Yoon premiere is lost in the stars at Prototype Festival

Thu Jan 15, 2015 at 12:53 pm
Bora Yoon's "Sunken Cathedral" had its world premiere Wednesday night at the Prototype Festival. Photo: Benjamin Heller

Bora Yoon’s “Sunken Cathedral” had its world premiere Wednesday night at the Prototype Festival. Photo: Benjamin Heller

The mysteries of meaning in the dreams of others are—despite the received wisdom of a century of analysis— truly unknowable to us. As fascinating as an image may be to see or to read about, the resonance of meaning it carries is so deeply personal that it is only coincidental when we share the same plangent feeling.

This is the problem faced by Bora Yoon’s multimedia work Sunken Cathedral, which had its world premiere Wednesday night in the Prototype Festival at La MaMa. As beautifully made as it is, Sunken Cathedral doesn’t overcome that obstacle, its vast ambition often dazzling to observe, but a resonant sense of meaning never reaches into the audience.

Sunken Cathedral’s title sparks thoughts in the mind of musical impressionism and Escher, possibly even the Breton myth that inspired Debussy to compose La cathédrale engloutie. Although that is not the point of what Yoon (a 2014 TED Fellow) envisioned and she and her collaborators made, that reaction might please her.

For Yoon, Sunken Cathedral—developed through a residency at HERE Arts Center, and co-produced by Beth Morrison Projects—is “the architecture of the subconscious,” the place where dreams, instincts, inchoate feelings, and even the idea of the Memory Palace all meet, a singularity where these different dimensions occupy the same space and time simultaneously.

The piece has many strengths, not the least of which is Yoon. She has a relaxed command of the stage, is an accomplished musician, and her singing voice combines the pure tone of Renaissance music with the weight to carry a pop tune. There are many moving parts—Korean dance and drum artist Vong Pak, kinetic sculptures by U-Ram Choe, video by Adam Larsen, set design by Tom Lee, audio interaction from  R. Luke DuBois, direction by Glynis Rigby, who is credited with devising the work with Yoon. All come together in a seamless, polished flow, there are gorgeous sounds, attractive images, and several stunning moments. Sunken Cathedral is easy to admire, but doesn’t quite touch the soul.

The accumulation of small details work well enough on their own but together don’t support the goals of the piece. Yoon is heard first over the PA, delivering a brief spoken introduction about architecture as a metaphor for the mind, and says that wrecked rooms are the most important. This declares something that might better be discerned by interested viewers.

The opening video backdrop is a star field, out in space, and the set resembles a Victorian dollhouse with Eastern touches. The Alice Through the Looking Glass quality is underlined when Yoon steps on stage, wearing a fantastic, vaguely 19th-century purple gown. The strong mixed impressions—planetarium show and period drama—mix like oil and water.

In her notes, Yoon writes that the piece “explores (Korean) blood memory and cultural identity,” that “a great deal of the show orbits around the idea of cycles,” and from “cosmology to cosmos, [it] is a tale of transmutation and circulation.” That’s too much to fit into a one-hour duration. Yoon feels and thinks clearly about all these things, but their intensely personal nature remains obdurate.

Much of the work is mediated through objects on the stage, especially a large crystal, the focal point of the tiny bit of narrative drama in Sunken Cathedral. But what Yoon finds compelling in them is unclear. Just as in a museum, one person may gravitate to paintings while another may be interested in sculptures, how one responds to her objects is necessarily variable and unpredictable.

Still, she wields them in striking ways. She makes some fantastic music with a combination of Tibetan Singing Bowls, metronomes, and her voice. There is a stretch of piano music on the audio track that she accompanies by manipulating a sculpture of naked piano hammers mounted on the wall. In a compelling sequence, she opens a door in a grandfather clock at the back corner of the stage and disappears into it. Out of it comes Vong Pak, in traditional dress, gliding about the stage like the imp of the perverse. He takes the crystal off of the turntable on which it’s spinning, and disappears back into the clock, into time.

That is the only conflict and resolution in Sunken Cathedral. The cultural exploration doesn’t spark: the audio track plays several voice mail messages that appear to be from Yoon’s mom, but while charming, they are unremarkable.

There are lovely musical moments, especially when Yoon sings a bit of Hildegard von Bingen’s O viridissima virga, and at the end, when she sings while accompanying herself by tossing chimes on the floor, and then builds a rainbow arch of music with looped viola pizzicato, her voice, a toy glockenspiel, and the surprisingly attractive sound of a flip-phone’s number pad.

All these lovely moments are in the end, just disconnected and ultimately ephemeral moments, lost in time, like dust in the stars.

Sunken Cathedral continues through January 17. prototypefestival.org

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