CHICAGO — Summer is just beginning, and Chicago is itching to hit the beach. Last Sunday was sunny, but deceptively cold. The chill in the air didn’t stop a couple of brave bathers from sunning themselves at Thorndale Beach anyway, conspicuously opting in — perhaps unwillingly — to the end of Ayako Kato’s newest work, Ethos Episode I.
Ethos, which according to program notes, is a title derived from Kato’s name, is part of the Pivot Arts Festival, an annual cornucopia of performances throughout the Uptown and Edgewater neighborhoods. It was at Pivot Arts last year that I was first introduced to Colvin House, a magnificent mansion home on Sheridan Road, adjacent to Thorndale Beach. Designed by architect George W. Maher in the iconic Chicago Prairie style, the insides of Colvin House are a somewhat gauche mix of the Art Deco and Spanish Revival styles, the result of a renovation which took place in the 1920s.
It’s a glorious metaphor for Ethos, which begins in the foyer after passing two muses (Margaret Morris and Aquarius Ester) meditating on the front lawn. The space is already activated — this is a performance in progress to each audience member who comes in the front door — and as one of them, I made swift and economical choices about where to place myself in and among fellow audience and the performers, of which three or four were strewn along the home’s grand staircase. They slowly undulated their bodies as they dangled over each other, lounging on the stairs and melting their palms into the room’s rough stucco walls.
I soon found myself smack dab in the middle of this activity, having chosen a bench near the foot of the stairs, as Morris entered and laid for a long time at my feet. On the banister are postcards of old philosophers and scientists, propped up against red apples, foreshadowing a monotone monologue about Newton’s discovery of gravity, followed by the recitation of a poem by Rabindranath Tagore.
This leads into a “choose your own adventure” roaming performance, with options including upstairs spaces like a kitchenette, conference room (Colvin House is no longer a private residence, currently fashioned as an event and co-working space) and the third floor observatory. One encounters vignettes here, if you arrive at the right time; other options: a nook of the home with a staircase which leads nowhere (here, dubbed the “meditation corner”) and the piece de resistance: a fantastic purple tiled bathroom.
It’s mostly solos which happen in these spaces — never repeated, as the performers rotate places too. I saw Ester in the kitchen, laboring through daily tasks like the dishes as she stared out a window over the sink and talked anxiously about the end of winter. I encountered Lesley Keller in the observatory and conference room, the latter a monologue about the sinking of the Titanic, and in the purple bathroom, Kato shouted at herself in the mirror as she sat at the vanity table, wondering at the fact that we can never, truly, see our own faces.
These encounters swirl together and generally arrive at a subtly dissonant unraveling of Euro-centrism, questioning the truths told by textbooks and other sources of influence and power which are necessarily facing increased scrutiny.
What is the ethos of the United States? An ethos is the characteristic spirit of a culture or community, but the best of American idealism says that many cultures can and do coexist harmoniously. Decades ago, “tossed salad” became the preferred metaphor to “melting pot.” And like combining Prairie School, Art Deco and Spanish Revival, it can work. But it means that we must continually challenge those pervasive and inaccurate versions of history which sugarcoat and embellish the roles of the powerful, while ignoring and suppressing the parts played by those who have been systematically marginalized.
That is an interesting and important topic, but I generally found the experience of Ethos to be long, disorganized, claustrophobic, and too rangy to arrive anywhere especially poignant. Maybe that’s OK — it’s kind of where Americans are right now. Having crossed Sheridan Road, sitting at the shore of Lake Michigan, watching nine movers, a cellist (Wilson Tanner Smith) and a bassist (Jason Roebke) serenading those sunbathers, it occurred to me that we were all seated at the precipice of this vast body of water that doesn’t lead anywhere remarkably different. And yet it feels as grand as a coast like the Gulf of Mexico or the Pacific Ocean — like you’re standing at the edge of the world you know, gazing at one you don’t with wonder and excitement, hoping there are people on the other side staring back at you, too.
The same evening, I ventured a bit south to Alternatives, a youth center in Uptown and the host venue for The Rosina Project, a collaborative endeavor between Chicago Fringe Opera (CFO) and BraveSoul Movement combining hip-hop, rap music and The Barber of Seville.
These two performance experiences could not be more different, however their position on the same day caused me to think that they might share some similar goals. The Rosina Project tells the story of The Barber of Seville, in which two men, Count Almaviva (Mikey to the P) and Bartolo (Austin Fillmore), vie for Rosina’s love. The majority of the score, which is a combination of song, rap and beatboxing (by Yuri Basho Lane), is mostly in English or Spanish, the latter mainly by the boisterous and effervescent Pinqy Ring as Rosina. The exception is an extraordinary solo from K. F. Jacques as Figaro, who seamlessly blends rap and operatic singing, throwing in the most recognizable Italian lines from Rossini’s opera for good measure.
Combining different genres in this way isn’t new or particularly revolutionary, but the level of care and authenticity CFO and BraveSoul bring to the project makes clear the mutual admiration they have for each other’s disciplines. And, there’s a willingness to acknowledge a weakness in both: Sometimes, opera and hip-hop unfortunately share unsavory views toward women, and The Rosina Project shifts the agency of the story to Rosina. A classic dance battle aimed at settling the dispute between Almaviva and Bartolo ends by giving Rosina a choice. And, spoiler, she ultimately chooses herself.
The Pivot Arts Festival continues through June 9. For a schedule of events and ticket information, visit www.pivotarts.org/festival.