Velocity hosted a special Speakeasy Series event, Confluence + Rebellion on January 16, 2014 — an experiential evening with Cacophony for 8 Players director Torben Ulrich, dancer Beth Graczyk and musician Angelina Baldoz sharing elements of their project and generating discussion around the nature of influence, inspiration and collaboration.
The venerable Washington Performance Hall is in the midst of a restoration campaign to secure funds and raise awareness of its significance to Seattle’s performing arts community. Its history is undeniable. With a decades-long list of star attractions, and a legacy as a community gathering place, these walls are witness to an evolving, flourishing arts scene. But it’s a very old building, and as it stands now, the wood-floored dance hall wears its history with a weathered, hunched grace. It’s rather like visiting a slightly decrepit museum complete with wide, weathered dance floor, a long hovering wrap-around balcony and classic vaudevillian stage framed by vanity lights. The gloom of chipped gothic splendor permeates as the wood groans under feet, and many layers of dusty white paint no longer conceal the web of cracks lacing through every wall. The swoop of balcony sags and the quaint stage often stands empty, but remains lit as a nostalgic reminder of what has passed through this crucial public venue. I see the flickering eye of a once glamorous diva.
It’s a difficult space to fit contemporary acts in, with the expanding expectations of performance art reaching beyond the confines of such a modest stage; the established personality of the room dictates any experience. Most performances I’ve seen here make use of the wide, echoing space and ignore altogether the lovely old stage, with audience seating positioned in various bleacher constructs around the room. One has to either compensate for its limitation or utilize the vintage atmosphere, and clever artists have made great use of the rigidly defined space by spreading out across the great floor, emerging from dank corners or roiling within shadowy enclaves.
The grand old place has provided a perfect home for the collaboration of director Torben Ulrich, dancer/choreographer Beth Graczyk, dancer Allie Hankins and musician Angelina Baldoz to unleash their elaborate allegory: Cacophony for 8 Players.
Referencing the purloined wisdom of eight historical figures: Bharata Muni (ancient originator of Indian dramaturgy and Sanskrit theater), Abhinavagupta (one of India’s preeminent philosophers), August Bournonville (Royal Danish Ballet), Vaslav Nijinsky (Ballets Russes), Martha Graham (dancer/choreographer), Merce Cunningham (dancer/choreographer), Maya Deren (Russian avant-garde poet and dancer), and Pina Bausch (German Ballet theater director), each a weighty subject with astute observations of life’s offerings, are mined here for their transcendent influence; and unquestionably effected by the brooding patina of this old hall, the provocative, heady ideas presented are given the added extra of solemn, dignified attention.
Wrapped in a seamless white muslin scrim that corrals the entire left side of the room ending with precision at the glowing lip of the stage, the expanse has been transformed into a surreal gallery. Peopled with sculpture of elemental shapes wrapped in disturbingly beautiful gut-skin, it feels like a Salvador Dali panorama, and walking past this archetypal still life to my seat I’m struck by how simply and expertly I’ve been placed in an altered state. While almost effortlessly taming the somber surroundings without rejecting their evident physical nature, Cacophony has transformed the old arena, and even showcased it as a silent player.
Furthering the invitation, Torben’s wizardly figure glides between stage and audience, at once a part of the elder landscape and also one of us—’the observers.’ Unabashedly friendly, he looks deep into people’s faces and takes them by the arms, holding them, even giggling as he lies in someone’s lap! Engaging with everyone, he helps to bring us into the fold; when he makes his way to us I’m ready, commenting on how pleasant it feels to be a part, and just as his deep eyes take me in, the lights dim and he moves to his place on the stage.
Angelina blasts her trumpet from the balcony above in ceremonious proclamation of a grand beginning; a courier announcing the arrival of something magnificent. Playing with the natural acoustics of the room, her horn bounces around, then turns from recognized call into a salvo of cacophonous squawking. The royal, heaven-sent entrance deconstructed and made sharply earthbound. A theme of the organic soundscapes Angelina excels in, she blasts with perfect tone and then shifts…angling our attention from the expected to the exotic, peeling apart and then realigning. Taking us to new places and then returning, her musician’s savvy, tech-hued expertise secures my faith and gives weight to the obscure, shifting ground before us.
Sage Torben and acolyte Beth perform a ritual of sharing that ignites the blossoming of consciousness, awakening precise and delicate movement from dancer Allie Hankins. The juxtaposition of rounded swooping, controlled leaning and sharp chopping gestures beautifully meshes with the forced perspective of the surreal room, now a stage upon which the universe shivers. Allie rides waves of sound issuing from Angelina’s corner, is joined by Beth and together they weave an intricate, expanding pattern that encompasses the vastness, establishing a vocabulary of movement not unlike flight.
Beth then takes center stage, collecting the scattered energy that has been released. Growing limbs like a supple tree reaching outward into the sky, then deep within the earth. There’s nothing clichéd about the vines I see shooting from her fingers. Beth’s movement is confident and strong, loose yet strictly stylized. The established language of folding and swoop allows us to further imagine organic life exploding in all directions. I’m given the story of knowledge shared and spreading out before us, and also the satisfaction of watching a deft and mindful choreographer. Efficient and exact in her movement she blends hard and soft, angled and round to the betterment of both.
As the adventure continues, Torben and Angelina trade vocal volleys as they creep through the thicket of sculpture. A contest between the Mage and upstart…their cacophonous barrage becoming a marriage, then melding as one. We as audience are again swept up in the bath of ideation, as word texts flutter down around us. Coaxed to speak, to read what has befallen and to oscillate the pitch of our voices, Angelina records this new cacophony to play as launch music for the exhilarating finale.
The two dancers, on a path taking them around and around the room (each time to face me happily sitting at the end of their spiral), are like stylish atoms cycling through an increasing push towards collision, or twin dervishes reaching satori, and as they escalate past me and then around again…I begin to experience a euphoric, rising tingle moving up my core. I’m getting high! Their projected energies smash into me and quite suddenly I’m blinking in the face of what feels rather like an epiphany. I understand, and am happily convinced by the elevating power of art. Given a sensual experience, immersed in the sometimes mysterious and perilous trip through an Odysseian puzzle, I have been guided by serene masters towards ascension and immaculate clarity.
Rich and unabashedly esoteric, this wild moon dance is a shimmering God’s eye of portentous detail. Rich, dense and dramatic, Cacophony examines sweeping universal truths, nature’s sometimes chaotic tidal sway, the light of insight, our shared and collected wisdom and the ripple effect it has upon our human existence. Not an easy task—of reducing a deep reasoning, quotable texts from obscure sources and of squeezing the infinite into finite—but I’m swept away by this beautiful and potent success story. Here in dark and dusty Washington Performance Hall, I feel as if I’ve made a pilgrimage to the sacred, distant cave of an exalted Shaman. The luminescent, vibrating bubble created within this vaulted, creaky time capsule resonates and merges. The cacophony of many players distilled into a single, uplifting voice.
Eric Pitsenbarger is the son of beatniks, grew up in a French restaurant, taught Indian children how to “Do the Hustle” and is writing a memoir. A visual artist and occasional performer, he enjoys swimming in the culture bath of Seattle’s arts scene.
All performance images copyright Tim Summers