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Tag: josephine Decker

Sarah Small’s Provocative Secondary Dominance: Highlight of This Year’s Prototype Festival

Sarah Small’s work draws you in and then makes you think. It says, “Get comfortable, but not too comfortable.” It questions, constantly. Throughout her fascinating, understatedly provocative multimedia work Secondary Dominance last night at Here – part of this year’s Prototype Festival – there was so much happening onstage that the leader of the Q&A afterward confessed to having a page worth of notes and no idea where to start.

Executive produced by Rachelle Cohen, the roughly hourlong performance began immediately as the audience settled into their seats, a warm, lustrous voice singing a gorgeous love song in Arabic wafting over the PA. Who was responsible for this gentle and reassuring introduction? It turned out to be Small’s Black Sea Hotel bandmate Shelley Thomas, seated stage right with an assortment of drums and percussion implements.

About midway through, the composer herself emerged from behind her two keyboards and mixing desk – mounted on a podium colorfully decorated like a curbside shrine out of the George Lucas universe – and stooped over, to the side as a trio of dancers – Jennifer Keane, Eliza S. Tollett and Carmella Lauer, imaginatively choreographed by Vanessa Walters – floated on their toes. Meanwhile, Small’s chalked-up collaborator Wade McCollum lurked tenuously behind her as her calmly uneasy vocalese mingled with the atmospherics looming from Marta Bagratuni’s cello, Peter Hess’ flute and Thomas’ voice and drums. A simultaneous projection of the action onstage played on a screen overhead, capturing Small’s lithely muscular, spring-loaded presence in shadowy three-quarter profile.

McCollum’s wordless narrative behind Small’s music explores power dynamics, memory and family tension. Gloria Jung and Henry Packer exuded regal integrity and a stolidity that cut both ways:  there was a moment where someone tried to pry something out of someone’s hand that was as cruelly funny as it was quietly vaudevillian. Ballet school, its rigors and demands was another metaphorically-loaded, recurrent motif, and the dancers held up under duress while barely breaking a sweat. McCollum’s ghostly character didn’t emerge from a fetal position until the spectacle had been underway for awhile, which ended up transcending any ordinary, otherworldly association.

What was otherworldly was the music, which, characteristically, spans the worlds of indie classical, art-rock and the Balkan folk traditions that Small has explored so vividly, as a singer, arranger and composer since her teens. What’s most notable about this surreal, nonlinear suite is that while it encompasses Balkan music – with brief, acerbic, closer harmonies sung by Small, Thomas, Bagratuni and McCollum, in addition to a projection of a lustrously lit seaside Black Sea Hotel music video directed by Josephine Decker  – the majority of it draws on western influences. Inspired by a series of dreams and an enigmatic, recurrent character named Jessica Brainstorm – who may be an alter ego – the sequence has the same cinematic sweep as Small’s work for the Brooklyn Youth Chorus, grounded by Bagratuni’s austere, sometimes grim low register, Hess sailing warily overhead, sometimes mingling with the voices and electronic ambience. As the show went on, the music grew more detailed, with interludes ranging from gently pulsing, midtempo 80s darkwave, to rippling nocturnal themes evocative of Tuatara’s gamelanesque mid-90s psychedelia.

The work as a whole is a stunning example of how Small so often becomes the focal point of a collaboration that brings out the best in everyone involved.  Over the years, these efforts cross a vast swath of art forms: from her playfully ambitious body of photography in the early zeros, to Black Sea Hotel, to her surrealistically sinister starring role in Decker’s cult classic suspense/slasher film Butter on the Latch, and her lavish “tableaux vivants” staged earlier in this decade, equal parts living sculpture, slo-mo dance flashmob, dada theatre and fearless exploration of intimacy in an era of atomization, data mining and relentless surveillance. Small and McCollum have plans for both a more small-scale, “chamber version” of this piece as well as an epic 1200-person version for the Park Avenue Armory, still in the early stages of development. For now, you can be provoked and thoroughly entertained at the remaining three performances at 9 PM, tonight, Jan 12 through 14 in the downstairs theatre at Here, 145 6th Ave south of Spring (enter on Dominick Street). Cover is $30.

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Josephine Decker’s Menacing Balkan Noir Film Butter on the Latch Opens This Week

Filmmaker Josephine Decker is also an accomplished accordionist, and a member of all-female accordion group the Main Squeeze Orchestra. She credits the first time she saw a show by Raya Brass Band – the explosive Balkan brass jamband – as a life-changing experience. So it’s no surprise that experience would springboard what would ultimately become her first feature film, the deliciously creepy Butter on the Latch, which opens at the IFP Center, 30 John St. in Dumbo (on a double feature with her second full-length horror film, Thou Wast Mild & Lovely) on Nov 14, when it will also be out on VOD.

Reduced to most basic terms, Butter on the Latch contemplates how men disrupt or fracture relationships between women (although women do the same thing to men – talk to your buddy at the bar, if you can find him on a night when he’s not off with his girlfriend). The disruptions and fractures in this film come suddenly and unexpectedly, even if the progression toward those cataclysmic events makes perfect sense as the narrative unfolds. Sarah Small and Isolde Chae-Lawrence are pure dynamite in contrasting roles as students at Balkan camp, a retreat in what at first seems like an idyllic northern California woodland setting where bemused expats from Eastern Europe teach the eerie harmonies and befuddling rhythms of their native folk music to an eager cast of American kids.

On face value, Balkan camp seems like the funnest place in the world, where half the population is half in the bag by lunchtime, and where getting laid seems like part of the curriculum. Although Decker’s version maxes out the dread of its deep-woods milieu, it owes less to the Blair Witch films than to David Lynch (much of its iconography borrows heavily from both Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks), with a fond nod to Bergman’s Persona. The woman-to-woman dialogue couldn’t have been written any better, or more spot-on, than Sarah and Isolde (who each use their real first names in the film) improvise here. Their sometimes winking, sometimes feral, sometimes tender intimacy captures both the spontaneity and snark that Lou Reed was shooting for with the girls in the Velvet Underground’s The Gift, but couldn’t quite nail.

Ashley Connor’s cinematography careens in and out of focus, which is jarring at first, until it’s obvious that this story is being told from the point of view of a woman who literally can’t see straight. Complicating the picture is that Isolde relies on Sarah for stability, a misjudgment with disturbing consequences. One particular scene, the two staggering into the woods with what’s left of a bottle of wine as the sun goes down and then out, is as chilling as it is funny – and it’s absolutely hilarious.

Further complicating matters is the appearance of Steph (Charlie Hewson), a hunky guitarist that one of the duo can’t resist. A cat-and-mouse game with interchanging roles heightens the suspense, their interaction interspersed among what seem to be actual unstaged moments from music class or performances which help illustrate what the serious (i.e. not alcohol or sex-related) side of Balkan camp is all about. As cruel and cynical as it is surreal, Butter on the Latch is a riveting debut that solidly establishes Decker as an individual voice in 21st century noir cinema.

The soundtrack is sensationally good and appropriately haunting, with contributions by ensembles led by Merita Halili and Raif Hyseni along with Small’s own otherworldly Balkan choral trio Black Sea Hotel and others. It’s a playlist that deserves to exist as a stand-alone album: it could convert as wide an audience to Balkan music as the initial Le Mystere Des Voix Bulgares albums did twenty-odd years ago.

Black Sea Hotel Top the Bill at One of 2014’s Most Spellbinding Shows

“This song’s about waiting for your neighbor to die so you can marry his wife,” one of Black Sea Hotel‘s three singers, Shelley Thomas, cheerily explained to the crowd at Joe’s Pub Wednesday night.

“Perky!” her bandmate Willa Roberts grinned. She was being sarcastic, of course. The ancient Bulgarian and Macedonian folk songs that the Brooklyn vocal trio sing date from an era when life was shorter and possibly more brutal than today, an atmosphere underscored by the music’s biting minor keys, edgy chromatics, eerie close harmonies and otherworldly microtones. The group treated the crowd to what was essentially a live recreation of their latest album The Forest Is Shaking and Swaying, along with a haunting, encore from the band’s debut cd. The three women held the crowd rapt with their original arrangements of both obscure and iconic themes, with intricate, intoxicating counterpoint, tightly dancing tempos, unexpected stops and starts and split-second choreography. There’s some irony in the fact that Black Sea Hotel’s often centuries-old repertoire is built on harmony as sophisticated and avant garde as anything being played or sung today.

Their camaraderie onstage was unselfconsciously warm, linking hands loosely as they sang, hugging each other here and there, high on the music. The three women’s voices are so similar that it’s hard to tell who’s singing what unless you’re watching. In terms of raw power, it’s a toss-up between Roberts and Thomas. but it seems that Small has the most astonishing range of the three: for a natural soprano, it’s stunning to witness how she can get so much power and resonance out of her low register And the three switch roles: Roberts got to handle the most highly ornamented, toughest leaps and bounds early on, then passed the baton to Small. Thomas is the latest addition to the group, reaffirming her status as one of the most eclectic of New York’s elite singers. That she managed to learn the entire set from memory on short notice wasn’t only impressive: without that feat, the concert probably wouldn’t have happened at all. And as spectacular as the three women’s vocal acrobatics were, it was the final number, with its long, slow fade down, building the suspense to breaking point, that might have been the high point of their set.

The opening acts, assembled by Small, were every bit as good. Her trio Hydra, with Rima Fand and Yula Beeri, a vehicle for original composition in antique Balkan and occasionally Middle Eastern styles, were first. The second song of their too-brief set, a soaring Balkan art-rock anthem of sorts, had a bulk and gravitas that that sounded infinitely more mighty than just three voices and a mandolin could deliver. Alternatingly sweeping and austere, they blended the Balkan and the Beatlesque.

A subset of the even mightier all-female accordion group the Main Squeeze Orchestra were next. Melissa Elledge, Josephine Decker, Rene Fan, Denise Koncelik, Rachel Swaner and Elaine Yau reminded that pretty much everything sounds good if played on an accordion, multiplied by six. A classically-tinged march, a couple of ominously cinematic themes, a coyly disguised generic new wave hit from the 80s, a campy anthem that sounded like it could be Queen but might have been something like Lady Gag. and a deliciously unexpected romp through a boisterous klezmer dance all got a seamlessly tight, winkingly virtuosic treatment.

And a trio version of one of New York’s original Romany-inspired bands, Luminescent Orchestrii (Fand and Sarah Alden on violins, with ringer Kyle Sanna on acoustic guitar) ran through a jaunty dance in medieval French; a bracing, hypnotically insistent Middle Eastern-spiced number; a similarly trance-inducing, circular Macedonian theme and a darkly blues-inflected art-rock violin number, all of which more than hinted at the kind of electricity this band can generate with all their members.