Performance review

Review: Laurie Anderson brings 'Delusion' to the Clarice Smith Center

By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 30, 2010

Laurie Anderson has gone baroque.

"Delusion," Anderson's newest evening-length performance, had its premiere in Vancouver in February and arrived at the University of Maryland's Clarice Smith Center on Thursday night. It has all the familiar hallmarks of Anderson's work: scraps of stories over a bed of recorded and live music, told in Anderson's pillowy voice in a kind of soothing singsong that seems deliberately to belie the lapidary texts. Indeed, Anderson's spoken delivery is at once seductive and so familiar -- in its artlessness, its inflections, the lilt at the end of a sentence as she delivers a quasi punch line -- that one might like to hear something in a new key.

But I have never been struck as strongly by the sensuality of the Laurie Anderson experience as I was in "Delusion." Yes, her aesthetic appears stripped-down, severe: a bare stage with a few props (in this case, a sofa, a couple of projection surfaces, a scattering of electric candles on the floor), her androgynous clothing and short, tousled hair. But this piece is baroque because it's full of color and image and, by Anderson's standards, even drama.

Anderson's work has always appealed to the senses. There's an element of animal comfort to sitting in a darkened room and listening to a lush voice tell stories that lull you to heightened awareness, or the edge of sleep, or both.

And "Delusion" is particularly colorful, sensual, emotional. It also has a womblike aspect: the video projections often included glowing red or amber surfaces, warm in the darkness. (Elements that were billed as "electronic puppetry" turned out to be video loops of animations created on chalkboard, reminiscent of the South African artist William Kentridge in showing the erasures and overscores as one figure morphs into another.) The reference to the womb, accidental or not, is apt; one theme of the piece is the death of Anderson's mother.

When Anderson first introduces the theme, it's in a dream image straight out of a Dutch painting. A video presents a tableau: a red velvet curtain; a half-naked female body; an elderly man standing over it; a dog nosing around, with Anderson herself, her back to the viewer, as spectator, while the live Anderson tells of her mother's dying.

There are certainly other elements. "Delusion" includes two segments from "Homeland," Anderson's latest album, which she presented at the Birchmere this summer. She delivers a couple of sections in a voice filtered by electronics so that she sounds like a man -- something she's been doing for so long that she's given a name to this male alter ego, Fenway Bergamot.

When Anderson picks up the mother story again, at the end of the piece, it's with a twist: She wanted to tell her mother that she didn't love her. She plays her electric violin against a video of a furious whirl of falling leaves that is angry and pretty and obvious, and then invokes something she calls the "mother meditation."

This is usually interpreted as involving universal love. In Anderson's account, she was told to do it by focusing on one moment when her mother loved her unreservedly. She can't find the moment. She responds to this loss with very loud, angry playing.

There's a difference between crafting idiosyncratic perceptions into a work of art and working out your issues onstage. In some ways, Anderson's work represents an easy-listening version of performance art; and its limits, for me, were exposed by what seemed like trivialization. It does, however, represent a kind of letting go, and for many, that may be its appeal -- or its catharsis.

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