Playing Ophelia: homeLA’s ‘Frogtown’ Dances Along The L.A. River

by Christina Campodonico

It may have been raining last Saturday, but that didn’t stop the artists of homeLA from nearly diving into the L.A. River.

Raindrops fell from gray skies, as three site-specific performance pieces converged on the riverbanks adjacent to the Women’s Center For Creative Work (WCCW), which played host to homeLA’s “Frogtown,” named for the surrounding riverside neighborhood off the 5 freeway.

Founded and directed by choreographer Rebecca Bruno, homeLA is a collective of “dance, body-based, sound, visual, and interactive media” artists who bring original, movement-based performances to residential spaces. “Frogtown,” homeLA’s 10th performance event since the initiative’s founding in 2013, took over the WCCW’s new home in the Elysian Valley, a member and grant-supported communal workspace for women.

“Frogtown” had the lure of dangerous beauty, as four dancers flirted with the edge of the L.A. River’s rushing currents. Performance artist Constance Strickland moved as if possessed by an alluring siren song, then was drawn to the river’s waters. After beginning her piece with a robust and ominous knock on the WCCW’s front door, she traced a disturbing and ghostly presence throughout the building — dropping a glass plate in the front room, screaming in the bathroom, breaking into a turbulent dance under the eaves of a covered car park outside — before hypnotically leading us to the banks of the river. Though a tall metal railing guarded the shoreline, Strickland, impelled by an invisible force, bypassed it, descending down the steep slope to touch the river’s wavelets with her fingertips.

Constance Strickland reaches out into the L.A. River during homeLA’s performance of “Frogtown” | Photo by Adriana Feketeova

Her outstanding piece calls to mind the Shakespearean demise of Ophelia. Depending on your interpretation, she either falls into a brook from a broken willow branch, or plunges in directly of her own accord. Whether by design or accident, her end is alarming and untimely. While Strickland’s fierce performance doesn’t push this metaphor to its obvious conclusion, the thrilling unknown of “will-she-won’t-she” forebodingly hangs suspended in the air.

Stormy skies above and coursing tides below only heighten this tension, as the elements create a threatening, if happenstance backdrop for the “Opheliac” undercurrent of “Frogtown’s” coinciding works.

Samantha Mohr in costuming by Nikki Stewart | Photo by Adriana Feketeova

Samantha Mohr, garlanded in a floral petalled headdress, came closest to emulating Ophelia in costume, and almost in practice, with her piece “Lady Imago.” Swooping towards the river’s edge Mohr’s feet licked the water for an instant, but a rope around her waist kept her landlocked. With currents rising and drizzle turning to downpour, the danger of her tumbling into the coursing river became palpable.

Samantha Mohr performs “Lady Imago” in homeLA’s “Frogtown” | Video courtesy of Emma Quan @eemabeema

Allison Wyper and Erika Barbosa took less perilous risks, but that did not make their task any less challenging. Due to the inclement weather, the pair moved their piece, titled “In the Current,” from the riverbed to the riverbank. There, they calmly moved through a series of Tai Chi-like recitations, coolly resisting any hint that the shoal’s slope might put them precariously off balance. The churning waters behind them contrasted with the zen serenity of their movements; the juxtaposition was engrossing.

Erika Barbosa (left) and Allison Wyper (right) perform “In the Current” on the banks of the L.A. River | Video by Kevin Tsukii @kevintsukii

However, had weather conditions been as mild as any usual Southern Californian day, I’m not sure that “In the Current,” or its sister piece, “Lady Imago” would have held the same riveting appeal.

Samantha Mohr leans back close to the river’s edge. | Photo by Adriana Feketeova

Maybe I wouldn’t have gasped so loudly when Samantha Mohr kissed the river’s lapping lip with her feet. Perhaps I wouldn’t have clenched my teeth so tightly with fear for her, or the other performers’ safety. Had Wyper and Barbosa immersed themselves in the water under cloudless skies, as originally planned, the ominous headline, “Performance artists swept away in raging L.A. River currents” probably wouldn’t have flitted so vividly through my mind.

What I can say is that the invitation inside for “Something Sweet,” — freshly baked chocolate chip cookies, which turned out to be a performance in and of itself — was a welcome retreat from the river’s tenuous shore.

Dancers Dina Lasso and Brance William Souza cooked up cookies in the WCCW’s kitchen for “Something Sweet,” a choreographed work by Sophia Stroller | Video by Christina Campodonico @christinajcampo

From then on, the evening was as comfortable as a laidback gathering of close friends, as attendants nibbled on spiced nuts and sipped on artisanal fruit cocktails by artist Emily Marchand, while dancing to DJ’ed beats in front of a motion-sensing animation by Filipa Valente.

Architect and interactive artist Filipa Valente’s “Fantasma” captured guest’s motions and projected those movements onto a wall in the Women’s Center for Creative Work. | Video courtesy of homeLA @home_la

But before joining the jovial party within, I couldn’t help but turn my head to take one last glance at the churning river. Such is the draw of a shocking beauty — it’s hard to look away, or to forget.

Reach Contributor Christina Campodocino here.