New house, new works at OTB

“After all the stress of getting the new facility built and opened, we thought it would be nice to come up with a nice safe season of the tried and true,” says On the Boards’ Mark Murphy. So much for the best-laid plans: From what Art Town hears, the lineup for OTB’s first season in the old ACT building at First Avenue West and Roy is business as usual for the 20-year-old production team: high rolling in hope of high reward. Some of the shows lined up for the season opening mid-October don’t even exist yet, among them a piece for six dancers and six musicians that Portuguese dance sensation Clara Andermatt is devising to premiere at the Lisbon World’s Fair this summer. Likewise the piece that Belgian-based American choreographer Meg Stewart is working up with environmental artist Ann Hamilton (she who turned the Henry Gallery into a birdcage back in 1992) to debut later this year in Brussels. Likewise even Love Songs, a new work by David Rousseve, which opens at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Next Wave Fest in November before coming to Seattle in February 1999.

See end of article for related links.

One eagerly awaited new work at least we get a look at first: the newest from Seattle-based 33 Fainting Spells, with the working title Maria the Storm Cloud. Other folks are already lined up to book the piece by Gaelen and Dayna Hanson (who offered fans a partial sneak preview last week as part of OTB’s Northwest New Works festival): 11 venues (including LA’s Getty Center) have signed on to present the work sight unseen.

If you can’t wait for tickets for the series to go on sale, you can pass the time by throwing a little money OTB’s way to make sure the company matches its $300,000 challenge grant from the Kresge Foundation. Veteran Seattle arts patron Kayla Skinner has already kicked in toward the match with $150,000, as has the Alhadeff Foundation (another $100,000). Surely you have some spare change to throw into the kitty—especially since donors at the $1,000­$3,000 level will be commemorated in an architecture-art ensemble designed by Gene Gentry McMahon and Carl Smool. That’s better than your name on a brick any day, right?

Unexpected über alles

Here’s the answer, Jeopardy fans: “German comedy.” What’s the question? Right the first time: “What is an example of an oxymoron?” Nevertheless—or maybe therefore—the quintessentially American art of improv is making heavy inroads among Northern European theaters and performers, and Seattle’s Unexpected Productions unexpectedly finds itself fanning the flame. Unexpected’s Randy Dixon says it all started in 1994 when a visitor from Munich sat in on some workshops at the little theater under the Pike Place Market. “Four or five months later we got a call inviting us to spend a month in Germany, all expenses paid, teaching improv technique in six different cities.”

That visit led to a European tour in 1995, an improv festival in Munich in 1996, then an invitation to teach in Amsterdam in ’97, and, just concluded, a residency in Graz, Austria, training 15 members of the town’s official popular-theater company in the delicate art of what improv guru Del Close once called “something wonderful right away.” And the adventure continues, Dixon says: “We’ve just been invited back to Austria to perform and teach this coming November.”

The NEA in court and Congress

The same week that the Supreme Court was hearing arguments for and against “decency standards” in awarding NEA grants, Senator Slade Gorton was kicking off budget hearings for 1999 NEA funding. In his opening remarks as chair of the Senate Interior Subcommittee, which, bizarrely, crafts legislative arts policy, Gorton had good news and bad news for NEA supporters. The good news: “I feel the NEA reforms instituted [in the legislation passed last session keeping the agency alive for one more year] were a major step forward.” The bad news? The president’s request for $136 million for the NEA is dead in the water—or, in the understated language of the Gorton office’s press release, “any increase over last year’s funding level of $98 million would be unlikely to pass Congress.”

Uncharacteristically modest, Gorton didn’t mention that the “reforms” that kept the NEA alive were crafted in his office and designed to rally support for the NEA in good old-fashioned pork-barrel fashion: by promising more NEA money to smaller and lower-population states and communities. Pork or no pork, though, the approach worked, and the NEA survives, though temporarily (one hopes) in shriveled form.

Though the grants to “the NEA Four” which originally raised the ruckus were made eight years ago, Seattle artist and activist Mary Ann Peters, president of the National Campaign for Freedom of Expression (which is fighting the decency standards), says that the case currently before the Supreme Court is by no means moot. “When Congress calls on the NEA to respect ‘community standards,’ it implies that thousands of panelists who have used their expertise to bring the arts to our communities for the last 30 years have failed to do so. It also suggests that we the audience are incapable of applying our own standards in choosing what cultural experiences will inform our appreciation for the arts.

“As a citizen who cares about the arts I can’t accept the consequences of this position. It is impacting not only individual artists whose intentions are labeled suspect, but politically calls into question all areas of creative research, be it the academy, the arts, or the sciences. It has created an atmosphere that has made artists and their presenters tentative, wondering what they can and cannot do. If Congress wants to show respect for the diverse beliefs of the American public then it is our responsibility to remind them that diversity doesn’t reflect just some experiences but all experiences under our democracy and that artistic endeavor will mirror this varied landscape.”

The Supreme Court is expected to hand down its decision in June.

The family of dance

Since 1994, San Francisco ballet maven Deborah DuBowy has been presenting evenings of “dancer to dancer” interviews documenting the lives, careers, and opinions of terpsichorean celebrities like Violette Verdy, Edward Villella, and Maria Tallchief. Next month she trucks her video equipment and a trunkful of archival dance footage up to Seattle for the latest in the series, with San Francisco Ballet star Christopher Stowell interviewing his mom and dad, former New York City Ballet dancers and present Pacific Northwest Ballet artistic directors Kent Stowell and Francia Russell. OK, the May 14 evening at PNB’s Phelps Center isn’t likely to rip the lid off any dance secrets, but DuBowy promises that among the videos to be shown will be not only clips of Stowell fils in some of his starring roles with SFB but some of père and mère as well, including archival footage of Russell in Balanchine’s Agon.

Related Links:

National Campaign for Free Expression

Legal documents from the case challenging the “decency” requirement

Unexpected Productions

Pacific Northwest Ballet