Embracing the Misunderstood

By - Nov 1st, 2005 02:52 pm
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By Russ Bickerstaff

Performance art has evolved into a true art form. Remember when pretentious yet often ridiculous artistes would do interpretive dances with paints and foodstuffs in an effort to make political statements, whether or not their audiences even had a clue about what they were trying to say? No longer – at least at the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts’ Vogel Hall, where the Milwaukee Performance Art Showcase will doubtless draw an appreciative crowd on November 12.

It’s being touted as a fast-paced show with a wide variety of work in different genres by area performance artists. Expect poetry, theater, visual art, music – and hula hoops. Last year’s showcase drew more than 400 people, and it’s predicted that this year’s event will attract even more.

One highlight: Milwaukee’s 2005 National Poetry Slam Team, organized by local performance poet Dasha Kelly. The already-heightened levels of excitement will be raised up yet another notch when these “slam poets” take the stage.

For the uninitiated, “slam” poetry is a type of performance poetry known for energized, emotionally-charged performances. Slam style has a certain cadence, a certain rhythm that can be very moving in small doses.

“Slam performances tend to be more intense and explosive than regular performance pieces,” Kelly says. “Performance poetry is wholly engaging because you’re watching the artists create their own balance between two crafts: writing and oratory. Once you add the competition and time restrictions of slam, then you have these artists giving the audience their absolute best.”

At this year’s event, four slam poets will deliver a collaborative poem. “Essentially, synchronized swimming with words. They will likely introduce a number of audience guests to a completely new art experience,” Kelly says.

Along with redefining the written and spoken word, performance art also plays with visual statements. Skewing popular notions of fashion has become part of the performance art scene over the past few years, as edgy fashion shows find unique ways to shock the runway crowds. A fashion show by MIAD student Lindsay Hayden promises one “unlike any you’ve seen before.” That should be a challenge, as this city already has seen an edible fashion show and a fashion show set in a parking structure and featuring members of a prominent local opera company. Yet Hayden’s perspective may very well be fresh enough to deliver on the promise.

Performance art is all about theater in one offbeat form or another. Local filmmaker Peter Barrickman and actor Randy Russell will perform a theatrical debate featuring cameo appearances by other local notables. Russell, star of Chris Smith’s restless 1995 film American Job, should offer an intriguing counterpart to a performance of Barrickman’s often skewed themes.

Combining theater with visual artistry, Renee Bebeau, co-owner of the Zodiac Lounge, will explore the celestial zodiac with local MPS art guru Jeff Cartier. Bebeau’s work will also be featured later this month at the Walker’s Point Center in a piece called “Skeletal Reflections,” as a part of their El Dia de Los Muertos exhibition. Cartier, who integrates visual art into other art forms, recently connected MPS middle school students with local artists to produce Through My Window: Stories and Images of Urban Youth.

Throughout the showcase, audience members will be asked to participate in creating art to be displayed as part of a larger work. Artist and Zodiac co-owner Harvey Opgenorth requests that everyone participate in an artwork to be displayed. Each seat will have a piece of paper underneath it and the audience will be encouraged to manipulate it in some way so that he can fit it into his display.

A magical master of multi-genre performance art, Chicago artist Joseph Ravens promises he’ll transform into a raven during his part of the show. Ravens started his career in Milwaukee several years ago under the name Joseph Rabensdorf. One of his most provocative works from that period was a show called Hat Matter, which featured “Suburban Turban,” a mesmerizing piece where Rabensdorf twirled around in a single spot as a turban unraveled by an assistant slowly revealed a poem.

Rounding out the showcase will be a hula-hoop dance by Madison-area performance artist Tracy Doreen Dietzel, an instructor at Madison’s Edgewood College who’s also a scenic painter for Madison-area theater groups. In addition, she hosts an international music program on 89.9 WORT.

Pegi Taylor, the showcase’s associate producer, is confident the audience will be dazzled with the dizzying array of performances. “The audience won’t have time to blink during the show,” she writes in promotional materials. “Each segment is bursting with energy.”

Of course, there’s no money-back guarantee that the show will enlighten or even entertain. It could merely hold the same fascination as an energetic, feature-length auto accident. Yet Taylor’s enthusiasm is reassuring. She has been in and around the Milwaukee art scene for many years, and recently wrote a history of the performance art scene in Milwaukee that is being used as a text for UWM students this fall. If anyone has enough experience to know what makes a good performance art show, it’s Pegi. VS

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