You never know what will happen at Northwest New Works, the annual festival at On the Boards. This year features a 40-person Balkan-punk opera about Nikola Tesla, a funereal striptease and a hunt for theater ghosts.
Forty performers staging a Balkan-punk, brass-band opera about engineer and physicist Nikola Tesla, starring Prometheus and Zeus? A disjointed dance-theater performance from a Portland company riffing on the Cold War, spy-thriller genre? “Boylesque” dancer Waxie Moon wearing a 12-layer, black Victorian funeral gown designed by artist Mark Mitchell in a dance that shifts from post-funeral grief, then to striptease, then to what Waxie says is “the most risqué thing I’ve ever done onstage”?
This year’s Northwest New Works at On the Boards — the 34-year-old festival of new, weird, 20-minute performance experiments — even has artistic ghost hunters earnestly trying to find the legendary specters at 100 W. Roy St.: the older, tall man in a plaid shirt and the little girl in the bathroom.
Northwest New Works
June 9-18 at On the Boards, 100 W. Roy St., Seattle; $16 (206-217-9886 or ontheboards.org).
Over two weekends, On the Boards will present a sampler of 16 performances on a huge variety of themes: a California-born Jew who wants to surf, fallen angels, the apocalypse.
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Northwest New Works (popularly known as NWNW) takes risks and cultivates sprouts of odd work that, in some cases, turned into some of the most stunning, impressive full-length work Seattle has seen — and helped launch the careers of people like the choreography/design team Zoe Scofield and Juniper Shuey, who’ve gone on to win some of the most prestigious performance awards (including the Princess Grace Award, from Monaco) in the world.
On the Boards is now searching for a new director after Lane Czaplinski, who led the institution for 15 years, abruptly left for a new job at the Wexner Center for the Arts at Ohio State University this spring.
People who frequent the theater and experimental-performance festivals know what “weird performance” means. But it’s difficult to define for newcomers.
Jacob Coleman, co-artistic director of Portland Experimental Theatre Ensemble (PETE) paused after being asked to describe the ethos of shows at a festival like NWNW.
“Ummm,” he said. “Is it dance? Is it theater? Is it a concert?” (PETE is the company performing the experimental, Cold War spy-thriller piece.) He paused again and said: “The successful weird stuff is both challenging but invites the audience to go on a ride. It’s like: ‘Come to our party. It’s going to be a strange party, but you are invited — and let’s all try something different.’ ”
Gino Jevdjevic, the Sarajevo-born, Seattle-based singer for the band Kultur Shock said the idea for his “Nikola Tesla Projekt” first congealed when he was on tour and a bandmate (Seattle-based Amy Denio, who works with dance and theater companies) woke him up the day after a gig. “We’d been talking about Tesla for years,” Jevdjevic said. “She said: ‘This sounds like an opera and you should write it.’ I said: ‘Uh, I’m a little sleepy now, but maybe you’re right — and now I’m awake. Thank you, Amy.’ ”
Denio is now one of the music directors for the “Tesla Projekt.” Jevdjevic said the NWNW performance is an excerpt of what will become a full-scale opera. This version begins with Prometheus and Zeus fighting over the former bringing fire to humanity and ends with Prometheus freeing Tesla from his village, which suffered a mass outbreak of cholera.
“This is a true story,” Jevdjevic said excitedly. Tesla’s father didn’t want him to become a scientist (“It’s like a kid wanting to be a musician these days!” Jevdjevic joked), but when Tesla seemed on the verge of dying from cholera, “He asked his father: ‘If I live, can I go off and be a scientist?’ Dad said: ‘Sure, man, whatever, but you know you’re not going to live.’ ”
Dad was wrong.
Waxie Moon, also known as theater artist Marc Kenison, will perform his grief striptease to the familiar sound of Albinoni’s mournful “Adagio in G Minor.” (You’ve heard it in dozens of TV shows and movies, from “Flashdance” to “The Sopranos.”)
“I want to take familiar music and create an indelible image,” Kenison said, chuckling softly, “so every time you hear it, you think of naked Waxie.” Kenison tried a similar experiment at a previous NWNW, with a dance to Ravel’s “Bolero” in an enormous, painstakingly made, blood-red dress, also by artist Mark Mitchell (whose handmade funereal shrouds were shown in the exhibition “Burial” at the Frye Art Museum in 2013).
Kenison said this year’s piece, titled “After the Funeral,” is dedicated to Jerry Manning, the late artistic director of Seattle Repertory Theatre who, he added, “was very, very supportive of my work” when other people weren’t sure the world was ready for a tall man who’d danced for José Limón’s company in New York to launch a career in burlesque.
“I feel like we need some humor when we’re in mourning right now,” Kenison said. “We’re in national mourning, but also energized rage.”
The enduring beauty of NWNW is its unpredictability.
When someone recently told Jevdjevic they couldn’t wait to see his Tesla opera, he cackled and said: “Me, too!”