What’s happening at REDCAT?

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Miwa Matreyek’s work doesn’t fit neatly into a simple box.

She’s an animator…but she’s also a live performer who’s in her animations. If you go see her work, it looks like a square screen onstage with her meticulous and, at times, playful animations projected on it. But you also see the real live shadow of Ms. Matreyek, standing behind the screen. (think shadow puppetry but instead of a puppet it’s the artist, herself, performing and casting that black shadow).

At its simplest level, her work is the interaction of her animations with her shadow. So imagine an animation of a cat on a window sill. The cat and the window sill are black silhouettes. Now imagine seeing the shadow of the artist, also a black silhouette, walk into the frame and shoo that animated cat away. It becomes a magical dance between a recorded animation and a live performance.

But that’s just the simplest level. Once Ms. Matreyek gets cooking, the play between foreground and background becomes more complicated. Ms. Matreyek pops in and out of her animations. Simple silhouettes become frame bending, shifting environments. We see her shadowed feet floating and somehow walking across a projected path. Her silhoutted black torso suddenly becomes filled with an animated skeleton and a pumping heart.

Now, if this were just an animation, it would be beautiful, stunning even, but passive. Instead, Ms. Matreyek’s presence literally makes her an active part of the work, brings the work into the present and adopts the tension of theatre and dance. Her precise movements create the shadowed canvas where her work can exist. Her magical finger touches her animated background bringing it to life. You can’t help but recognize the human presence, the human agency.

REDCAT, this past weekend, presented something of a mini-retrospective of her work sharing four pieces ranging back to her thesis piece as a grad student at CalArts to a world-premiere that finished the evening.

The human agency and presence that was a magical force in the earlier work (innocently shooing away that cat or magically bringing her world to life) became in the final piece a force of apocalyptic destruction.

Her most recent work begins innocently enough with a shadow puppet carousel of trees spinning - wildlife emerges: a hopping bunny, a leaping stag - then onscreen, this imaginary forest is consumed by flames. A parade of animals begins running desperately to escape destruction. Images of a world flooded by plastic bottles, sucked dry by fossil fuels, filled with cardboard deliveries and sweat shops - fill the screen. Ms. Matreyek’s shadow stalks along toppling trees and conjuring sky scrapers to erupt out of pastoral fields. It’s terrifying …and beautiful and horrific all in the same instant. That magical human presence is destroying its only environment.

I’d love to tell you to rush out and see this show but like so much of the work that’s done at REDCAT and our other presenting houses - it was only performed this past weekend. Even more troubling, REDCAT, which for more than a decade has brought to LA the stunning work of the Wooster Group, Christiane Jatahy, Elevator Repair service and so many others - has precious little programming on their current season. Here’s hoping for LA’s sake that REDCAT rediscovers its soul in the same way Ms. Matreyek’s work seems to begging us to reclaim ours.