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a + e May 23, 2001

Other voices, sonic booms
Pamela Z's Gaijin unites outsiders.

By Brad Rosenstein


Marion Gray




IN THIS INTERNATIONAL city of refugees and misfits, being considered "other" feels like a natural state of being, a native country, home. But you don't have to go too far beyond the limits of the Emerald City to feel the shock of displacement and estrangement. Composer, performer, and audio artist Pamela Z, one of San Francisco's creative treasures, has experienced some big-time culture shock in her travels, particularly during a fellowship in Japan. Her latest piece, Gaijin, is clearly rooted in that interlude but resonates outward to consider a whole spectrum of alien experiences – even the space-invader kind. Gaijin, which premiered in a brief run at Theater Artaud last week, takes its title from the Japanese slang for "foreigner." The language barrier is a constant theme: words are consistently portrayed as a slippery medium for revealing or concealing our different worlds. Whether dealing with invasive immigration questions, riffing in double Dutch, or channeling karaoke, Z comically tweaks the ways we use language to maintain and transcend personal and national borders.

Floating through this babel of words is Z's extraordinary acoustic sensibility, which transforms everything from glottal stops to ambient street noise into a strange and beautiful music. Live electronic processing and the performer's own trademark BodySynth (a MIDI controller that links sound to physical gestures) play a big role, but all points meet in Z's exceptional voice, which can glide from soulful blues to operatic virtuosity in the course of a single phrase.

That world-embracing voice is at the center of her aesthetic, and it's also the affecting heart of this piece, which, for all the challenging othernesses it details (race, gender, class, appearance, sexuality, nationality), also provides a living model of harmonic multicultural coexistence. The performance includes dancers Leigh Evans, Kinji Hayashi, and Shinichi Momo Koga, whose Butoh-inspired movement throughout provides a hypnotic, sensual, and poetic visual counterpoint. Some exceptionally well-integrated video sequences by Jeanne Finley and John Muse are combined with Lauren Elder's elegantly streamlined set and Elaine Buckholtz's crystalline lighting to create a rich environmental fusion.

The second half feels somewhat loping and repetitive, but the piece overall is a wonderfully fresh exploration of what it means to be an outsider everywhere, even inside your own skin. Whether examining familiar details of the body from uncommon perspectives or making music from the crumpled paper of a care package from home, Gaijin continually discovers the shock of recognition to be found in foreign places, as well as the inspiring realignments of consciousness that immersion in otherness can bring.

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