LOS ANGELES, CA- On Friday night, March 22nd, a diverse and immensely talented group of women gathered at Walt Disney Concert Hall to celebrate the art and music of iconoclast Yoko Ono.  The event was part of LA Phil’s series of performances honoring the Fluxus anti-establishment art movement of the 1960s and was in association with Girlschool LA.  I went in to the evening not knowing what to expect outside of the obvious: a night of other folks performing Yoko’s music, poetry, and dance.  But it was so much more than that.  Every single person on stage was female. And although I’ll leave him out of it after this, because she deserves an enormous amount of credit all on her own, John Lennon once called Yoko Ono “the world’s most famous unknown artist.” Lennon made that famous pronouncement decades ago and yet it’s only been recently, with such happenings MoMA’s 2015 exhibition “Yoko Ono: One Woman Show, 1960-1971,” that she’s received the recognition she’s been long overdue.  LA Phil’s BREATHEWATCHLISTENTOUCH: The Work and Music of Yoko Ono is part of that recognition.

The evening was introduced by Anna Bulbrook, the brains and creative force behind Girlschool LA, a rad group of women who put together “a music and ideas festival with a mission: to celebrate, connect, and lift women-identified and gender-expanded artists, leaders, and voices.”  If you can’t get behind that I don’t know what you can get behind.

Miya Folick, an LA-based singer-songwriter, kicked off the performances with “Soul Got Out of the Box” from 2001’s Blueprint for a Sunrise and “Toy Boat” from 1981’s Season of Glass.  Wearing an ethereal sheer red-trimmed dress, her performance was celebratory and emotional, ending in a short frenetic dance piece.  Next up was Los Angeles favorite La Marisoul (Eva Marisol Hernandez) with “Born in a Prison” from 1972’s Some Time in New York City.  The line “sent to a prison called school” elicited whoops and catcalls from the crowd.  She then sang “Let Me Count the Ways” from 1980’s Milk and Honey, singing the second verse in Spanish, her powerful voice filling the hall.

La Marisoul at Walt Disney Concert Hall 032219-1 - photo by Ian Byers-Gamber for the LA Phil. Used with permission.
La Marisoul at Walt Disney Concert Hall 032219-1 – photo by Ian Byers-Gamber for the LA Phil. Used with permission.

Following La Marisoul was the first of two interpretive dance performances based on the “action poems” of 2013’s Acorn choreographed by Nina McNeely, known for her evocative, beautiful and sometimes grotesque choreography (most recently showcased in Gaspar Noé’s Climax).  The solo dancer, Brooke Shepard, entered the Hall from a side door wearing a mostly-nude body suit and a large headpiece (costume designed by Brianna Gonzalez) that resembled a sun rising consisted of many spokes sticking out in all directions with what looked like shells dangling from them.  Shepard gyrated along the walkway behind the orchestra brushing the backs of the audience members with the spokes of her costume, making her way to the stage.  Everyone leaned forward in their seats in anticipation of what this enigmatic dancer may do.  Once on stage the choir backed up Shepard’s movements with staccato “SSHHs” as she covered her mouth and writhed onstage.

Musical artist and activist Kiran Gandhi (who performs as Madame Gandhi) energetically took the stage next, preempting her readings from Acorn with thanks to the audience and Yoko Ono.  After performing “Life Piece V” and “Life Piece IV,” she asked the audience if we’d like “to be involved?” Gandhi then had us first “scream into the wind” (straight ahead), then to the right of the stage and finally up at the ceiling, producing an echoing cacophony of sound and release in Disney Hall.  My guess is that sort of wild dissonance had never before been heard in a place where the music is well-rehearsed and performed by musician at the top of their game.  It was a fun and cathartic moment.

Chilean singer Francicsca Valenzuela took the stage next as the final performer before intermission in a fantastic black flamenco-inspired dress with white polka dots. Valenzuela and her effortless voice owned the entire stage while performing “Give Me Something” from Yoko’s 1980 duet album with John Lennon Double Fantasy and “Sisters, O Sisters,” the feminist rallying cry from Some Time in New York City (also covered by Yoko and Kathleen Hanna’s Le Tigre for 2007’s Yes, I’m a Witch). The R&B duo We Are KING followed intermission with beautifully raspy and whimsical renditions of “Yes, I’m Your Angel” from Double Fantasy and “Don’t Be Scared” from Milk and Honey.  Singer prolific collaborator Amber Coffman was up next performing the fanciful “Listen, the Snow is Falling” from 1969’s Wedding Album and “Run, Run, Run” from 1973’s Feeling the Space with energy and jubilance.  She was the first artist to shout out the band.

Amber Coffman at Walt Disney Concert Hall 032219-2 - photo by Ian Byers-Gamber for the LA Phil. Used with permission.
Amber Coffman at Walt Disney Concert Hall 032219-2 – photo by Ian Byers-Gamber for the LA Phil. Used with permission.

Then came the remarkable Sudan Archives with a wonderful and moving performance of “Dogtown” from Season of Glass.  This was one of the standout performances of the evening for me – from her badass burlesque dress to her rock ‘n’ roll violin playing to the low rumble of the choir filling up the entire space, it was transcendent.  I will definitely be looking forward to her next performance in LA.

Academic and activist Kamil Oshundara was up next.  Oshundara recently made headlines by being hired on at Jordan Peele’s Monkeypaw Productions as the company’s Cultural Executive.  Oshundara performed a spoken word piece “Question Piece” from her own repertoire loosely based on Yoko Ono’s famous 1965 performance work “Cut Piece” in which audience members were instructed to approach the artist as she sat on stage and use a pair of scissors to cut away a small piece of her clothing.  Oshundara, accompanied by a single violinist (who was the only man to perform onstage) asked social justice questions that hit home with the audience on many levels:  “If he caged white children, don’t you think he’d be impeached?” “Who said it was normal to live tethered to a nine to five?” “Why is strange fruit always in season?” “When will emotional labor be compensated with money?” The  “Question Piece” was followed by a short but emotionally raw solo by the violinist that brought tears to my eyes.  Next Oshundara performed Yoko’s 1963 “Touch Poem for a Group of People,” which invites the audience members to turn to each other, whether strangers or friends, and touch each other after asking permission.  Oshundara exuberantly announced that we were “practicing consent right here and now” and made us all repeat after her: “I practice consent for myself and society,” then quoted Audre Lorde by saying “I feel therefore I can be free.”  Kamil Oshundara’s bit was easily the most powerful moment of the entire show.

Following Oshundara was the second and final choreographed piece by Nina McNeely and her group of dancers: an interpretation of Ono’s “Dance Piece IX: B” from Acorn. Dancers in nude body stockings thrashed about on stage in a sort of primal mating dance with the female performers jumping onto the backs of the men and being thrown off over and over.

St. Vincent at Walt Disney Concert Hall 032219-2 - photo by Ian Byers-Gamber for the LA Phil. Used with permission.
St. Vincent at Walt Disney Concert Hall 032219-2 – photo by Ian Byers-Gamber for the LA Phil. Used with permission.

Regal and ethereal St. Vincent came next, surprising the audience by not performing musically.  Instead, she delighted us by doing a reading alternating Yoko’s “Cleaning Pieces” from Acorn with Nico Muhly’s “Grindr Posts by Yoko.”  She prefaced the reading by noting that a lot of Yoko Ono’s work from decades ago foreshadowed how we interact with each other online and through social media.  St. Vincent charmed the crowd into giggles with her deadpan reading lines of Muhly’s such as “I would fist you with only spit for lube.” She ended her reading by addressing Yoko directly in the crowd saying “Thank you for everything you’ve given us Yoko,” and exited the stage to appreciative applause.

Shirley Manson took the stage as the final performer in a voluminous white gown adorned with black script and a bow at the neck, her signature flame red hair swooped over to one side.  She began by belting out “What a Bastard the World Is” from 1973’s Approximately Infinite Universe and then sang “Nobody Sees Me Like You Do” from Season of Glass.  Manson then addressed Yoko directly in the crowd, saying “anyone who’s here understands what this evening means,” asking her to stand.  The auditorium rose along with her giving her a warm and lengthy standing ovation.

The evening ending with Shirley joining the choir and asking the audience to sing along to “Imagine,” which she said was a song that Yoko had not been given credit for until very recently.  The crowd was timid at first (I mean, how do you sing along to “Imagine” with Yoko Ono in the crowd?!), enthusiasm built and we finished strong.

BREATHEWATCHLISTENTOUCH group photo - photo credit Maria Jose Govea for Girlschool and LA Phil. Used with permission.
BREATHEWATCHLISTENTOUCH group photo – photo credit Maria Jose Govea for Girlschool and LA Phil. Used with permission.

I went to this event under the impression that it was a celebration of Yoko Ono and her body of work.  And it absolutely was.  But it was so much more than that.  It was a celebration of women and our support and empowerment of each other.  On February 23, 1972, Yoko published her feminist manifesto “The Feminization of Society” in the New York Times, declaring:

“This society is the very society that killed female freedom: the society that was built on female slavery. If we try to achieve our freedom within the framework of the existing social set-up, men, who run the society, will continue to make a token gesture of giving us a place in their world… Women will realize themselves as they are, and not as beings comparative to or in response to men.  We are total beings…”

Throughout her life, no matter what hardship or misplaced public opinion, Yoko Ono has stayed true to her beliefs and principles:  that women deserve better and that art is important.  She makes me want to be better and to stand up and fight for what I believe in.  And so do all the amazing women who performed for this event.

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La Marisoul at Walt Disney Concert Hall 032219-1 - photo by Ian Byers-Gamber for the LA Phil. Used with permission.
La Marisoul at Walt Disney Concert Hall 032219-1 - photo by Ian Byers-Gamber for the LA Phil. Used with permission.
WEAREKING at Walt Disney Concert Hall 032219-1 - photo by Ian Byers-Gamber for the LA Phil. Used with permission.
WEAREKING at Walt Disney Concert Hall 032219-1 - photo by Ian Byers-Gamber for the LA Phil. Used with permission.
St. Vincent at Walt Disney Concert Hall 032219-2 - photo by Ian Byers-Gamber for the LA Phil. Used with permission.
St. Vincent at Walt Disney Concert Hall 032219-2 - photo by Ian Byers-Gamber for the LA Phil. Used with permission.
Kamil Oshundara at Walt Disney Concert Hall 032219-1 - photo by Ian Byers-Gamber for the LA Phil. Used with permission.
Kamil Oshundara at Walt Disney Concert Hall 032219-1 - photo by Ian Byers-Gamber for the LA Phil. Used with permission.
Shirley Manson at Walt Disney Concert Hall 032219-1 - photo by Ian Byers-Gamber for the LA Phil. Used with permission.
Shirley Manson at Walt Disney Concert Hall 032219-1 - photo by Ian Byers-Gamber for the LA Phil. Used with permission.
Amber Coffman at Walt Disney Concert Hall 032219-2 - photo by Ian Byers-Gamber for the LA Phil. Used with permission.
Amber Coffman at Walt Disney Concert Hall 032219-2 - photo by Ian Byers-Gamber for the LA Phil. Used with permission.
WEAREKING at Walt Disney Concert Hall 032219-2 - photo by Ian Byers-Gamber for the LA Phil. Used with permission.
WEAREKING at Walt Disney Concert Hall 032219-2 - photo by Ian Byers-Gamber for the LA Phil. Used with permission.
BREATHEWATCHLISTENTOUCH group photo - photo credit Maria Jose Govea for Girlschool and LA Phil. Used with permission.
BREATHEWATCHLISTENTOUCH group photo - photo credit Maria Jose Govea for Girlschool and LA Phil. Used with permission.
Sudan Archives at Walt Disney Concert Hall 032219-2 - photo by Ian Byers-Gamber for the LA Phil. Used with permission.
Sudan Archives at Walt Disney Concert Hall 032219-2 - photo by Ian Byers-Gamber for the LA Phil. Used with permission.
Miya Folick at Walt Disney Concert Hall 032219-1 - photo by Ian Byers-Gamber for the LA Phil. Used with permission.
Miya Folick at Walt Disney Concert Hall 032219-1 - photo by Ian Byers-Gamber for the LA Phil. Used with permission.
Shirley Manson at Walt Disney Concert Hall 032219-2 - photo by Ian Byers-Gamber for the LA Phil. Used with permission.
Shirley Manson at Walt Disney Concert Hall 032219-2 - photo by Ian Byers-Gamber for the LA Phil. Used with permission.
St. Vincent at Walt Disney Concert Hall 032219-1 - photo by Ian Byers-Gamber for the LA Phil. Used with permission.
St. Vincent at Walt Disney Concert Hall 032219-1 - photo by Ian Byers-Gamber for the LA Phil. Used with permission.

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