PREDATOR SONGSTRESS: My date with a stranger Dec 4, 2015
by Tessa Hulls
Before sitting down for a drink in the lobby, the only thing I knew about Jarvi Kononen was that he had never been to an On the Boards performance. As part of the OtB Ambassadors Program, I am taking my role as the liaison to a foreign country literally and am using my +1's to bring strangers to On the Boards for the very first time. Like the older cousin who passes you that first joint, I'm interested in exposing people to something that might not be their cup of tea, but just might end up changing the way they look at the world. In exchange for a comped ticket and a drink, my dates agree to talk to me about why they're interested in seeing performance art, and to have a quick decompression after the show.
I swear Jarvi wasn't a plant. I really had not met him before, and he really did leave the performance saying, “That blew me away and was better than anything I could have ever anticipated. It was beautiful, terrifying, and inspiring, and will stay with me for a long time.”
As a photographer who is married to a painter/printmaker, Jarvi is not wholly unacquainted with the world of contemporary performance. We sit and people watch in the corner of the packed lobby, and he tells me that he expects the show “to be a bit like a play, but with a bit more interaction.” Perfectly on cue, our conversation pauses as performer (and choreographer/dancer/director/general badass) Haruko Crow Nishimura begins to wander through the lobby holding up a sign that invites participants to share their stories of joy or heartbreak so that she might turn them into songs.
We note that it's difficult to tell whether the songs are responding to heartbreak or joy, and another woman who has joined our table suggests that it's a continuum, and that one always follows the other.
Walking into the theater, one has the sensation of entering the oppressive control center of a soviet-era submarine. A bank of musicians is tucked away in the deeply recessed shadows of the stage, and cage-like segments of industrial fencing litter the set like ominous baseball dugouts. Towards the ceiling, a huge screen houses video projections that interweave themselves—sometimes in interactive ways—with the live performances on stage. Unbeknownst to us, there were surveillance cameras in the lobby, and so we watch ourselves milling about as we file through the theater doors.
In my years of coming to On the Boards, I have learned to relinquish any expectation of narrative. So I was surprised when Predator Songstress had something that actually resembled a plot: this might be the only time that I have been to an OtB performance where the fight was between the good guys and the bad guys rather than against the vague and ambiguously beautiful entrapment of the human condition.
Predator Songstress shows us a dystopic future in which curiosity and expression are grounds for imprisonment and exile. The main character, the Songstress Ximena, has been arrested for the transgressive use of song and is sent to a women's penal colony where her voice is literally stripped from her. There is no shortage of stunning visuals to point to in this show, but one of the most haunting is a video clip of the imprisoned women stroking the convulsing heads and backs of their sisters as they vomit the dusty powder of their voices onto harvesting trays. Eventually, Ximena escapes and joins the rebel forces fighting against the dictatorship of the Harvesters.
The message in this piece makes no attempt to be subtle, and the performance peaks when the mute Ximena, recaptured and standing trial for her crimes, rediscovers the power of her voice. The musicians leave their shadowy cave and come to flank her on center stage, and then everyone rocks the fuck out with fireworks projected in the background. Voices and stories are strong things: sing out and be free.
Jarvi and I branch off from the crowd streaming out of the lobby and take a few minutes to talk about what we just saw. In stark contrast to our pre-show conversation where he professed to wanting to stay at the periphery “like a kid at the back of the classroom,” Jarvi enthusiastically offers his opinions on the piece. He is impressed by the technical production values, and also with how seamlessly the different elements of dance, video projection, storytelling and music blend together.
Our conversation ends with the parting question: is he glad he came to the show?
“Absolutely. It makes me curious about what's next, and I'll definitely be back.”
Mission accomplished. The Songstress will be pleased to know that her voice touched someone new.
If you have someone who has never been to On the Boards and would like to be my date for this social experiment, get in touch!