Poor Dog Group aims to “make performance, music, and art in America for a new global world,” according to its mission statement. But the rest of the world will just have to wait as the group returns home to REDCAT’s New Original Works (NOW) Festival, the same series that first launched its brand of interdisciplinary performance back in 2008. The Murder Ballad, PDG’s 30-minute solo journey accompanied by Jelly Roll Morton’s 1938 classic tune, opens Thursday.
PDG began in the summer of 2008 as a band of media-enthused performance artists recently graduated from California Institute of the Arts (CalArts). Landing their first gig that summer at the NOW Festival straight out of school gave the fresh alums a boost.
“We felt really fortunate,” explains Ballad director Jesse Bonnell. “[REDCAT’s] setting gave us a level of exposure that really helped us in developing our voice and our presence in LA.”
That initial project, Hey. Hey, man. Hey., was the first project fully created by the company and took shape as a kind of demented variety show offering insights and dark humor about the state of modern labor relationships. Drawing on such diverse influences as Monty Python and the experimental tactics of 1930s DADA-ists, PDG combined experimental storytelling with multi-media visuals.
Bonnell describes the company’s drive to constantly challenge notions of performance while pushing boundaries in the hope of finding something that speaks to the collective consciousness of the group. This impulse-guided approach to creating work led to a Santa Barbara Community Art Museum commission, which then led to a warehouse performance space in downtown Los Angeles in 2009. There, PDG hosted visual arts exhibitions, dance shows, music concerts, and smaller original performances. Sometimes the work shared was just glimpses of works in progress.
“There was a kind of fluidity between our lives and the work,” Bonnell recalls, as he describes the company’s time in the warehouse space. “And we wanted to be another destination for contemporary work as well as creating our own work.” However, PDG let go of the warehouse space after a year because of touring opportunities. “It made more sense to tour the work and go from residency to residency rather than be landlords,” Bonnell says.
PDG rounded out 2009 with a substantial tour throughout Eastern Europe, where it performed in several cities in Croatia, Poland and Serbia — sharing work and meeting fellow artists. PDG participated in festivals that showed smaller works from individual companies over the course of several days. This created a kind of performance history for participating companies, and PDG could track how its experimental approaches to theater were evolving.
“We definitely don’t work where it’s, “˜Oh, and then this season we’ll be doing this’,” Bonnell says. “There’s been a lot of little work that has happened outside the major works. But there is a natural progression from one project to the next.”
Bonnell recognizes that the relationships between large projects and smaller mini-creations may appear more obvious to those on the inside of PDG and that the company’s overall aesthetic might have the appearance of a “jagged edge” to an outside audience attempting to categorize the work. Is it theater and text-based? Is it dance and movement-based? Is it multi-media focused or traditionally staged? Um”¦yes.
In 2010, PDG offered a high-profile creation with its premiere of Gertrude Stein’s Brewsie and Willie, a co-production with CalArts Center for New Performance, directed by Travis Preston (dean, CalArts School of Theater). The critically-acclaimed adaptation was also featured a year later as part of RADAR L.A., an international theater festival co-produced by the Public Theater’s Under the Radar Festival, Center Theatre Group, and REDCAT. Brewsie and Willie was the first time PDG worked with an outside director. But the company maintained close ties to CalArts and Preston.
“Travis continued as a mentor and advocate for us even after graduation,” Bonnell says. “He’d always had this project that he wanted to do and it really matched the anarchic energy of the company.”
The Brewsie and Willie success led to more residencies and performances at home and abroad giving the company new experiences with Polish director Grzegorz Jarzyna, the Getty Villa Theater Lab Series and the Dutch actor collective Wunderbaum at the annual Rotterdamse Schouwburg Festival (The Netherlands). However, a foray into producing at the Last Bookstore in downtown LA last fall hasn’t continued into 2012, although individual PDG artists have contributed to performances at the store.
True to its nonlinear creation of work, Ballad began in the summer of 2010 as a PDG workshop production — part of the first Hollywood Fringe Festival. That first performance served as a blueprint from which to create a deeper exploration of the source material, the ballad itself.
“It’s a time-based piece of art,” Bonnell says. “It’s a 30-minute ballad and the work is related directly to that”¦how we monitor time.”
Bonnell further describes Ballad’s movement-inspired narrative as a reflection on the deeply ingrained social perceptions of female “hysteria” and racially-charged assumptions of female sexuality. Its solo performer, Jessica Emmanuel, carries the piece. Bonnell hopes the performance will show audiences, once again, the diverse range from which experimental forms can express story. In this case, a song from a specific moment in history carries with it our country’s shared, painful history.
“We’re excited because it’s a work that speaks to a type of forgotten mythology in American folklore,” Bonnell says. “Out of all the songs from that era”¦I think it links directly to [Poor Dog’s] vision of speaking to our cultural past.”
As a company that doesn’t plan a season of work from year to year, PDG is also looking forward to returning to the theater — and the short-form program — which launched it as a company. The NOW Festival also creates a venue for PDG to test-drive new works with an audience prepared to digest the experimental. As Ballad reaches its final shape as a completed work, PDG intends to take it to New York City in early 2013 and hopes to tour it abroad in 2013″“2014.
“We have a need for work that’s not a large ensemble,” Bonnell says. “The economy of the world lends itself to national and international touring.”
Like so many small theater companies, PDG keeps a steady finger on its financial heartbeat. A small but strong donor base offers the company support along with state and county grants. PDG’s international travels have not only served its artistic aesthetic but also have provided financial support from foreign partners and granting organizations.Â Some partnerships have bridged an American funding source specifically with a foreign supporter. The extensive touring has also made PDG aware of the funding differences between so many state-sponsored programs overseas compared to the less-funded opportunities at home.
“There are so many artists living here and not enough support,” Bonnell reflects. “I wish there were more opportunities like what’s at REDCAT. We want to continue that kind of work.”
The Murder Ballad. Plays Jul. 26 ““ Jul 28, Thu-Sat. 8:30 pm. Tickets: $20-25.
***All The Murder Ballad production photos courtesy of the artist
REDCAT: New Original Works Festival
July 26 ““August 11; Thu-Sat 8:30 pm. Tickets: $18 general admission ($14 students: $10 CalArts); Festival Pass: $36. Seating is general admission and tickets are available for purchase in-person at REDCAT Box Office, or at 213-237-2800, or atÂ redcat.org.
Poor Dog Group| Opera Povera|Susan Simpson
Nick+James|Jinkyu Kim|Prumsodun Ok
Emily Mast|Melanie Rios Glaser|Heather Woodbury
REDCAT | Roy and Edna Disney/CalArtsÂ Theater, 631 West 2nd Street, Los Angeles, CA 90012 (at the corner of W. 2nd and Hope Streets, inside the Walt Disney Concert Hall complex).