MAGPIE Music … light up the stage at Sushi

By Jennifer de Poyen

December 14, 2004

Sushi Performance & Visual Art has always been home to alternative voices. So it’s fitting that in this season of holiday shows, the city’s leading presenter of cutting-edge dance and performance presented some serious (albeit seriously fun) dancing.

Last weekend brought the local debut of an avant-garde, improv-based Dutch performing-arts troupe, MAGPIE Music and Dance Company, and the return of a Bay Area favorite, the choreographer Kim Epifano.

Because of the post-9/11 visa backlog, only the American members of the MAGPIE troupe were able to enter the country, instead of the full contingent that artistic director Allyson Green had envisioned. So dancer Katie Duck and violinist Mary Oliver – who usually perform with a visual artist, lighting designer and video artists – did what comes naturally: They improvised.

Recruiting Sushi’s resident lighting technician, Geronimo Omabtang, they went to work in Sushi’s temporary digs at St. Cecilia’s. So impressed were they with Omabtang’s work that they asked him to take on a role usually reserved for MAGPIE’s resident designer: improvising the lighting cues as they created their music and dance, all in real time during the performance. The result, titled “Blink,” was an absorbing, often beautiful trio, with Omabtang’s light acting as a partner to Duck’s dancing and Oliver’s fiddling.

At Saturday night’s performance, “Blink” opened with Oliver alone on stage, strolling and strumming her violin. Meanwhile, Duck emerged from the audience, struck a balance pose on an armrest, embraced an unsuspecting woman, then crawled into the arms of some front-row viewers, who deposited her in front of the stage.

Once onstage, Duck removed her shoes and began to dance in an expressive give-and-take with Oliver, who often moved as she played, at one point dropping to her knees in response to Duck’s dancing. Omabtang’s lighting figured prominently in various moments; at one point, he painted Oliver’s hands and arms in a luscious orange hue, focusing attention on her spiky, soulful melody.

Both Oliver and Duck are strong technical performers, and yet they use their virtuosity sparingly. The emphasis is on communication, not steps or notes.

The same might be said of Epifano’s “NonniNonno,” a collaboration between the choreographer and Jeff Morrison, a local experimental theater artist. Drawing inspiration from the artists’ Italian grandparents, Epifano’s nonni Isabella and Morrison’s nonno Bruno, and blending fact with supposition, the piece imagines their origins in the old country and their life in the New World.

No strict narrative emerges from the piece. Instead, with a sound score that includes the title song from Leoncavallo’s “I Pagliacci,” popular songs and traditional music, and with a creative use of a few props – a chair, some pieces of cloth, a heaping pile of flour – Epifano and Morrison conjure a sense-filling portrait of the Italian immigrant experience.

A segment in which Epifano and Morrison move together without touching, calling out the ingredients “flour, salt, egg,” becomes a touching metaphor for the way we all create a life from daily ritual. A later sequence, in which Epifano kneels with a cloth over her head, throwing flour in the air, evokes the ways in which ritual can both purify the soul and grind away at individual desire and need.

At one point, the artists imagine their respective grandparents falling in love in Italy. In a humorous simulation of exuberant sex, they dive at each other, then fall into exhausted sleep before being wakened by roosters and donkeys. A later segment expresses the cost of that love: Isabella abandons her dreams to follow Bruno to America. She wanted to be an opera singer, but she only sang the blues, Epifano sings.

One of the purposes of art is to rescue people and events from the private zone of memory and transform them into shared experience. “NonniNonno” ennobles the experience of an ordinary life, irradiated by moments of love, sunk in dailiness, doomed, in the end, to oblivion. It reminds us to live fully and love deeply – to sing our own little stories, as best we can.

“NonniNonno” choreography/direction: Kim Epifano. Sound score/compositions/writing/performance: Kim Epifano, Jeff Morrison. “Blink” dance: Katie Duck. Music: Mary Oliver. Lighting design: Geronimo Omabtang.

-Jennifer de Poyen