A Selective Guide to the Arts in Los Angeles

It’s always exciting to see an artist realize her very unique vision of performance. On Jan. 17 and 18, choreographer/director Kristen Smiarowski did just that in premiering “Sleep, Staring, Well” at Automata in Chinatown.

Described as an immersive multimedia contemplation on the construction of cultural memory, the work was inspired by Polish writer and Holocaust survivor Ida Fink’s fictional story, “The Key Game.” This interactive production invited the audience to meander through the space’s two floors with live dancing (directed by Smiarowski), an accessibly seated new music ensemble (gnarwhallaby) playing a tonal score (by Douglas C. Wadle), walls draped with original paintings (also by Wadle), video projections, headset-anchored listening stations, an audience-created storytelling table and, as we were all semi-awkwardly strolling the levels, an element of people watching.

Small audiences were admitted into the space in 15-minute cycles to leisurely — but intently — peruse this multifaceted concept of memory. Far from an event where the audience sits back while the performers tell a linear tale, “Sleep, Staring, Well” encouraged viewers to engage all their mental faculties as they experienced the breadth of the creative team’s ideas. A varied selection of clues, abstractions and direct treatments emerged from a wide range of sources. These origins included texts; documented discussions; previously created, performed and recorded dances; and more.

One of the many highlights for this viewer was how nothing seemed spelled out in familiar vocabularies. Audio programs were musically arranged compositions of sentence-long texts and electronic sounds. Excerpted narrative material drawn from the fictional foundation and projected on one wall seemed a little difficult to read (on purpose or just to this audience member’s eyes?). The abstract movement material could be interpreted in any number of ways — were they twitches and stretches, or were they snaking around hidden subterranean pathways? Three movers standing in front of video monitors attempted to bring an improvised and digitally archived dance into their own bodies. This echoes the ongoing tradition of transmitting dances from one person’s anatomy to another’s. Is this a physical memory being re-interpreted by a new generation? Not quite the same as the original, but close enough while being impacted by the new dancer’s own strengths and weaknesses? That’s how dances are often taught to new dancers. Is it true for all memories?

The piece’s melange of information was like the cacophony of messages we retain in our brains. Not exactly full paragraphs, but layers of bytes — images, words and soundscapes — that is, the collection of thoughts and histories that we often use to define ourselves and the world that surrounds us. All the components of “Sleep, Staring, Well” seemed well thought out, integrated into a cohesive whole, quietly and matter-of-factly performed and not quite sequentially presented.

Smiarowksi’s collaborators, including composer/visual artist/performer Wadle, exceptionally focused dancers (Rosalynde LeBlanc, Audrey Malone, Angela Rollins and Terrence Luke Johnson), the deep-toned musicians of gnarwhallaby (Matt Barbier, trombone; Richard Valitutto, accordion; Derek Stein, cello; and Brian Walsh, clarinet), set designer (Caitlin Lainoff), set movers, sound designer (Colbert Davis), video designer (Jesse Garrison), lighting designer (Pablo Santiago), archivist (Kathy Carbone) and others, were totally committed to their roles. This made everything serious, honest and significant.

One favorite moment of almost-nothingness came when one dancer slowly pushed a wooden chair across the cement floor. She came up against some electric cable that halted its progression. Staying completely in character, the performer gracefully and deliberately raised the legs slightly, pulled the obstructing cords along the floor and out of the way, and then proceeded on her silent journey. It was riveting in its task-like precision.

Kudos to all those involved.

—Benn Widdey, Culture Spot LA