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Theatre Journal 52.3 (2000) 399-401

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Performance Review



THEM. By osseus labyrint. Los Angeles River, Los Angeles, California. 2 October 1999.

IMAGE LINK= IMAGE LINK= A crew with heavy-duty cables, equipment, and video cameras gathered on the Los Angeles River's concrete-filled riverbed underneath the First Street Bridge for a location shoot. This rather frequent sight in Los Angeles was the cover for a live performance by osseus labyrint, an ensemble led by movement artists Hannah Sim and Mark Steger. Unable to secure a permit for a live onsite performance, the duo applied for a film permit and obtained official approval within a week. They then invited audience members to witness their performance for free, appearing as unpaid "extras" in their video documentary.

Ten days before the performance, osseus labyrint announced the coming of THEM with a postcard, which was followed by a two-minute voice-mail message instructing the caller where to meet, what to wear, how to get down to the riverbed, and when to call again for contingencies. On the performance date, because of a railroad accident, the [End Page 399] ensemble changed the event site to the opposite bank. Cars were rerouted by strategically stationed attendants in orange night-glow jackets swinging flashlights. The night of the performance, more than a hundred cars trailed each other around an industrial section of downtown streets and drove through storm drains that plummeted into the riverbed. Spectators were instructed to drive close to the bank, cross the water, but stay away from the central current, and triple park on the riverbed. We then carefully walked on the slanted concrete bank to reach the performance site underneath the bridge.

I may best describe THEM as a "habitat performance." A habitat is a unique locus where certain organisms survive and thrive; a habitat performance then is a performance that lures the audience to a specific (open) site. As a habitat performance, THEM turned the audience and its event site into an integral part of the experience. This bioecological theme characterized the general aesthetic of osseus labyrint's THEM, for the piece's title humorously evokes the 1954 sci-fi movie Them! The movie features nuclear-mutated, giant carnivorous ants that make their nest inside the Los Angeles River drainage system. As spectators, we had entered their territory, an environment punctuated by moist smells, moving trains, electric towers, the spectacular arch of the concrete bridge, and its graffiti-marked, wall-like foundation that served as the skene for THEM. However, osseus labyrint used the movie's motifs of alienation, mutation, and migration rather than its search-and-destroy plotline.

The piece unfolded more like a dance, a happening, or an extreme spectacle than a narrative drama. The show itself was composed of three acts; each act happened in a distinct micro-location within the habitat and progressed through a sequence of movements. The first act might be called an acrobatics of flight, recalling the giant ants' escape through air in Them! Amidst a synthetic auralscape of mechanical and natural sounds designed by Daniel Day and Ann Perich, Sim and Steger appeared in their standard costumes: naked, hairless, gracefully lanky with pale skin. The duo swiftly strapped themselves in harnesses and pulled their bodies up on ropes that hung from the bridge. Suspended about twenty feet, without a safety net, Sim and Steger loosened their harnesses to hang upside down by their ankles. The duo kept their chins tucked and their arms upside down to pause in midair, like bats in hibernation. Their stillness and apparent ease induced the perception that they operated on reverse gravity. The twin-like body artists, illuminated by search lights, cast gigantic shadows on the skene. The uncanny similarity of [End Page 400] their physiques was reinforced by their symmetrical choreography, which rendered their shadows virtually identical and synchronized in motion. While their bodies dangled as flesh matter in endless minute contortions, their shadows emerged independently like a pair of phantom amoebas, contracting or relaxing under the microscopic light.

The second act proceeded as an alien tango with the ground, evoking images of earth-bound...


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