Journey Into Imagination

Atlanta-based production company stimulates local audiences with its intuitive multimedia piece

By Martin Brady, The Nashville Scene, April 11, 2001

Is it music? Is it theater? Is it dance? Whatever it is, it's called Reality Check, the brainchild of Atlanta composer and multimedia-ist Allen Welty-Green and performance artist L.E. Udaykee. Under the auspices of the production company Gnosis (Greek for "to know"), Welty-Green and Udaykee brought this unusual work to Nashville last weekend, where it played two shows at the Darkhorse Theater. According to Welty-Green, since Reality Check usually only plays limited dates, the piece has rarely, if ever, been reviewed formally. Let's remedy that right now.

Reality Check is a thought-provoking, at times mesmerizing melange that combines live movement and music with strobe and high-intensity lighting, animation, slide projections, and film. It's all geared toward espousing a vague, wordless, yet nevertheless powerful conceptual message. (Anyone familiar with the strange, Web-originated "All Your Base Are Belong to Us" film will understand what the artists are getting at here.) All is reality; nothing is reality. We are all victims of forces beyond our control and, as with Chinese finger cuffs, the more we struggle, the tighter the vise on our imaginations. Reality Check offers the chance at freedom, and for a couple of hours, we are there.

There are essentially 16 individual pieces divided up into major categories: Slow Glass, Entropy & Alchemy, Suspension, Emperor's Cascade, In the Country of the Blind, the One-Eyed Man Is King, Name Your Poison & Homecoming, and "Slat Dance. Without close reflection, it's not always immediately obvious exactly what these legends mean, though in the end it matters little. These are intuitive presentations‹a way of bringing free associations into some kind of order.

Udaykee and her performance artist sidekick Berkerley Davenport provide the live action, in both solos and duets. There's an earthy physicality to what they do, and while it isn't always pretty‹like ballet, for example‹it is often very moving and filled with raw power. Davenport leads off the evening with a poetic turn in the dark. We are hardly aware of the performer at all in this piece; instead, we perceive only the strange, shimmering, dancing fragments of blown glass attached to his black costume. Later, Davenport performs a beautifully spiritual piece, "Ebb & Flow," with a bowl of cleansing water.

The evening's tour de force, though, is "Suspension." Tethered from the theater ceiling in harness and body stocking, Udaykee spins, gyrates, tenses, relaxes, flexes, falls, and floats in midair, like a trapeze artist caught in the weightlessness of space. The suspension is also figurative, and there's an air of anticipation that helps drive the piece to its climax. (Even the set-up has its tense moments, as we watch Udaykee, almost completely in the dark, mount a tall step ladder while two company members spot her ascent.) The concluding piece, "Slat Dance," finds Udaykee's body bedecked in long pieces of wood, which move with her artfully as she dances. The evocative costume design, by Welty-Green and Jason Litchford, is derived from a 1927 Bauhaus concept by Oskar Schlemmer.

These live performances are interspersed with presentations from other media. There's a film sequence that shows Udaykee clinging desperately to the side of an eerie, frigid-looking cave. There's an animated sequence in which an airplane passes over the faces of diverse people from foreign lands. There's a video that projects an esoteric celebration of the Internet. There is fire, earth, wind, and water, and a general sense of the phantasmagorical‹all of it designed to tease the senses and alert the brain (which it most definitely does).

Make no mistake: This is a music-driven piece. Welty-Green mans the keyboards and synthesizers at the helm of his group Z-Axis, which, unfortunately, due to a personal situation, was missing lead guitar player Mark Baker. The music was re-voiced, however, by Welty-Green and bassist Jeff Tyson, and it is doubtful that anyone aside from the most ardent fan would have noticed the difference. With drummer Phillip Hart laying down manful, hard-edged, in-the-pocket rock, tribal, and Latin-tinged rhythms, Z-Axis wailed the night away, at first frenetic and pulsating, then pulling back into atmospheric grooves that embraced Celtic and Asian tonalities. Z-Axis' music has been compared to that of groundbreaking prog-rockers King Crimson. Certainly the spirit is there, and the seemingly endless charge of sound emitted for almost two hours with no intermission is reminiscent of that group's ambitious projects. The absence of guitarist Baker, however, might dim the comparison with regard to this particular performance, since the great Robert Fripp's lead playing is so essential to the King Crimson feel.

Withal, Reality Check still rates as a theatrical presentation, and in that light, one wishes that there were a slicker sense of organization at the top of the show. Getting the pre-show musician and his rack mount off the stage took too long (as did his performance of spacey mood music), and there was a general delay in getting things going that unnerved. In this regard, Reality Check had more the feel of a rock concert initially‹though that's no reason to excuse the lack of smoothness. It might be logical, however, to assume that Welty-Green and his mind-expanded minions wouldn't care one whit about such a trifling, middle-class concern. And truth to tell, once Reality Check was under way, the appreciative audience didn't either.

So whatever it is‹music, theater, dance, all of the above‹this is fascinating stuff that charts new, hard-to-categorize artistic ground. Gnosis rules.