LAST SATURDAY NIGHT, I had the pleasure of watching an adult woman dance foolishly across the stage at Artists Repertory Theatre, while a particularly terrible Miley Cyrus cover of "Part of Your World" from The Little Mermaid launched a full-throttle attack on my ears.
It was beautiful.
As part of this year's Risk/Reward Festival, Faith Helma's "I HATE POSITIVE THINKING" combined all the best elements of performance art, stand-up, and improv into one completely absurd, disarmingly poignant meditation on everything that's wrong with the load of bunk propagated by books like The Secret. Helma's piece culminated in a call to replace the cult of positive thinking with a newfound affection for failure, and what better way to fail spectacularly—and publicly—than to dance like an asshole to Hannah Montana in front of strangers? Helma prefaced this performance with a sad-cut-with-funny monologue that imbued her eventual freak-flag-waving with a layer of very real catharsis. It was a surprising performance in every way possible, and at Risk/Reward, that's the point.
The festival differs from others in that it's curated through a relatively democratic—and, yes, risky—process. This year's lineup was selected by a panel of artists and arts administrators, including Charles Smith of Seattle's On the Boards, Erin Boberg Doughton of the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art (PICA), White Bird's Walter Jaffe, and beloved Portland drag performer Pepper Pepper. While that panel might not be surprising, the way they select the festival's lineup should be: They choose from a slew of proposals. Proposals. As in, the ideas of performances. Not the performances themselves.
When we talked earlier this week, Producing Artistic Director Jerry Tischleder admitted that selecting submissions sight unseen can be "kind of terrifying," but there's an upside to it as well. With each festival, Tischleder says he's able to identify "tiny little tangible moments where you get these little ripples between the works."
The festival's never built around a theme intentionally, but sometimes one arises organically as performances stack up. Last Saturday's lineup, for example, included performances that addressed the experience of having a miscarriage within larger autobiographical narratives. One of these was Helma's show, and the other came from Nancy Ellis, whose piece "Nancy's NANCY" served the dual purposes of cataloguing her career as a dancer and relaying something like memoir; seeing it was like being invited backstage after a dance performance. Also of note was "Will You Take This Balloon," a series of lyrical, athletic dances from Éowyn Emerald & Dancers examining the inherent tension of intimacy; the end result was conceptually reminiscent of Kate Bush's "Running Up That Hill" video—in a good way!—minus the terrible unitards.
If you aren't already deep into it, performance art can seem inaccessible at best, or downright scene-y at worst. But by delivering a variety of mini-performances one after the other, Risk/Reward provides the perfect format for performance-art noobs and Marina Abramovic freaks alike, in a setting that feels casual and low-key. The festival continues this weekend, with a performance from Jessica Jobaris and General Magic that Tischleder describes as "a lot of bodies moving very quickly." And the last time Jobaris premiered work at Risk/Reward, she delivered one of the festival's "most raucous, rowdy, wild, well-received" performances, he says. You might want to go, if you're brave.