From intricate dances in the tiniest of spaces to interactive theater journeys where the audience is the star to a lecture/performance by movie and television star Lili Taylor, this free fest that showcases renown artists from Houston and the world shows no signs of becoming sedate in its third year. In fact, with six full days of inter-disciplinary art work and performance at 11 locations, going counter to the flow might get dangerous, if only by making fest-goers sleep deprived.
A little afraid we all might get swept away by the fierce undertow of performing art choices, I decided to seek guidance from CounterCurrent expert, Karen Farber, the executive director of the University of Houston Cynthia Woods Mitchell Center which created the festival. Using Farber’s advice, I’ve come up with five simple rules to navigate these wild and electric art currents coming our way.
Map the tides
The MATCH will serve as the best place to dip a toe into the fest, especially if you already reserved tickets for some of the Tuesday opening night events.
“I personally think the MATCH has changed everything for a lot of us in town because there were no spaces like that before. We now have the ability to program theater and dance that will happen inside a theater,” explained Farber.
Yet CounterCurrent was always envisioned as a citywide festival, and this year it ripples out from the MATCH into the rest of Houston. “We continue to venture out and keep doing these projects that take us around the city even though we could do everything at the MATCH,” said Farber.
Check the schedule and map before wading out into the performance sea. Some performances will be available only at one space, while others will flow into various locations but stay constant in their programing. Still other performances will appear in several settings and change throughout the fest. For example, the multimedia event, Fault Diagnosis, which tells the story of a mysteriously stalled 1985 Nissan Pulsar NX will break down at different locations each night and reveal a different episode of this saga of repair and disrepair.
No life guard on duty, swim at your own reward
Since its beginning, CounterCurrent has featured works that expand the role of the audience to a more active one. While there are many traditionally viewed performances and talks throughout the fest, Farber told me that they all strive for audiences’ active engagement.
“It’s live art, but it can’t happen without the audience there,” she said. This year there are several works that ask the viewer to go beyond engagement to participation. For an unsupervised swim check out:
Bounce inside the replicated home of Houston artistic team Hillerbrand+Magsamen. The duo of Stephan Hillerbrand and Mary Magsamen who recently blasted off into space to win NASA’CineSpace Film Fest, have created a high tech children’s party bounce house with interior video projections of their real home. Let the discerning art critic part of you enter the soft sculpture to explore ideas of domestic stability and disorder, while your inner 8-year-old screams for joy to bounce the night away.
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The always innovative Big Dance Theater takes on the museum experience by beautifully disrupting a casual walk through the Menil. With headphones supplied by Big Dance, a docent guide and maybe some surprise dance along the way, you’ll never think of that pondering art-walk through a museum exhibition the same way again.
Houston gets the Remote X treatment from Berlin theater collective Rimini Protokoll, which has done several of this kind of all-the-city-is-a-stage projects around the world. There are no seats to hang on to and no actors before you, as 50 participants put on headphones and are guided around downtown and beyond by a computer generated voice.
Remote Houston is produced by the Alley Theatre, so there will still be a chance to experience this project through May 13, if you miss this free preview at CounterCurrent.
Don’t avoid the tempestuous wave
A public painting on the University of Houston Campus from French-Tunisian street artist eL Seed; a collaborative theater project from the Lebanon-based Zoukak Theater Company working with UH students; and two performance lectures from the art collective Slavs and Tatars are all CounterCurrent projects made possible by the Mitchell Center’s Intersections Initiative, which focuses on the complexity and diversity within Houston’s local Muslim population.
“What we’re interested in is perceptions of Muslims, Arabs and people from the Middle East, the ways that those populations get conflated and stereotyped. We became interested in this because of our student population and Houston’s population at large and the incredible diversity within even the Muslim, Arab and Middle Eastern populations,” explained Farber.
These art works focus on those perceptions while letting us see from a new perspective.
Always scan the horizon for the unexpected
Yes, while many of these works and experiences will be unpredictable, the CounterCurrent schedule itself holds continuing surprises. Just a few days ago the Festival added When a Priest Marries a Witch the artist talk/performance/cultural history lecture created by Suzanne Bocanegra who will (sort of) be played by Emmy nominated actress Lili Taylor.
Farber is determined that CounterCurrent should remain free for the city, but that does require festival goers to keep their promises by keeping their reservations. There are limited spaces (and headphones) for many of these events, so reserve early but only reserve the number of tickets needed. When all the tickets are gone for an event or performance there might still be standby places, so come early, dive in, and experience the fun of swimming against the current.
CounterCurrent runs from April 12-17.