shun-kin,” with its quietly intricate beauty, surprising and subtle wit left me with an overwhelming sense of joy and gratitude. It’s probably one of my favorite performances from my tenure here at CAP UCLA.

After one of the performances, director Simon McBurney participated in a thought-provoking Q&A session with the audience. One moment in particular has stuck with me. He talked about the use of puppetry in the work and the way the puppet Shun-kin evolved into a human character and how that progression mirrored her devoted servant/lover’s (and our own) relationship to and perspective of the character. She is, in the beginning, very remote, an imperious and demanding child, untouchable, unknowable in certain ways. But as she exhibits more humanity, more connection to the man who loves her, she becomes more humanlike and finally, in a fit of jealous rage, when she is most in tune with her raw emotions, the actress who has been oh-so-deftly portraying the voice of the puppet seamlessly takes total control of the character.

For me, it serves as a larger metaphor about what we do here. For more than a year before these incredible performers took the stage, “Shun-kin” held some part of our consciousness. As we planned and prepped and as the pages of the calendar turned, the work became closer, more real, until finally it was here and we could revel in our tangible connection to the company, their great talent and generosity and the profound emotions and sensations elicited by this intricate work, which will never be performed by these people and in this way again.

This whole relationship to the art we present– first rather remote and then progressively more intense, morphing into a truly hands-on experience– is common, especially when planning to bring major works of theater and dance to our community, which are often herculean-like efforts and which we take great pride in undertaking. We talk a lot about the ephemeral nature of the performing arts, of theater, of dance, and how we, as the audience, the community who experiences, witnesses and invests some of ourselves in each performance, then becomes the walking “installation” of that ephemeral work.

With Shun-kin in particular, we were incredibly humbled and awed by the outpouring of support from the Japanese community. Lovers of Japanese folk music pounded the pavement to ensure everyone was aware that revered Shamisen player Honjoh Hidetaro was part of the piece.

A member of our own UCLA Community, recent Ethnomusicology grad Kevin Willoughby joined us to add a beautiful layer to our presentation of the work. Kevin was on site throughout the show’s run to assist his teacher, Honjoh Hidetaro. He also graciously agreed to share several charming shamisen performances in the verdant courtyard of Freud Playhouse prior to several nights of Shun-kin, setting a reverent tone for the evenings and allowing the audience to marvel at the skill it takes to play this challenging instrument. Here’s a snippet of Kevin rehearsing in the Freud courtyard.

A Few Seconds of Shamisen from CAP UCLA on Vimeo.

Kevin is the only U.S. student of Honjoh Hidetaro. He has been studying classical shamisen as an apprentice to the master musician in Tokyo for the past four years. In 2010 his teacher has granted him his natori –his professional stage name: Honjoh Hideeiji

Kevin said it was interesting to be back on campus without worrying about classes or textbooks. “It’s also quite different having my teacher here, showing him around rather than following him around Tokyo,” he joked. “He is one of the best shamisen players in Japan, and I am so grateful to have the opportunity to study under him. He is a fantastic composer who has done a variety of different and new things with the shamisen.”

Our own donor base rallied around this incredibly intricate and massive work, with an opening-night benefit party celebrating “Shun-kin” and Complicite. Check out some gorgeous photos from that very special event.

Just a week or so later, our first dance work of the season came to us after much travail. Visa issues and travel delays for key members of Lucy Guerin Inc, required us to combine the planned two performances of “Weather” into a one-night-only event celebrating the debut of this astounding Australian company in Los Angeles.

As is metaphorically appropriate, we found ourselves in a mild maelstrom of technical difficulties, but banded together with the company with flexibility and creativity to weather the challenges. We were able to open the doors to the company’s final tech dress rehearsal for donors, students and ticket holders who absolutely couldn’t make it to the rescheduled debut and quite a few people took us up on it, lingering to talk about the work and the company with our director Kristy Edmunds long after the rehearsal performance had ended.

If you saw “Weather,” you saw what an incredible set it was, and how it set the perfect mood for Lucy’s intricate and often surprisingly whimsical choreography and concept, which carries inherent deep undertones about our relationship to our climate. Thousands of plain white plastic bags hung ominously over the stage, the precise lighting design turning these simple everyday products into something totally ethereal.

Having witnessed a bit of the technical precision and exacting nature of getting that deceptively simple-looking ghostly ceiling set up, I had a slightly rueful moment when I thought about all the work and time and human effort that went into ensuring that a 60-minute piece of art had its all-to-brief moment in our lives. But, I guess that’s the idea. It’s all ephemeral. We have to keep it in our hearts and souls to keep it alive.

I felt the same way a few weeks later as I peeked in several times to see the progress of the elaborate and alluringly frenetic sceneography for Robert Wilson’s Lecture on Nothing. So much loving and dedicated effort went in to ensuring that moment will last forever in our memories in vivid relief.

We took a moment to further honor John Cage that night, presenting his notorious work 4’33” on the Royce Terrace.

John Cage’s 4’33” from CAP UCLA on Vimeo.

And Bob Wilson made the most of his time here, staying late into the night after his Lecture performance, gleefully talking with students and fans, clearly on a high after his Royce performance and also the triumphant and long-awaited appearance of Einstein on the Beach at LA Opera the weekend before.

We were all on a bit of a high after that momentous weekend. One of the first Einstein-related activities in Los Angeles was our special presentation of the Einstein chorus to 1,100 middle and high-school students in a special demonstration performance in Royce Hall as part of our Design for Sharing education program.

These accomplished singers each presented a song that resonated with them, from arias to pop songs to self-composed work, to an operatic ode to the ingredients of a Twinkie. They ended the program by singing Philip Glass’s “Knee Play 5,” which entranced the students and instigated a bevy of questions about how these performers approach learning such a piece of music and how they manage to breathe while singing it. (Answer? They take turns and plan it out!)

We collaborated with Pomegranate Arts, producers of “Einstein on the Beach” and the LA Opera to allow more than 300 UCLA students to experience this seminal work for free, bussing them downtown to watch the final dress rehearsal the night before opening. We’re still hearing from students about how this work affected them. Stay tuned for a short documentary about it that we’re producing with the campus TV station.

All this amazing theater and incredible high-concept productions lifted us way up and our first two world music performances of the season took us even higher.

Our presentation of the masterful Goran Bregovic and his Wedding and Funeral Band proved a perfect opportunity to spend some time with our immediate neighbors and our campus community. We hosted a Balkan Dance Party on the Royce Terrace before Bregovic took the stage featuring Free Range Orkestar, Tzvetanka Varimezova and Ivan Varimezov, and the Nevenka Folk Ensemble.

Folks came, they danced, they sang along in a wonderfully joyous sensation that extended into the hall that night. Bregovic rocked the house, performing for well over two hours and the audience linked arms, danced in the aisles and refused to let him go.

Just two days later another joyous frenzy awaited as the sold-out and incredibly impassioned audience for The Idan Raichel Project reveled in the positive vibes and pure artistry of one of modern music’s most life-affirming and collaborative artists and everyone who shared his stage that night.

There’s so much more to come, from the nerd-rock heroics of They Might Be Giants this weekend to much more from Philip Glass this coming spring. Thanks to everyone who has been part of our story thus far and we hope to see much more of you as the season progresses.

Notes from Kristy: On Einstein, Generosity and Gratitude

We’re all still on a bit of an emotional high around here after a weekend of Einstein on the Beach, the images it evoked and the sense of artistic community it invoked here in our city. Seeing how the Friday night LA Opera audience responded so explosively and passionately as the curtain dropped was deeply moving, and hosting the three creators of the work here at Royce Hall the next day elicited a moment of profound gratitude and I thought it appropriate to share in this space the same message we shared with those in attendance Saturday.

When thinking about what to say about the current production of Einstein on the Beach, my mind moves immediately to the sheer fact and miraculous force of three artists: Robert Wilson, Philip Glass and Lucinda Childs. Though considering each of them makes it even more challenging to succinctly write something in an attempt to anchor what this work is, and why it has been so acutely resonant and impacting for those who have experienced it. I tend to think it is because of the towering generosity of each of them, the unassuming persistence of vision they embody, and the profound enrichment of multiple art forms through their uniquely expressed artistic genius – individually, and in this case, collectively.

The scale of Einstein On The Beach both in its physical and conceptual dimension, is staggering and permeates everything contained in it — from Glass’s music, Wilson’s direction and design, and Lucinda Child’s choreography. The libretto by Christopher Knowles is elemental to the work and a bedrock for Wilson’s direction. It gives rise to the structure underpinning the piece, and informs a profound delivery through the immense detail which is carried from each of the performers. Akin to a monumental dreamscape, I cannot help but wonder what it must feel like for these artists to look at it now, and recall the time of its inception.

If I then consider the work in relation to being an almost spiritual portrait of Albert Einstein, or if I ponder the culture of possibility that surrounded them all at the time of its original making, or the inspiring influence on successive artists (even if they had never actually seen it), or if I consider again what it actually took from everyone involved to bring this particular production to life again now in the 21st Century, I am left somewhere beyond words.

Which is perhaps entirely fitting. A monumental dreamscape that attains timelessness as a work of art is best not described, but rather gratefully received.

Instead of offering my illuminations, I want to instead express my thanks. To the artists themselves, and importantly, to team at Pomegranate Arts who have produced the production of Einstein on the Beach. Having worked for many years with them, I have been a direct witness to the dedication and integrity they have applied at every turn.

I want to thank the LA Opera for bringing Einstein on the Beach, finally to Los Angeles and into the full scope of their institution. We have thoroughly enjoyed a remarkable collaboration involving our many departments and staff members, and I want to thank all of you, your supporters and your Board members, and most especially Christopher Koelsch for that very first phone call well over a year ago, where we began the process of hatching a plan and making it stick. Bravo!

And Bravo to the staff, Board, members and supporters of the Center for the Art of Performance at UCLA as well. Without you, none of these seemingly impossible projects and initiatives, would become possible.

Follow Kristy on Instagram @kedmunds