Review: Pamela Z

Review of ‘Music In Time I’ by Pamela Z at the Memminger Auditorium.

The crackle of popped bubble-wrap and the dainty ding of two metal rods, carefully sampled live onstage at the Memminger Auditorium, have become two more looped elements added to Pamela Z’s cauldron of sound. The multilayered, droning mix contains samples of lyrics and the occasional soaring operatic vocal, elements that the abstract shapes in the projected video behind Z respond to in every instance. It is a hypnotic experience, with multimedia singer and performer Pamela Z serving as both musical alchemist and gatekeeper for the audience into her signature soundscapes.

The ensuing chaos can sometimes be overwhelming, with all of the aural stimuli building to a cacophonous, overpowering crescendo that threatens to spin out of control. But then, with a wave of her hand or the subtle press of a pedal, Pamela Z reins in her noisy creation, proving once again that every sound was indeed in its intended place.

Her technique of building abstract collages of sound—sometimes rhythmic, sometimes atonal—makes the process and the performance and integral part of her compositions (I don’t imagine a Pamela Z CD would be nearly as enthralling.) In that regard, her show is almost geeky. I found myself at certain points straining to see when she was starting to capture specific vocals and sounds, and trying to identify the pace of specific loops of songs. Her performance dares you to decode it, to dig down into the bed of music as it occurs to discover her secrets. In that regard, she is not only a performer, but a shepherd, controlling what direction we move within the soundscape and inviting a strong analysis of her process rather than relishing in the performance of the final product.

However, it was when she didn’t provide an entry point—whether it be a consistent beat, a new vocal or an overarching theme—that her work began to falter. One particular piece, in which she used a laptop camera to record a short video series of brief motions and sounds that she then controlled using waves of her hands, never seemed to come together as a composition itself, and played more like a technological demonstration than an artistic work using a compelling audio-visual tool.

The audibly shuffling feet of exiting patrons punctuating the end of each of her first five works made it abundantly clear that Pamela Z isn’t for everyone. Her approach can be hypnotic, cacophonous, atonal, and even comical at times. However, it isn’t entirely accessible. Even “Broom,” her final performance that she quasi-jokingly declared her “pop song,” had a hint of soul and verse/chorus/verse song structure, but it still leaned heavily toward her signature piecework aesthetic.

With the very nature of her work being predicated on live sampling, I can’t imagine two Pamela Z performances ever being exactly alike, even if the blueprints are generally the same. It’s with this in mind that the process itself becomes more enthralling than the end results. I have to admit, it sure was fun watching her hands pluck, pry and stretch the noises she’s created using a small, mysterious custom made theremin-esque box. It’s her most fascinating onstage piece of equipment, but it’s the ingenuity of Pamela Z itself that proves to be her most valuable instrument.

Playing with Puppets

Director Tom Morris likes playing with puppets. After winning a Tony Award for best director of play in 2011, Morris decided to implement the use of puppetry in his imaginative rendition of Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” currently running at the Dock Street Theater as part of Spoleto Festival USA. For Morris, puppetry and Shakespeare came hand in hand as the bard tends to lay out imagery right in his text. After leaving Spoleto, the show (which made its United States debut here in Charleston) will head to New Haven, Conn. and continue its tour from there.

What is your favorite Shakespeare play?
Morris: That’s a good question. Well, it depends really. It’s like saying, “what’s your favorite outfit?” I have to say, I haven’t directed many Shakespeare plays, but I do use Shakespeare as a kind of medicine. Reading Shakespeare is like a fantastic, imaginative workout. This morning, I think my favorite Shakespeare play is “Twelfth Night.” That’s probably to do with being someone from Bristol who’s turned up in this beautiful, strange city, having a really exciting adventure. Though on other days, “Winter’s Tale” and I love, obviously “Midsummers Night’s Dream.” When you work on a play, you can get in the middle of it. I think the big tragedies are amazing—“King Lear,” that’ll do, that’s about five.

An article stated that you always base yourself in Shakespeare when working.
Is that true?
Morris: That’s sort of true. The kind of theater that I like watching and I try to make is theater that makes an appeal to the imagination. It’s a kind of theater that understands,

Tom Morris, director of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" at the Spoleto Festival USA

Tom Morris, director of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at the Spoleto Festival USA.
Photo: Sam Frost/The Guardian

at first, principles are the foundation for everything. The meaning of the thing is created by the audience. It is by coincidence or not, the case, that in Shakespeare’s theater, they didn’t have very much scenery and the invitation to the imagination of the audience was explicit in the text…The kind of theater that I make, whether there are puppets in it or not, makes a rather similar invitation to the imagination of the audience. A puppet clearly requires the audience to give it life, otherwise there’s no story.

What was the inspiration behind using puppets in “Midsummer”?
Morris: I guess there were two inspirations. One was having made “War Horse” with Marianne Elliot and with Handspring Puppets. It seemed like a very exciting idea to try to do something else with something completely different. This particular play appealed because thematically it is engaged with changes of shape, metamorphosis, how the imagination operates. We know that in the dark you can see something and imagine it to be something else. All of those kinds of transformations, internal and external, connect in an interesting way with how a puppet works, because a puppet asks an audience to transform it. And also, the play is dreamlike in structure. We all know that our dreams are visually bizarre.

Your ideas of using puppets before, with “War Horse,” landed you a Tony Award. What was it like winning the coveted award?
Morris: It was very, very strange. I didn’t grow up in the culture of Tony’s. Tony’s are sort of a mythical object for me, so distant and far away and not anything I’d come anywhere near. The experience of that was a mark of joy for unpredictability and collaborative theater making…Witnessing the emotional impact that show has had on audiences, not only in Britain, but obviously in New York and now in Australia and soon in Germany and Canada, witnessing that emotional response is really the thing. A Tony is the label on top of that, which is fantastic because it’s a thing you put on your shelf. It’s a badge on the heart of the audience, and I think that’s why it got so many prizes because people felt the audience was profoundly moved by it.

Is there a difference between audiences in Britain and audiences in the United States?
Morris: For sure. We’ve done three performances of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and they’re coming off the end of a run in Bristol. The audiences were very different… very different ages of audience, very different city they’ve grown up in. We had a talk after the first performance here because the audiences here—two shows yesterday—are really excited about the show, and they were excited in very different ways. So the company has to allow the audience here to make it their own in a way that’s true for them. They respond to different things, find different things funny, different things moving. The timing shifts, the audience here has changed the timing of the show. It’s fascinating.

How did “Midsummer” fall into your hands?
Morris: I always loved it as a play because I am fascinated by how you go to sleep loving one person and wake up loving another person, which sometimes happens, and how we live our lives around that. So, that’s the underlying thing…We [Morris and Adrian Kohler, “War Horse” puppet creator] started talking about “Midsummer Night’s Dream” and I started to understand and see the images that that text inspired for him. We decided that if we were going to work together that we were going to do something very different from “War Horse.” There would be no point in repeating that experiment. That would be of no interest of us. We knew it was going to be different, and we decided that we would try to do something that would combine lots and lots of different kinds of puppetry, and obviously dialogue. He [Kohler] was creating a visual text that would go along with Shakespeare’s text.

The body beautifully decoded in Compagnie Kafig dance

Something beautiful lives in the expression of athletic skill. Compagnie Kafig, a troupe of 11 dancers performing at TD Arena as part of Spoleto Festival USA, shows just what a body can do. In its hip-hop heavy version of Brazilian fight dancing, Kafig’s capoeira takes advantage of isolations common to pop lock dancers.

Toward the end of “Correria,” the first presentation, one dancer comes out for a solo with his torso bare. He torques his abdomen until it takes on the flow of a pencil wobbled between two fingers in the rubber pencil optical illusion.

Later, Kafig kicks around the stage with an extra set of wooden legs in hand. Dancers use their arms to drive the fake legs into the same steps as their real ones, to dramatic effect. Each episode demands, “Pay attention, this is what legs can do, this is what muscles are for, this is what torsion, contraction and relaxation can produce.”

Kafig explores the body’s history. As “Correria” opens, a primordial orange glow—designed by Yoann Tivoli—lights three dancers on their backs, with their legs up in the air pedaling an invisible bicycle. We see them first as machines in the body’s present or future.

“Agwa,” the second presentation, is much more organic. During “Agwa,” a grid of clear plastic cups fills the stage. Only after a dancer backflips through the maze do we see that some of the cups are filled with water. The dancers dazzlingly dash it from one cup to another, visibly delighted with Mourad Merzouki’s choreography. You can’t help but be reminded of the fact that up to 60% of the human adult body is water. Kafig earns its finale, and you’ll want to stick around for the encore.

Opening Ceremony Photo Gallery

A team of reporters and photographers attended the festivals’ opening ceremony, and we took some time to get to know some of the other attendees and ask what they were looking forward to most at this year’s festivals.

Click here to check out our photo gallery!

For more information, read The Post and Courier’s full story about the opening ceremony.

Slideshow photos by: Christina Riley and Eesha Patkar

Banners About Town

Spoleto Festival USA is ramping up their advertising this year with a selection of light pole banners throughout downtown.

Spoleto Festival Banners

The new Spoleto Festival USA banners. (Photo credit: Joseph DiDomizio)

 “We have expanded our downtown signage campaign this year and are very pleased with it,” said Paula Edwards, Director of Marketing and Public Relations for Spoleto Festival USA. The city had previously purchased banners for an event in the spring, Edwards said, and after they purchased some additional hardware, allowed the festival to use them.

“We thought it was the perfect way to create Festival buzz and enhance our popular window display contest that local merchants participate in,” Edwards said. “Charleston is the perfect size city to do something like this in, in that something like Spoleto can completely consume downtown for a two-week time period. And we’re trying to do that visually as much as possible.”

If you spy a poster in a unique location, tweet your photos to @SpoletoChas!

If you’re interested in buying this year’s poster—the one featured on the street banners—you can find more information on the Spoleto Festival USA website.

Spoleto Festival USA 2013

Spoleto Festival USA 2013 runs from May 24 to June 9 this year, and includes opera, theatre, physical theatre, jazz, dance, music, visual arts, artists talks and other special events.

Spoleto Festival USA 2013

Check out the event schedule or download the brochure for more detailed event information.

Click here for a list of festival venues and information about each, or check out this page for ticketing information.

To get Spoleto Festival USA updates on your Twitter feed, follow @SpoletoFestival.

For more information, visit the Spoleto Festival USA website.