The past couple of weeks brought some big-stage personalities to campus. They included any acidly punny performance artist, a man whose collaboration in a revolutionary music genre earned him exile from his native Brazil and a Paris-born Chinese-American superstar of crossover classical music.

The events showcased how distinct the relationship between performers and their audience can be. Oleszko manipulated her audience when it least expected it to prove a point about performance. Veloso rallied his audience to join him in a bouncy world where music rules expression. Virtuosos Ma and Stott kept their audience attentive to every note. I realized they were using us as more than observers. Our receipt of the performers was the final, integral component of their creative work. Here’s a rundown:

Pat Oleszko

University alum Pat Oleszko graduated from the School of Art and Design to create elaborate costumes and sculptures for her humorous, provocative performance art pieces. She offers these deadpan performances on the street. Passersby become her spontaneous, bewildered audience.

Oleszko discomforts her audience for the sake of humor, social critique or political commentary. For a time, the audience at her Michigan Theater presentation enjoyed the confusion of others, watching her video documentation of past performances. In one, Oleszko staked out a spot in St. Peter’s Square in Rome’s Vatican City. She attracted the attention of many, including the police, by dressing as “da Nincompope,” a petulant, toddler-like, watergun-weilding pontiff.

At the theater, Oleszko wore an elaborate black, red and white costume with a Napoleonic hat as she explained slides of her performance works. When the enormous hat slipped from her head she matter-of-factly cursed it, bent to pick it up, secured it in its proper, absurd place and continued with her presentation.

This presentation’s style was as much of a curveball to her seated audience as her cartoonish characters are to her street audiences. Pairing her bizarre outfit with unsettlingly normal behavior denied the expectations of The Michigan Theater crowd, fulfilling her general aim – to keep everyone wondering what on earth is going on.

Caetano Veloso

As someone unfamiliar with iconic singer/songwriter and guitarist Veloso’s repertoire, I may have been more surprised than many at Friday evening’s performance. His show was idiosyncratic, to say the least, using trippy mod lighting and an abstract backdrop to set a mood of burlesque experimentation, the lights theatrically fading to black between songs. Veloso, who came off as a good-natured jokester/rockstar and a truly peculiar individual, had designed a stage where he felt at home.

With the slightly fey movements of a whiz kid performing for adoring grandparents, Veloso made his body a filter for his sound. He emphasized high notes with a hand thrown up in the gesture of someone professing a point. He coyly flashed his unremarkable belly to the audience during a dancy number. He even grabbed his crotch once – delicately. If there was a point to that, it may have been in Portuguese.

Most distinctly, Veloso measured every movement to the timing and mood of the song he was in. Adjusting his glasses on his face became a demonstration of the holistic reach of his music – he elevated it to an expression of his sound.

In the hands of someone with less inventive material to present, his method could go wrong. But Veloso endeared his audience to him. His own text for UMS’s program notes, available on the website, suggests his personality well with lines like, “There are too many songs in this world. I have, myself, written a ridiculous amount of them.”

Yo-Yo Ma

Saturday night’s performance by cellist Ma and British pianist Kathryn Stott was, on the surface, straightforward. The sole embellishment to Hill’s stage was a large flower arrangement placed off-center. The house lights were only dimmed, never totally dark. Ma and Stott entered after the customary phantom-voice alert to turn off all devices, took their seats and began to play.

During the applause after some pieces, the musicians exited the stage so they could re-enter in an encore bow. Such boasts are as characteristic of classical performances as Veloso’s sinking to his knees, relinquishing his guitar to an assistant and bending to kiss a fan was of rock performance.

But Ma and Stott were as understated in their personas as the three musicians who played with Veloso, deep in concentration on the pieces before them. They don’t pantomime their performances as Oleszko or Veloso do, likely because they don’t comment on the act of performance with Oleszko’s scrutiny or Veloso’s liberality.

Ma played most of the pieces without any sheet music, and occasionally he and Stott leaned together, tuning into each other. This embodied their relationship in a motion that, if not intended for the benefit of the audience, seemed to be received that way.

These motional quirks charmed the audience, although Ma and Stott were likely preaching to the choir (the event sold out six weeks in advance, and student tickets went in 90 seconds). Returning to the stage for their third encore piece, Ma antically jogged back to his chair with his cello in one hand and mimed “one more, and then we all have to go to bed” with the other.

– E-mail Colodner at abigabor@umich.edu.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.