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    The Only Tribe
    Photo by Roland Gebhardt

    Two Dimensional Tribalism

    Geometric masks separate The Only Tribe


    Mask use in 21st century Western performance is loaded with ethnographic and socio-historic implications. Unlike Ancient Greek or Roman audiences, modern viewers cannot simply look at a mask and get swept up in the illusion. The human face, a body part we look to for most expressive content, is concealed. The mask provides a physical barrier and creates mystery. The performers immediately become "other", separate, foreign, unknown.

    Choreography by: Peter Kyle.
    Dancers: Christina Amendolia, Vincent McCloskey, Oceane McCord, Rebecca Rainey, Ellenore Scott, Diego Vasquez, Emily Walsh and Matthew Westerby.
    Music by: Stephen Barber.
    Costumes by: Roland Gebhardt.
    Video: Reid Farrington.

    Related links: 3LD
    3LD Art & Technology Center

    Despite this phenomenon, Roland Gebhardt uses his geometric masks to enliven a story about us. The Only Tribe is Gebhardt's ode to social group identity in the 21st century. His masks are pure white, flat, and come in a variety of simple shapes, each representing its own tribe. Long vertical rectangles are rigid and stiff like a city skyline; triangles squirm and fit together like puzzle pieces. Horizontal rectangles swim onstage like hammerhead sharks while diagonals twist themselves as if on a dial in their attempt to "fit in" with the vertical or horizontal tribes.

    Each mask has its own unique "marking"; small symmetrical slits create eyeholes for the performer while distinguishing him or her from the rest of the tribe. These markings are deliberate and orderly, like holes punched by a time clock or train conductor. Streamlined and minimalist, the masks project a post-modern air of sterile purity. Characters present themselves as a literal blank slate onto which commercial culture is later projected.

    Reminiscent of Nikolais' visual explorations in the mid-20th century, The Only Tribe seems somewhat dated.  

    Furthermore, the two dimensional masks seem to define the parameters of the eight dancers wearing them. Choreographer Peter Kyle manipulates his chorus in linear fashion, always frontal and flat in almost Nijinsky-esque friezes. In this way, the dancers seem at times confined by their masks. Their side stepping, frontal gaze is haunting; they are like aliens watching us but who cannot look away.

    Real masked dancers are later joined by life-sized projected masked dancers. Here, the two- dimensionality of this world makes sense. Projected and real masks dance together in a seamless illusion — talk about an ingenious way to increase one's cast! Other times the projections are eerily translucent like ghosts or ancestor spirits who slowly fade into the past. The effect is one of layered time; this story is as ancient as it is cutting edge. Reed Farrington's video is some of the most effective use of projection combined with dance I've seen.

      Reid Farrington's video is some of the most effective use of projection combined with dance I've seen.
    Gradually the action builds into a cacophony that can only crumble. Corporate brand names appear sporadically on the melee of masks as they dash in and out of the light. An elaborate original score by Stephen Barber blends both organic and digital sound and sweeps the climax into an abrupt ending.

    Reminiscent of Alwin Nikolais' visual explorations in the mid-20th century, The Only Tribe seems somewhat dated. From unitards to slide projections, Gebhardt's foray into performance art feels derivative. His concept is solid, the symbolism is rich, but in order to be truly cutting-edge, The Only Tribe needs to go further, it needs to perhaps. . . find its third dimension.

    JANUARY 1, 2009

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