Engaging, challenging and fun: radio/ACTIVE pushes the needle into the red zone

For the last few years, a modest double storefront on Allen Street has presented some of the most ambitious and creative performing art Buffalo has seen since the 1980s heyday of multimedia performance. If I wanted to reach back farther, I'd have to reference the '67-'68 festivals held here that featured such avant garde luminaries as John Cage and Merce Cunningham.

The stuff is that good—thoughtful, visually complex, exciting. Gallery 164's owner Brad Wales' fruitful collaborations with media artist Brian Milbrand have included the nimbus dance company, original video, a host of local performers, and—most recently—live music by the Reactionary Ensemble. The basic framework for recent productions has been a three-screen video projection created by Milbrand, Holly Johnson, and the rest of his team. Nimbus dance, led by founder/choreographer Beth Elkins, performs in front of the screens. In past performances, the video or a taped soundtrack has provided sound, but last Friday, live music by Reactionary Ensemble was a rich auditory curtain that enveloped the room.

Though the entire set of dances is called radio/ACTIVE, the core subject matter of the Manhattan Project's toxic legacy in Western New York is teased rather than explored. There is text and imagery about this on the video screens (significantly abstracted by various artistic manipulations) and the words are given voice by singer Kathleen Ashwill, but ultimately it all melts into an episodic mash-up that also includes lengthy Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers sequences and explorations of the tonnetz musical plane. (Compared to this, Steve Reich and Beryl Korot's treatment of the Bikini Atoll nuclear test in their video opera Three Tales could almost be called a documentary.) Artvoice editor Geoff Kelly and activist Louis Ricciuti provide the factual snippets used for the nuclear part of the production.

But literal exploration of a particular topic was not what I was looking for Friday night. I also don't think it is what makes these productions so compelling. This is improvisational performance taken to a point where each element—video, dancers, sound—is continually rebounding and interacting with its fellow elements. In fact, the dancers wear patches on their wrists that create changes in the video. And although they are dancing to the music, the music is watching and singing—to them.

This improvisational interaction was for me the triumph of radio/ACTIVE, and it was especially evident in the final sequence, which consisted of the dancers working with musical graphs on the screens. There was also a wonderful and playful sequence of the dancers just running around. (I am sure there is a technical term in choreography for this). I was particularly taken with Valerie Elkins' repeated walks across a structural beam that I believe once separated the two storefronts. Nimbus is a confident group of dancers whose work is difficult to categorize. And I think that's the way they like it.

radio/ACTIVE was presented 7/22, 7/24, 7/29, and 7/30 as part of the Infringement Festival, which ended last Sunday. If you missed it, there are plenty of nimbus antics to enjoy tonight as the group reprises their earlier production based on the Gulf oil spill, GROSS negligence. It happens at 7:15 TONIGHT at 164 Allen Street. And look for more from nimbus, Wales, Milbrand, et al in the coming months.

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