Every January since 1989, the Walker Art Center has encouraged Twin Cities theater and dance fans to be adventurous and get out there when it comes to the performing arts.
Not “out there” as in outside — they’re not that crazy. But they are a little nuts, as evidenced by the slate of international works picked each year for the Out There festival, a monthlong series of performances that are intentionally tricky to classify.
“It’s really hard to define what this work is: Is it theater? Is it music? Is it dance? Is it hybrid, high-tech performance art?” said Philip Bither, senior curator of performing arts at the museum. “A lot of these artists featured in Out There have national if not international reputations. They are making — to my mind — the theater of our time, and I think it’s important for audiences in the Twin Cities to have this window into different approaches of theatrical expression. What we’ve taken to saying is, ‘We go out there, and we want you to come with us.’ ”
As in previous years, most of the artists being presented in the series, which opens Wednesday and continues through Jan. 28, are Bither’s top picks as he flies around the world scouting for genre-crossing performance art. If trends from past Out There festivals hold true, some works will likely be a little weird, others inscrutably esoteric. With that in mind, here’s our guide to Bither’s picks for 2017.
The piece: A 60-minute, high-tech drama featuring two performers.
Performances: Jan. 4-7.
The artist: Andrew Schneider, a Wisconsin native now based in New York, is a theater tech Renaissance man who creates and performs original works, builds interactive electronic installations and was formerly a member of the avant-garde Wooster Group.
The McGuire Theater setup: Like a mini football stadium, with the audience seated on the stage and a performance space between two banks of risers. Fewer than 100 people can attend each of the five performances — as opposed to the theater’s normal capacity of 385 — and patrons will be asked to relocate during the show. “The tech and the setup is intense,” Bither said. “People won’t even feel like they are in the McGuire.”
Where Bither saw it: The 2015 Coil Festival in New York, and then again in Paris.
How “Out There” is it? Sounds very. “The whole piece is a reflection on quantum physics,” Bither said. “This guy’s life is spinning out of control. … It tells you about relativity, and makes you feel like you are living in parallel universes.”
“Thank You for Coming: Play”
The piece: A Walker Art Center commission that is a sequel to the artist’s previous work, “Thank You for Coming: Attendance.”
Performances: Jan. 12-14.
The artist: Faye Driscoll, a choreographer who creates her own works and collaborates with theater makers, including playwright Young Jean Lee.
The McGuire Theater setup: The audience will enter through a back door and come out onstage, where patrons will be asked to play a Mad Libs-like game with the five performers before they move to their seats in small groups. “We will be encouraging people to come early,” Bither said.
Where Bither saw it: He hasn’t. (But he saw the previous piece in New York and Paris.)
How “Out There” is it? Maybe not so much, but that’s not necessarily a good thing. New York Times critic Brian Seibert was not impressed with Driscoll’s “politically correct fable.” “The id laid bare is banal and, especially in the current political context, disappointingly tame,” Seibert wrote when he reviewed the work’s New York premiere in November.
“Poor People’s TV Room”
The piece: A Walker Art Center commission.
Performances: Jan. 19-21.
The artist: Okwui Okpokwasili, a Nigerian-American performer who appeared in Ralph Lemon’s “Scaffold Room” at the Walker in 2014.
The McGuire Theater setup: Audiences will come in through traditional entrances but discover there’s a huge sheet of plastic obscuring the stage.
Where Bither saw it: Many places, but always as a work-in-progress, most recently at New York’s River to River Festival.
Just how “Out There” is it? Potentially, just enough. “She’s interested in exploring intergenerational relationships between women, using song, texts, movement, ritual and lighting to create a fever dream,” Bither said.
“La Mélancolie des Dragons” (“The Melancholy Dragons”)
The piece: A 2008 play (performed in English) about a heavy-metal band whose car breaks down in a snowstorm. The musicians then proceed to put on a variety show for a kindly stranger named Isabelle who helps them repair the vehicle.
Performances: Jan. 26-28.
The artist: Philippe Quesne, a French visual-artist-turned-theater-maker who helms the Vivarium Studio in Paris as a laboratory for experimental performance work.
The McGuire Theater setup: “Thank goodness we built the loading dock big enough,” Bither said. The massive set for Quesne’s piece includes enormous fake trees, a broken-down car and “snow everywhere.”
Where Bither saw it: Portland, Ore., at the 2015 Time-Based Art Festival, which is like a larger version of Out There. “I’d been trying to see it for ages, because I’d heard so much about it,” Bither said.
Just how “Out There” is it? “Esoteric,” “curious,” “sweet” and “tantalizing” were the prominent adjectives in a 2015 Los Angeles Times review, which makes this contemporary French fairy tale sound pretty promising.