Philip Bither has brought home the fruits of his travels around the globe, in which he searches for the odd and interesting shows that populate “Out There.” The series begins its second quarter century at the Walker Art Center on Thursday, and Bither, the Walker’s performing arts curator, has selected work from four continents.
The history of “Out There” is deep and long enough to hold lots of winners and losers. Bither has been circling the globe since 1997, sitting through countless performances in search of something that might provoke audiences who are perhaps more interested in hibernating at this time of year. This year, at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe alone, he selected 30 shows for a look. He viewed another 40 to 50 at other festivals.
“No, it’s not love at first sight,” Bither said when asked if he immediately knows a show will work for this festival. “I mean, I love it when that happens, but you get experienced.”
Sounding like a critic — which in large measure he is — Bither said the toughest part about his rigorous schedule is maintaining a wide-eyed passion.
“I still get excited, and I’m rarely disappointed,” he said.
He rarely creates a framework or theme for “Out There.” This year’s festival includes an ironic take on the American health care system, a solo piece built on clowning, a bit of surrealism and an exploration of family historical legacies. Putting labels on shows isn’t terribly helpful anymore, Bither said, as genres get mixed up.
“Artists are pulling from new media, new tools, playing with scale, intimacy,” he pointed out.
The shows run Thursday through Saturday each week of the festival, with accompanying events. Here are the shows in chronological order:
The Walker helped commission this collaboration by Los Angeles Poverty Department (LAPD) and the Netherlands-based group Wunderbaum. The show puts health care under the microscope through the real-life experience of one man. Five actors from each troupe inhabit an elaborate staging with video and live performance, Bither said, and they pick through encounters between the system and the individual — starting with birth.
You’ll see familiar conventions from TV medical dramas, but the issues are real, drawing from interviews with patients, doctors and insurers. Promoters call it a “fictomentary” — fiction done in documentary style. “Hospital” had its premiere in Los Angeles last September and then did two weeks in Rotterdam.
The Room Nobody Knows
Writer/director Kuro Tanino has created a dreamlike diorama for this 60-minute piece. Tanino was a psychiatrist in Tokyo for several years, but rather than draw patients back to the mainstream, he allowed himself to be seduced by their delusions. His refusal to put square pegs into round holes caused him to lose his job, but opened up his artistic vistas.
He built an art installation in his home that has become a performance piece. The narrative thread supposes that two brothers live in an apartment, upstairs and downstairs. The younger brother is distracted from his schoolwork and creates objects to help celebrate his big sibling’s birthday. The objects come from the kid’s imagination and end up as surrealist creatures resembling a sheep and a pig.
“It’s as if you are entering someone’s dream,” Bither said. “I saw it in a festival in Helsinki, and at first it was disconcerting and confusing, but by the end I was laughing silly.”
Tanino never has toured the United States with the work. Performed by his company Niwa Gekidan Penino, “The Room Nobody Knows” is in Japanese with English subtitles.
Imagine a guy balancing a lowball cocktail glass, filled with water, on his head for 50 minutes. That is the flywheel that drives Clément Layes’s solo work. Layes is a French/German theater artist who has synthesized his studies in art, philosophy and dance into a performance that evokes Charlie Chaplin’s slapstick.
Water is everywhere in the show, which Bither describes as a conceptual commentary on society’s limitations and the absurdity of the everyday patterns we find ourselves in. At one point, Layes pours water on the floor. “That’s the ocean,” he says. Taking a rag, he pronounces it “the dream.” He throws the dream into the ocean, picks up the sloppy rag and washes off a chalkboard that represents “the organization.” He points to the blank slate and declaims, “And that’s new possibilities.”
The Year I Was Born
Jan. 30-Feb. 1
Argentine director Lola Arias has created a piece based on memories of Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship in Chile. The twist here is that the 11 performers are a generation removed from the era.
Pinochet led a military coup in 1973 that overthrew Chile’s elected president, Salvador Allende, and subsequently suppressed dissent. Under pressure, Pinochet allowed elections in 1990 but remained a force in the Chilean military until his death in 2006.
The performers in Arias’ work all claim a connection to the Pinochet era, usually through their parents. “The emotions about Pinochet used to be rage, but in this generation they have become more detached,” Bither said. The show includes onstage debates and rankings by status and class of people, based on their role with Pinochet. Arias premiered the work about two years ago in Chile. Bither saw it at a festival in Portland, Ore. After its Walker run, the show moves to Philadelphia.