Nick Cave: HEARD•AKRON
When I arrived in Akron last Sunday for the Nick Cave performance titled HEARD•AKRON, the skies were grey and there was a chill in the air. I was honestly freezing as I found my seat on the ice-cold concrete of the Bud and Susie Rogers Garden. And then, as if on cue, as hundreds of people waited for the show to start, the sun emerged. To say it was dramatic is an understatement – it felt like Cave had somehow convinced the heavens to participate. So the sun beat down warming everyone, and just like that a curtain was lifted to an entirely different, magical world.
If you’ve seen the exhibition Nick Cave: Feat. currently on view at the Akron Art Museum, you will recognize the artist’s use of his signature soundsuits for this performance (in this case a literal “herd” of the artist’s colorful horse-shaped raffia soundsuits). The horses were activated by dancers from local dance troupes Neos Dance Theatre, Verb Ballets, and the Inlet Dance Theatre – who worked with Cave and choreographer Will Gill to develop HEARD•AKRON. Additionally, original music was created by area musicians Theron Brown, Zaire Darden, Jordan McBride, Devin Gilbert, Tommy Lehman and Chris Coles – with vocals provided by Jaron LeGrair, Durrell LeGrair, and Brianna Collins. This is typical of how Cave works when bringing his performances to a community – he brings local artists and musicians together, many who have never worked together before, to create an entirely original performance.
But it’s important to remember that Cave’s dazzling sculptural costumes’ visual brilliance conceals a darker message. Cave made his first soundsuit in response to the beating of Rodney King in 1992 – constructed with thousands of twigs, the suit made noise when he moved in it (thus, soundsuit), but it also concealed him – provided protection by covering his race, gender, class, and sexuality. In the context of North East Ohio, the soundsuits have a heavy meaning – calling to mind the murder of young Tamir Rice, and the ongoing fight against violence and systemic racism towards black people in our area and the country at large.
This was on my mind as the performance began very somberly. The musicians, wearing all white, played an elegiac dirge as they slowly walked, processionally to the stage. The vocalists, also wearing white, slowly entered the space – their singing heart-wrenching, wailing. I recalled that Buddhists always wear white to funerals – as a symbol of purity and rebirth – and the tone at the start was decidedly funereal.
But as they took their place on stage, the music shifted. It became ceremonial, as if a pageant was about to begin – and it certainly was. If you’ve never been to the Bud and Susie Rogers Garden, it’s a series of ramps moving down a hill that ends at the courtyard below. A hush fell over the crowd as the horses began to slowly process down the ramps into the space.
Two dancers make up each horse – there is a front and a back – and their combined movements make for an incredibly convincing animal. Each has its own personality, some were aggressive, barreling across the space, others more demur. As they paraded and played, the crowd interacted – children pet them as they strode by, and I’ve never seen so many smiles in my life. Every face in the crowd was aglow with the magic of this moment.
The music developed and changed, reaching a crescendo when suddenly the fronts and backs separated – the individual parts frenetically moving, almost chaotically. It become somewhat dark – even the little girls who were overstepping the boundaries to pet the horses moved back, wary of the change in mood.
But when the individual parts eventually slowed down and found their partners – they rejoined, becoming the beautiful creatures once again as they each gradually marched out of the space – except for one. This incredibly animated black and white horse galloped about, and a girl appeared with a sparkly horn in a corner of the space. The horse bowed before her and was crowned, becoming a unicorn. I wish I could describe the talent of the two dancers inside this horse – because as it proudly displayed its new horn to each side of the crowd – those dancers became that unicorn. I’ve never seen anything like it (other than maybe Julie Taymor’s creations for the Lion King).
It brought tears to my eyes as the unicorn proudly galloped around the space in its new guise. Cave ended the piece on such a positive note – showing us all that we can change – that we can be an impetus for change – in our communities, in our lives, in everything. We all can be unicorns. We can make this happen.
Then the dancers returned, half-costumed for a jubilant dance, pulling children into the space to join them. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and I’m so happy that I was lucky enough to be there. Nick Cave is truly a messenger, and on this day he left me with a message of hope. Times may be dark, but we cannot quit. As he told me when I interviewed him back in February, “we have to continue to dream. To dream is optimism.”
If you’re kicking yourself because you missed it – you’re in luck, because the Akron Art Museum is working with Western Reserve PBS to create a documentary about HEARD•AKRON and its impact on the community. It won’t be finished until late summer – but CAN Journal will be sure to let you know the release date.
Nick Cave: Feat. is on view at the Akron Museum of Art through June 2, 2019 in the Karl and Bertl Arnstein Galleries – more info here.