Shreveport, La. — A performance project over a year in the making, As Is by Nick Cave, takes the idea of community-based collaborative artwork and puts it into practice by giving a voice to those who are often overlooked and dismissed.
Commissioned by the Shreveport Regional Arts Council (SRAC), multi-hyphenate artist Nick Cave spent a year in residency exploring and examining an area known as the Shreveport Common. Here, houses for victims of domestic violence can be found next to homes for people diagnosed with mental illnesses or HIV or AIDS, and an afterschool sanctuary for displaced children and their families. Inspired by the lives being led, fostered, and changed in this nine-block area, Cave set forth to use the residences of the Common in an uncommon way: they would become artists alongside him; direct creative collaborators who would be equally as responsible as he for the production of a new work.
The culmination of this project: a lavish multi-media performance in five parts on Sunday, March 20 at the historic Shreveport Municipal Auditorium. Cave, and nearly 80 Shreveport residents, along with numerous other artistic and musical collaborators, took to the stage for an hour-and-a-half performance that was nothing short of a spectacle—complete with a special performance from Big Freedia, the Queen of Bounce from New Orleans. The stage was covered in colorful suits made of plastic straw and wig hair, elaborate headpieces and armor waited to be placed on a body, and tables were flipped on their sides to make makeshift projections screens. Videos of eyes blinked and stared at the audience as they scrambled to find their seats. A drummer and an organ player activated the space, while the sounds of a heartbeat came over the speakers taking us straight into Piece 1, “Blanket Statement.”
A soloist entered carrying a gold beaded blanket on his shoulders. His steps were slow and precise. A violinist, Jeremy “Wild J” Brown, followed him, crafting the soundtrack that would evolve throughout the piece. They circled the space, crossing through an elevated white threshold; the soloist knelt to the floor and covered himself with the blanket. A theme of ritual was becoming clear.
The act of covering the body is one that is meant to signify a metaphorical death and a cleansing of the soul. By completing this action, the soloist indicated a move into the new. He was taking the burden of whatever his life had imposed on him, to subsequently allow others to lay their burdens on him; thus, releasing us from fear and pain and opening the door for a transformation to occur. For the reminder of Piece 1, 40 individuals and families entered the stage carrying their own blankets and laying them on top of the soloist until his human form was completely dissolved by the intricately beaded works of art. Poetic X, a spoken word artist, narrated the scene; “We can never learn to read unless we read between the lines…what do we do with time? [Do we] blanket ourselves in fear? It’s not going to happen with masks on, it’s going to happen as is…”
Poetic X’s words are the tell-tale signs of our generation—a generation of fear, love, hate, acceptance, aggression, community, and war. But what will happen next? Will history repeat itself? Or do we have the power to move on?
We get Cave’s answer in Piece 2, “Up Right,” which was also the most successful work in the program. Ten “initiates” came in wearing their everyday clothing, walking with the same slow and precise steps as the previous soloist, to chairs scattered throughout the space. They slowly undressed to just a T-shirt and shorts as ten “practitioners” entered to prepare them for battle and redress them in their armor. Here, we are introduced to Cave’s famous multicolored Soundsuits and to the next step in the ritual process: transformation.
The rite of dressing, or undressing, is one of the most important parts of a ritualistic ceremony as it marks the transformation of the body into a spiritual state, a body ready to enter into the world of the spirits, and to begin a journey into a new life. What made “Up Right” so successful was Cave’s commitment to simplicity in movement and the methodical way in which he staged the dressing of the initiates. Every step the dressers took, every artifact that was placed on an initiate was meticulously planned out. Every layer of the production, from the musical score to the projected video created by John Durbin, to the layers of clothing, meant something and activated the space, creating a home for these new warriors. It was beautifully stunning in its simplicity.
Moreover, the step-by-step and piece-by-piece process of dressing allowed for the opportunity to appreciate the engineering and architecture of the suits, and the use of a large gospel choir added a narrative component that allowed us to follow the story of these ten young men. “I am not what I used to be, I am not the same ole thing. I thank him…he changed my walk, he changed my talk…my heart…my mind…I am now free.”
Piece 3, “Smear,” represented a shift in energy and feeling. Gone was the colorful diversity in costume and the uplifting music; replaced instead by a bare stage and a simple projection of a large creature-like figure in a black Soundsuit on the back wall. Created by filmmaker Sandro, “Blot,” uses a mirroring effect to transform the costume into a creature that is part butterfly, part swamp monster. However, as dancers began in interact with the wall projection and move downstage onto the LED floor screen, the brightness of the lights blurred out the action and video on stage making it difficult to discern what was occurring.
Nevertheless, “Smear” continued Cave’s metaphorical analysis of the rites of rituals. The monochromatically dressed performers eventually found their colorful counterparts and through choreography by Luther Cox, Jr. found a way to peacefully coexist. Using a weaving pattern of horizontal lines, walking, stumbling, falling, and rolling, Cox created a movement story that represented an internal struggle and the development of compassion through a sustained examination of change (in the body or in the costume). Yet, the simplicity that worked so well in Piece 2 did not translate to this scene. Piece 3 felt too simple and too clean; not enough depth in story was created, crafted, or performed.
Piece 4, “Do Si Do Boom Boom,” suffered from a similar issue. While the choreography grew in complexity, and surveyed traditional African dance and Southern American Square Dance movement, the two different styles never found a true connection. While this might be part of what Cave is exploring with As Is—how different elements can find ways of coexisting peacefully—“Do Si Do Boom Boom” felt disjointed both musically and choreographically, until the last two minutes when the performers came together for a waltz full of breathy turns and unbounded leaps. But was it too little too late? And was this really the end of their story?
No. Following an extended pause, Piece 5 began with Big Freedia, who came to play, and who came to slay. You might know Freedia from her cameo on Beyoncé’s Formation video; she is the Bounce Queen of New Orleans and is credited for helping to popularize the genre, which had been largely underground since developing in the early 1990s. The energy she brought to the stage was in complete opposition from what Cave and Cox had created in the previous hour and 15 minutes. Piece 5 was a different kind of ritual—a ritual of celebration, equally as artistic in its merit, but wholly different in its energy and execution. It was fun, but did not make sense alongside the other works.
Additionally, As Is, missed opportunities to create an immersive environment, to interact with and involve the audience. This was due in part to the immense space that is the Municipal Auditorium. While the elevation of the house seats worked positively toward allowing the audience to view the entire production from all angles, specifically from above so that the digital projections on the large LED floor screen could be seen, it inversely worked to separate the audience from the action. The fourth wall was ever-present and the transitions between pieces were too long, too quiet, and too dark.
However, there is no denying that As Is by Nick Cave is a luxurious combination of visual art, video art, dance, theater and music that brought a diverse community together to accomplish a goal that will resonate with the participants and the audience for many years to come.
» Read Mark Lowry's feature about the making of As Is in the Dallas Voice