Laurie Anderson ended the tenth annual Time-Based Arts Festival with not so much a bang as a plunk. The plunk of a piano, to be exact, that was pounded out by her dog in a YouTube clip. That’s right, the matron saint of modern performance art prominently featured her dog playing piano. From YouTube. Onstage at the Schnitz.
It was part of a story about death and the way that the American healthcare system likes to treat it as precisely as possible, woven through with a story about her Tibetan Buddhism teacher and the Tibetan Book of the Dead. Her dog was dying, and “the purpose of death,” she realized, “is the release of love.” Half of the audience, the lolcats contingent, no doubt was putty (Cute dogs! Playing piano!). The other half bristled at the cheap trick.
Granted, there was trademark Anderson moments in Dirtday!, the final installment of her solo trilogy that she started in Portland in 2002 with Happiness. There were charming stories and wry asides told in her seductive, sardonic tone (and occasionally with the voice deepening “audio drag” filter), the two strongest of which dealt with how the peacock flummoxed Darwin and wandering through a tent camp in New Jersey (though it felt uncomfortably like the privileged outsider getting a joke at the expense of the destitute). There were the electric violin musical interludes and a pillow speaker trick that made her sing like the violin. There was the hypnotically gorgeous set basically unchanged from The End of the Moon, with its rich lighting design that shifted through a palette of bold, peacock-tail colors, and its constellation of candles on the floor (the climax of the show was somewhat stuttered by a fire alarm going off backstage, though not from the candles, which were electric).
Yet the show lacked the subtle play on themes that so often provide the thread stitching the stories together. In the end, it felt like a lovely atmospheric performance, something to occasionally lose oneself in, but it offered little memorable or challenging, nothing courageous or new. Or, as one of our editors put it, it “felt like a Grateful Dead cover band.”