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Spectacular 'OBAT' could be among most unusual arts events Anchorage has seen

Peter Porco
Light Brigade aerialists who treat vertical walls like a gymnasium floor. The dancers that will prance across the museum’s façade received special training as aerialists in San Francisco earlier this year. Courtesy Nicholas Bradford

On a damp Saturday evening one year ago, in a small neighborhood park in the Spenard neighborhood of Anchorage, the trees and the soggy grasses became a stage where ancient forest spirits, creatures from the Tarot, and a legendary hermit contended for supremacy or flirted with each other in a dance of winter and rebirth, death and sex.

“Transitions,” the name of that spectacular, one-time-only performance event, occurred on the 2012 Autumn Equinox, a deliberate choice of solar timing. Light, the revolution of the Earth, space, time -- all have been evoked by the creators of “Transitions,” who are known as the Light Brigade and who also designed four other one-time-only, multi-media shows. The last of these, which promises to be among the most unusual arts events in the city’s 100-year history, takes place at the Anchorage Museum Saturday evening, within 15 hours of this year’s Equinox.

OBAT (Over Beyond Across Through), the title of Saturday’s event, is scheduled for 9:30 p.m. and is free. The audience will stand and watch from the museum’s plaza along C Street. OBAT has gotten considerable advance buzz, thanks primarily to observed rehearsals by members of the Momentum Dance Collective who, while tethered to ropes from above, swing and glide, run and jump across the glistening glass walls of the museum’s west façade.

Specially trained aerialists

Alaskans are used to climbers ascending and rappelling off rock cliffs like the Chugach Mountain slopes that we pass by while driving the Seward Highway south from Anchorage to Girdwood. But climbers are tame, quiet office workers compared with the Light Brigade aerialists who treat vertical walls like a gymnasium floor. The dancers that will prance across the museum’s façade received special training as aerialists in San Francisco earlier this year.

Other Light Brigade events -- “Transactions” from 2009, “Transitions” last September, “Transfixion” during Fur Rondy this year, and “Transpositions” on July 19 -- all began pretty much at the announced time, a punctuality that’s rare for performing arts events in Anchorage. The message is: If you intend to go, be there on time. And if it’s raining, dress accordingly, but don’t bring an umbrella that would impede others’ sightlines.

Momentum aerialists are one part of the show. There also will be a sound score by local composer Ethan Woods, who describes his mesmerizing music as “inspired by the musique concrete movement, which is to say electronic music with timbre as its essential building block.” And, critical to some of the rationale behind the entire sequence of Light Brigade events, the museum’s façade, besides being a stage for the dancers, will become a screen for the projection of lights, images and words. Some of the projections will refer to “Einstein’s Dreams,” the 1992 novel by Alan Lightman that imagines an array of inward journeys taken by Albert Einstein in the year he developed the Theory of Relativity. The book is a toy chest of human doubts, hopes and wonder in an unstable space-time continuum and has long been an inspiration for the entire Light Brigade project.

The “core four” Light Brigade members -- photo and video artist Nick Bradford, poet and arts impresario Bruce Farnsworth, dancer and Momentum co-founder Becky Kendall, and visual artist Sheila Wyne -- call their events “urban art interventions” because the shows pretty much upend our habitual ways of seeing the spaces and structures we pass every day.

Inventive use for C Street bridge

So “Transactions” placed dancers inside and outside the JC Penney garage. Seen from below, on the patio of Bernie’s Bungalow to the south side of the building, the open walls of the garage found a new purpose as several levels of visual frames emphasized the backlit dancers.

“Transitions” turned Old Hermit Park in Spenard into a communal theatre of the mythological.

“Transfixion” splashed precisely-aimed laser lighting against the underside of the C Street bridge over Ship Creek, turning the lattice work of its steel girders into light cells pulsing and changing shape and color according to the beats of two taiko drummers, Erika Ninoyu and Eric Bleicher. It’s a safe bet that no one who had driven across that bridge ever imagined it could be put to such use.

“Transpositions,” which was a trial run for OBAT, borrowed the old Knik Arm power plant beside Ship Creek and converted its unused space of grime, grease, old tools, and broken machines into a theatre of motion, primordial sound, mixed images and people who seemed to fly across walls.

Each of these events was short-lived -- no more than 30 minutes, often less.  OBAT be short, too. Each was conceived as one-time-only, “radically site-specific” events, Farnsworth has said. The audience was always limited -- a few hundred people at most. About halfway through the entire project, the Light Brigade came to a new realization, that what they were doing, besides creating one-time specialized events, was “making a movie,” Farnsworth said. Each of the events has been videotaped in full and subsequently edited. The movies, like “Transitions,” are available on YouTube

The “art of the sort we were making has the power to change how one sees and thinks about the spaces around them -- forever,” Farnsworth says in a Light Brigade manifesto of sorts, which is also available online. “This is how alchemy transmogrifies the ephemeral into the permanent.”

“Over Beyond Across Through,” incidentally, is the definition of the prefix “trans” that the Light Brigade has given such prominence to. That whimsical use of language and some of the theoretical underpinnings of these art happenings may not be easily grasped by every viewer. I know I don’t understand a lot of it, but I do know the events are nothing short of remarkable and captivating. I'm not alone. The painter Duke Russell called “Transitions”  “the best thing I’ve ever seen.” 

Peter Porco is a freelance reporter and playwright based in Anchorage.