Saturday, August 29, 2015

Michelle Sui presents "Body of Song" at Dixon Place

Multidisciplinary artist Michelle Sui
composed and wrote lyrics for Body of Song.
(photo: Len Irish)

Performing for a small audience mainly consisting of your buddies offers a chance for a bit of insider fun. So I'm not sure if composer-vocalist Michelle Sui was speaking in earnest or having a little joke, last night at Dixon Place, when she made reference to doing "site-specific theater."

The site in question, for Songs of Body, was the Dixon Place lounge, squeezed between the famous bar--This pays the bills, folks! Drink up!--and the waiting area and box office for the theater downstairs. Dixon Place uses its lounge space for compact performances of all kinds, but they might as well erect subway poles for a couple of street dancers. That's about as much room as you get, and anyone heading from the front door to the restrooms or theater below distracts audience and performers alike.

I'm still trying to figure out if Songs of Body would just work better in a more suitable, less awkward venue. Or if Sui's singers should perform it while holding cocktails. Or if she needs to cook this work more thoroughly. Maybe all are true.

The work grew of out the artist's interest in polyphonic folk vocals of Georgia and the Balkans--"laughing songs, drinking songs, eating songs, traveling, wedding, healing, dancing--song as function." In these vocal traditions, "music becomes the medicine," Sui told her audience. "It has a life of its own."

Songs of Body is described as an exploration of  "sound as touch, voice as body and language in all its senseless disintegration and relocation." A quintet of white-clad women, including Sui, sing her lyrics--"You have dismembered all melody in my eyes...I will not remember," for example--re-configuring their orientation in space for each song and, on rare occasions, making fleeting, puzzling gestures. In the work's most body-centric moment, a singer cocks back in her chair, allowing her arms and legs to paw the air as if climbing invisible clouds. Otherwise, the women remain as stationary as dolls encased in their factory boxes.

Sui erased expression of the flesh, leaving only traces to discover, contradicting the "body" part of this equation. (Sort of. I do see singing, itself, as an art of the body.) However, it does set off the voices really well because you cling to them for information. Sui's voice sounds like power constricted, reining in a mature fullness that she will let you notice and admire...from a distance. Meghan Hourigan is surprisingly jazzy in timing but like an abstract painting of a horn playing itself. A brief duet between Sui and Tayi Sanusi carries--solely because of Sanusi--an inviting lushness that makes up for the spare and shrill tone of much of the composition.

Unlike the songs that inspired Sui, Songs of Body's function is hard to discern. Its medicine remains elusive.

Closed. For information on Sui's multifaceted projects, visit her site here. For information on all events at Dixon Place, click here.

Dixon Place
161A Chrystie Street (between Rivington and Delancey Streets), Manhattan
(map/directions)

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