Local Arts Reviews


PEXO: Are You Game?

Austin Lyric Opera Ducloux Hall,

through April 1

Running Time: 1 hr

The type of performance that Ariel Dance Theatre is currently presenting, in collaboration with the Walter Thompson Orchestra, is officially trademarked. Actually, the name of the performance type -- Sound Paintingtm -- is trademarked by Thompson, and that's probably a good thing since folks with little innovation and less integrity might attempt duplication simply for money or worse, and the attempted copy would likely fall short of the original's qualities. And especially considering the skills and talent brought to bear in this composition based on games, that falling would be easy. So there's a handy lock on the name.

There are also Thompson's musicians, Andrea Ariel's dancers, and several guest artists; all of these performers are secured for action, and improvisation is this lock's surprising key. Some will coax music from their professional instruments, some clearly voice or intentionally mangle lines of speech, some draw from a palette of physical movement. With Thompson in charge of the whole shebang and truly marking his trade.

When we see conductors in more typical settings, we notice a lot of hand signals and body English that remain Greek to us unless we've had sufficient training of our own. Thompson, though, conducts his Sound Paintingstm with gestures more reminiscent of umpires at a ball game; this renders them both oddly familiar and, upon scrutiny, easier to understand. Thompson uses these gestures to play the performers as a jazz legend might play a saxophone. He'll signal all the musicians to play at once or to elicit a single note from a single artist or to release Ariel and company into their varied patterns of dance or to bring forth games-related phrases from the mouths of Allison DeFrees, Elizabeth Doss, and Robert Pierson. Or he'll have several of those things going on at once and then lower the volume in one section, throw another section's sound or movement into quick repetition and play a game of Red Light/Green Light with the dancers while the lighting -- designed by Zach Murphy -- performs an excellent choreography of its own. And all of these elements work together in creating a -- okay, dammit, it's a fitting term -- a Sound Paintingtm that's a complex, scattered spectacle for the ear and eye.

The sounds are akin to wilder compositions and collages from the likes of Luciano Berio or John Cage. The movements -- especially since these dancers are so good and so iridescently garbed -- spark the collaborative tinder to an even brighter fire. (There's also a giant video screen in the background, but while the images are well-chosen and manipulated with expertise, this portion of the progam seems unnecessary, even distracting.) And conductor Thompson, near the show's end, takes the improv even deeper: He brings the audience into the action. Before the show is over, those attending will have learned to interpret several signals, will have hummed or howled or laughed or twitched according to Thompson's creative whims, will have helped to produce this evening of unusual sonic and kinetic delights.

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PEXO, Ariel Dance Theatre, Walter Thompson Orchestra, Sound Painting, Andrea Ariel, Walter Thompson, Allison DeFrees, Elizabeth Doss, Robert Pierson, Zach Murphy

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