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Eye-Openers — Museum of Contemporary Art home to provocative, avant-garde stagings

Handspring Puppet Company: 'Woyzeck Highveld' Sept. 27-30 2012 Museum Contemporary Art.

Handspring Puppet Company: "Woyzeck on the Highveld" Sept. 27-30, 2012, at the Museum of Contemporary Art.

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Updated: September 6, 2012 7:00AM

I confess: There have been a number of times when I’ve left Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art Theatre reciting my favorite quip from Bernard Sahlins, a founder of The Second City and all-around arts gadfly who, incidentally, celebrated his 90th birthday on Aug. 20.

As Sahlins drolly observed when we discussed some shrill, almost self-parodying piece of theater whose cast was outfitted in black leather costumes and bondage props: “Everything changes but the avant-garde.”

On the other hand, over the years, the lineup of theater, dance, music, film, opera and cross-disciplinary performances that have arrived on the ideally spacious stage of this intimate venue has been exceptional. You will see things at the MCA Theatre that no one else in this city produces, and a great deal of it is eye-opening and intriguing.

The schedule for the MCA’s fall 2012 season, which includes several offerings that are part of its Global Stage series, proves the point. Here is an overview:

John Jota Leanos’ “Imperial Silence: Una Opera Muerta” (Sept. 14-16): Presented in association with the National Museum of Mexican Art, this multimedia show about war, empire, death, silence, dissent and cultural taboos fuses animation, Mexican dance, Mariachi, hip-hop, bossa nova, blues and more. It is the creation of San Francisco-based director John JotaLeanos, Chicago-based choreographer Joel Valentin-Martinez, DJ/composer Cristobal Martinez, and the Tucson-based Mariachi ensemble, Los Cuatro Vientos.

Handspring Puppet Company’s “Woyzeck on the Highveld” (Sept. 27-30): Founded in 1981 in Cape Town, South Africa, the Handspring Puppet Company drew on the West African tradition of puppetry for adults, and early on began collaborating with William Kentridge, the brilliant artist and maker of animated films. Today it is best known for devising the puppetry for the London and Tony Award-winning Broadway hit, “War Horse.” But in 1993, Kentridge teamed with Handspring to create “Woyzeck on the Highveld,” based on German writer Georg Buchner’s landmark play of jealousy, desperation and murder. In this version, the tormented central character is a migrant worker in 1956 Johannesburg (instead of a poor, tormented European soldier). The piece combines animated film, live performances, South African-rooted music and wood puppets, and is being presented in conjunction with the MCA’s William Kentridge exhibit.

ICE (International Contemporary Ensemble) in the MCA Composers Stage Series of three concerts exploring the music of John Cage and Pierre Boulez (Oct. 6); Carla Kihlstedt and Phyllis Chen (Feb. 16, 2013); and David Lang’s “The Whisper Opera” (May 30-June 2, 2013), inspired by the composer’s visits to small opera houses in rural Italy.

Stew and The Negro Problem (Oct. 20-21): Stew is the Tony Award-winning performer-musician who, with his collaborator Heidi Rodewald, created and starred in the Broadway rock musical “Passing Strange.” The two of them, plus Stew’s band, will perform a new song cycle that paints a personal portrait of Chicago, where they have been spending a summer residency. Expect a sound mix of funk, baroque, ’60s pop, lounge music, ’80s synth pop, psychedelic rock and Tin Pan Alley classics.

Mike Daisey’s “American Utopias” (Nov. 1-11): Monologist Mike Daisey got himself into a great deal of hot water recently when it was revealed that many elements in his dramatic work, “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs,” had been fabricated. But the writer-actor has bounced back, and now he will perform his new piece, clearly labeled “a mix of fiction, field research and autobiography,” in which he explores the American obsession with utopia. Included will be memories of a family trip to Disney World, his experiences at the ritualistic Burning Man Festival in northern Nevada, and his impressions of Zuccotti Park, the site of the Occupy Wall Street movement in lower Manhattan. The show is being featured at the MCA in conjunction with this year’s Chicago Humanities Festival, whose theme is America.

Martin Creed’s “Work No. 1020 (Ballet),” (Nov. 15-16): Creed, a British multimedia artist, musician and Turner Prize-winner, has been an artist-in-residence at the MCA this year. Among a number of projects, he will create this non-traditional ballet performance featuring his rock band and five Joffrey Academy dancers. The choreography will be centered on the five body positions at the core of classical ballet.

Tsukasa Taiko: “Taiko Legacy,” (Dec. 21-22): Japanese culture will be at the heart of this blend of taiko drumming, stylized Japanese kimono dance and improvisations that bridge jazz and Japanese court music. Tatsu Aoki will direct three generations of artists from Tokyo, San Francisco and Chicago for this percussion-based concert in which two Chicago jazz musicians — Hamid Drake and Michael Zerang — will participate.

NOTE: Among the events scheduled for the winter and spring 2013 season at the MCA are Compagnie Marie Chouinard, the Montreal-based troupe dancing both “The Rite of Spring” (to the landmark Stravinsky score that will be 100 years old in 2013) and “Henri Michaux: Movements” (March 21-23, 2013); Young Jean Lee’s Theater Company in “Untitled Feminist Show” (April 18-21, 2013); the wonderfully theatrical chamber music group, eighth blackbird, with Nico Muhly and Bryce Dessner (April 30-May 1, 2013); and choreographic showcases by Hubbard Street Dance Chicago (June 6, 8, 9 and 13-16, 2013) and Luna Negra Dance Theater (June 20-23, 2013).

♦ Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art is at 220 E. Chicago. For information and tickets, call (312) 397-4010 or visit

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