To Baldly Go...
...Where No Woman Has Before, Is Rachel Rosenthal's Theatrical Trademark.
By James Reel
APRIL 26, 1999: THICK AND BALD, Rachel Rosenthal sits at a little table off to the side of her performance-art work Timepiece. Rosenthal narrates the proceedings she has masterminded, as if she were a suave observer of life as a surreal nightclub act.
But later, on her feet, she's a distaff Lear railing at an unjust universe. In this universe, we watch a veiled woman in a wheelchair feebly struggling out of her wrappings, like a butterfly emerging from a chrysalis, only to slide exhausted and most likely dead to the floor.
Another time, a man--an ordinary young man, except that he's wearing wings--is delivered a message, which he reads with dismay: "Change takes time!" He moves toward a hurdle, over which he executes a series of slow-motion leaps and flips, ever so gracefully.
Along the way, Rosenthal declaims about "brain liposuction" and "cosmic geriatrics." It would all be unbearably pretentious if Rosenthal were more solemn. But although she takes the underlying issues very seriously, there's something deliberately arch and subversive about her art.
The April 24 Centennial Hall appearance presents Timepiece, a 90-minute work given without intermission. It's billed as "a visceral, visual exploration of cosmic and physical time and memory incorporating spoken word, computerized music, and large-scale live and recorded video projections."
That's not the half of it. Rosenthal's company sweeps and jitters across the stage with movement that's inspired by everything from Butoh to modern dance to everyday athleticism. And once in a while the people simply walk around in a circle, rushing through smoke and colored lights and music by Amy Knoles of the California EAR Unit and the Paul Dresher Ensemble.
Timepiece is about memory and its distortion; it concerns time and relativity and survival.
Rosenthal herself knows something about survival. Born in Paris of Russian parents, her family fled Europe during World War II, and a bit of Holocaust survivor guilt has found its way into some of Rosenthal's work. Her family settled in New York, where young Rachel graduated from the High School of Music and Art. After the war, in both New York and Paris, she studied art, dance and theater with the most innovative figures she could find: Merce Cunningham, Erwin Piscator, Jean-Louis Barrault.
Her imagination bursting with the theories of Antonin Artaud and the Paris Absurdists, Rosenthal moved to Los Angeles in 1955 to teach at the Pasadena Playhouse. Her ideas just didn't play in Pasadena. She lost her job, but soon created a new one for herself. Out of group-improvisation workshops she'd been conducting for painters, poets, actors, musicians and magicians, she created the influential underground Instant Theatre. It lasted more than an instant--10 years, in fact.
In the 1970s Rosenthal played a leading role in the L.A. Women's Art Movement. Along the way she indulged in an affair with artist Jasper Johns and a marriage to some fast-food clown named Ronald McDonald. A survivor, indeed.
Since 1975, Rosenthal has focused mainly on writing, teaching and creating new solo and group works (more than 30 of them so far). She founded her current group, the Rachel Rosenthal Company, in 1989 as a vehicle for her latest collaborative, improvisatory, boundary-breaking performances. Yet she aims to attract a large audience--hence her appearance in the 2,400-seat Centennial Hall, an event the sponsors tout as "accessible, entertaining and often amusing" enough to appeal to a wide range of people, although it "contains frank language and adult themes which may disturb sensitive patrons."
However disturbing her work may sometimes be, it is hardly offensive. Rosenthal is everyone's eccentric aunt from California, her mild touch of looniness being her way of confronting issues the rest of us might rather not face. In the 1970s, she shaved her head in memory of victims of the Holocaust, and never grew her hair back. (Her voluntary hairlessness has two unintended consequences: it makes Rosenthal look 20 years younger, and assures chemo patients that bald can, indeed, be beautiful.) Rosenthal describes herself as a feminist, an animal rights activist, a vegan vegetarian and an Earth worshiper, and declares simply that her work centers on the issue of humanity's place on the planet. No shortage of material there.
Even after she retires from touring two years from now, she intends to continue creating interdisciplinary works for her company. Before that, she has one more solo piece in the works. Ur-Boor is described as being set on a space station in the future and exploring "the relationship between politeness and violence, from manners at European courts to the recent boorishness found in the media and entertainment industries, via interaction with a musical, catapulting environment of insult, obstacle and challenge."
If Rachel Rosenthal thinks she can handle all this in a solo, imagine what she can do with her whole company.
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