Jordan Levin

Multimedia spectacle featuring Robert Redford and environmental awareness lights up Miami’s YoungArts Foundation

Film star Robert Redford may have been the celebrity attraction, but he was not the most powerful element of Tuesday night’s performance of The Way of the Rain Miami. Instead, the greatest impact of this elaborate multimedia event, conceived by Redford’s artist wife Sibylle Szaggars Redford and produced by the YoungArts Foundation, came from the gorgeously hypnotic visual effects and an equally rich musical tapestry.

Beautiful parts and sincerity of purpose didn’t ultimately add up to a cohesively powerful whole – Way of the Rain’s many parts often seemed united more by concept than by a natural sense of theatricality. But the show, staged in an enormous tent at YoungArts’ Biscayne Boulevard campus in the group’s first major public event, offered plenty of sensory inspiration and food for thought.

Way of the Rain is based on Szaggars Redford’s “rain paintings,” made using the summer downpours at the couple’s New Mexico home; The increasing scarcity of those downpours inspired the performance’s themes of environmental beauty and awareness. Those paintings were printed on the rings of silk banners that defined the circular stage, and shown in a video of their making, the rain streaming onto painted designs, dissolving brilliantly colored forms into amorphous flowing shapes. The visual effects were enormously enhanced by lighting designer Steve Cohen, who created the kaleidoscopic lighting that flickered and glowed in a panoply of colors and shapes, a virtual universe of light that was an almost tangibly sensual element throughout Rain.

Those visuals were matched by three stellar musicians stationed around the stage: cellist and pianist Dave Eggar; Living Colour drummer Will Calhoun, playing a fantastic array of percussion instruments, flute and guitar; and percussionist Chuck Palmer. They were beautifully attuned to each other and together created a richly varied soundscape, from thundering and syncopated to sparse and poignant, in a shifting sonic and emotional atmosphere.

Although Rain was divided into thematic segments, the first five of these — The Big Bang, Air, Water, Earth and Fire — often felt more alike than not. The colors and shapes of the lighting, the moods of the music, may have changed, but the constant density and kaleidoscopic format could tip over from mesmerizing to numbing. Most of Desmond Richardson’s choreography also had a lovely but formulaic sameness; a couple in a balletic duet for Air, a ballroom duo snaking amongst the banners for Water. The energy picked up for Earth, with a group of modern dancers running, rolling and leaping. The strongest dancing was in Fire, with five exhilarating hip hop dancers, centered around the electrifying, sinuous popping and locking of Andrew “Anonymous” Diaz.

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They were followed by the show’s most famous performer, Robert Redford, in white slacks, T-shirt and jacket, who simply walked on from his seat in the bleachers a few steps away. Redford, who moved quietly to face outward from different points onstage, read from philosophical and environmentalist texts by Thomas Barry and Llewellyn Vaughn Lee (unfortunately not identified in the program), that pose the importance, and dire consequences of, ignoring our vital and spiritual connection to nature. Redford’s air of compassionate gravity echoed with his iconic status and his own environmental beliefs, but his understated, even dry reading didn’t do much to elucidate the dense text.

Way of the Rain seemed to wind down then, into the film of Szaggars Redford’s rain paintings and a melancholy, questioning duet between Eggar on cello and Calhoun on pan flute — as if the music were asking what would be the outcome of our clash with nature. The brassy finale that followed, with music and lights pumping up to high volume and dancers racing in for encore style solos, seemed excessive and unnecessary, diluting what could have been a more powerful, and challenging, ending.

 

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