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Call to Color: Cult of Color

The ballet based on Trenton Doyle Hancock's art may be problematic thematically, but it's still an enthralling experience

Reviewed by Nikki Moore, Fri., April 11, 2008

Arts Review

Cult of Color: Call to Color

AustinVentures Studio, through April 13

Running time: 1 hr, 30 min

Interdisciplinarity: As with most anything, it seems you can either think, write, and talk about it, or you can experience it. Certainly, the lead-up to Cult of Color: Call to Color generated a lot of talk. In a recent interview, former Arthouse adjunct curator Regine Basha said that "one of Austin's strengths is that there can be different styles of cultural production. Here, projects like the recent Cult of Color: Call to Color that Arthouse is doing with Trenton Doyle Hancock and Ballet Austin can happen in a meaningful way. Unlike New York, where rigid boundaries and minifiefdoms still exist between disciplines, I think Austin – and the wide array of resources available here – makes it possible for artists to work across disciplines in innovative ways." In a panel discussion on the project led by Chronicle Arts Editor Robert Faires at Arthouse (see "Myth Steps," April 4), there was a flurry of interesting words on collaboration and boundary transgressions, not only from the internationally acclaimed Hancock but also from his collaborators on Cult of Color: Call to Color, genial Ballet Austin Artistic Director Stephen Mills and talented Austin-based composer Graham Reynolds.

Yet on Saturday night, when slinking, smooth, shadowy characters opened the curtains onto an hour of electrifying art in motion, all the words fell away, and voices fell silent, save for the periodic laughs and cheers that the stage action evoked. For those of us who see a lot of stationary or 2-D art, there was something transformative in witnessing an artist's drawings become flesh and bone and then lose those boundaries via spot-on choreography, seemingly impossible motion, and immense physical beauty. From slithering floor slides to expressive leaps, lunges, and lurches, Mills' choreography defined each character in a body language beyond words. Set to music whose moody descriptions brought depth to a rainbow-bright stage, the experience was enthralling.

But can I honestly say that nothing I'd read, thought, or spoken of could have prepared me for this?

That is precisely what Hancock's storytelling might lead you to believe. Throughout the artist's narratives, which are riddled with dueling dichotomies (black vs. white, black and white vs. color, good vs. evil, etc.), false and simplistic rivalries between mind/body and thought/experience rage. As the evil five-brained Betto struggles against the simple and almost silly Sesom and friends, an old theme emerges: Color, procreation, and fertility need meat (body, flesh) to thrive against the calculating mind of the evil enemy. And as the production's clinching sinister climax reveals, the two can never, according to Hancock, blend harmoniously. For an epic that stresses the importance of color, its point of view is curiously black-and-white. Somewhere in Act II, the narrative becomes too heavy to carry its own weight, and the story overtakes experience instead of augmenting, clarifying, and informing it.

This slip only slightly tarnishes the color and shine of this outstanding performance piece, however. In its best light, the need for flesh and body in art is brilliantly doubled in the performance, as Hancock's experiments in narrative, which drive his artistic production on paper and with paint, are taken on by the bodies of the Ballet Austin troupe to vibrant and vital, even sublime heights. In tandem, Hancock's playful and expressive costuming, scenery pieces, and his stunning 60-foot-by-17-foot backdrop, made in collaboration with the Fabric Workshop and Museum, literally set the stage for the breathtaking interpretation of Hancock's broader body of work by Mills and Reynolds. Notes on their collaboration, on display at Arthouse through April 27, point to Cult of Color as a work for families to enjoy together, document the making of an important work that raises the bar for Austin visual arts collaborations, and urge you to get tickets to the performance while you can, to take both the talk and the experience in for yourself in all its richness and complexity.

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