By Laurelle Walsh
Combine mime with dance, vocals and improvisation; mix in elements of shamanism, shape-shifting and play, and you begin to get the picture of Christian Swenson’s “Human Jazz.”
“Our word language stumbles around trying to get ahold of what I’m doing on stage,” Swenson says of his performance, which has been likened to Bobby McFerrin meets Jim Carrey.
The Merc Playhouse in Twisp offers two opportunities to experience “Human Jazz,” on Friday and Saturday (June 27-28) at 7 p.m. Tickets are $15 for adults, $5 for youth 18 and under.
Swenson pioneered the performance art he calls human jazz, “a global fusion of dance, drama and music for body and voice,” according to his website.
Of course, like most art forms, using words to describe human jazz — a term Swenson says he borrowed from Ken Kesey’s Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test — fails to communicate the gestalt of his performances. In fact, the difficulty of putting into words what he does on stage has spurred Swenson to coin other phrases such as “bodyvoice” and “dansing” to help express the fluid physicality of his performance — his body as instrument.
“I wish to play my bodyvoice as Jimi Hendrix played his guitar,” he writes in his artist’s statement.
“The show is very simple,” says Swenson. He begins from a sitting position, singing, gesturing and eventually rising and morphing into different creatures and characters. “I’ll start singing a bluegrass song that morphs into something strange … I let songs off the leash.”
Without a break in the action, the solo artist — also known as “Morphoman” — transforms his body, breath and voice from one identity to the next: from Central Asian throat singer to Sufi mystic to dinosaur to bursting bubble. “Each night will be different from one another, depending on who is in the audience and the feedback I get,” Swenson says.
And if the feedback is right, toward the end of the show the audience joins in a “simple version” of the Balinese Monkey Chant, “engaging both physical and vocal energy. It’s a lot of fun,” he says.
On Saturday and Sunday, Swenson will also facilitate two workshops at The Merc in movement and vocal improvisation.
“Movement and Voice,” a workshop for ages 8 to adult, is from 11 a.m.-12:30 p.m. on Saturday. Participants will “engage in improv, play with the body and the voice, and act out music together in a non-competitive way,” Swenson says.
The second workshop, “Vocal Improv,” is on Sunday from 1-2:30 p.m., for ages 16 and up. In this workshop, participants will create music “off the top of their heads,” and practice chanting, rhythm, listening to others and blending, says Swenson.
The cost of each workshop is $10. Call 997-7529 or go to www.mercplayhouse.org for more show and workshop information.
Show sponsor Bo Thrasher, herself a familiar face from recent Readers Theater performances at The Merc, said she knew she wanted to bring Swenson to the Methow after joining in on some of his improv sessions at a Centrum camp for kids last year. “I was super-inspired by how he wove activities and how the kids responded to doing all the unusual and different ways of acting and being together,” she said.
“Christian is incredibly talented,” said Thrasher. “[He’s] a unique, fun and interesting performer and teacher.”
Swenson’s personal explorations have taken him from early work with the Bill Evans Dance Company to studying with a Korean shaman and later with a master singer from Pakistan. “I’m interested in the ability of the bodyvoice to take us to places we’ve never been,” he says.
Besides teaching in Seattle University’s theater program and at the University Cooperative School, Swenson travels widely to perform at schools, festivals and performance venues in the Pacific Northwest and around the globe. He also performs with the Threshold Ensemble doing audience-interactive “Playback Theater,” facilitates a weekly contact improvisation jam at Velocity Dance, and is an active member of Seattle’s Ecstatic Singing Circle.