Aurora Nealand’s show Saturday (5.27) at the Airlift's Music Box Village could fittingly be compared to a post-America apocalyptic fairytale. Drawing from Nealand’s new politically charged, indie-electronic accordion album recorded as her alter ego The Monocle, Kind Humankind, the performance was made spectacular from Shannon Stewart's precise choreography, to Nealand's multi-facted performance, moving from poetry to prolific accordion playing.
Saturday's show was a terrific climax to a successful season at the Bywater artist haven. This spring, the Village saw everything from Martin Quintron's orchestral interpretation of Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring" along with top NOLA musicians and the weather-responsive analog synth Weather Warlock, to Tank and the Bangas recording their entry for their now award-winning NPR Tiny Desk video.
Illustrating her virtuoso status by playing accordion in addition to providing vocals, clarinet, saxophone, and guitar as her alter-ego Rory Danger, Nealand has now come full circle in her New Orleans repertoire. Nealand first arrived on the city's musical scene in 2005, as part of a cross-country bicycle road trip project dubbed American Dreams, where she recorded interviews with rural Americans. Her background included time in coservatories at Oberlin College and at Jacques Lecoq School of Physical Theater in Paris.
Upon her arrival in the Crescent City, she released an album at Preservation Hall titled, A Tribute to Sydney Bechet: Live at Preservation Hall, giving birth to her main band, The Royal Roses. Considering that she can embody Bechet on clarinet, almost seeming to crawl out of her body with her eyes rolled back in her head, it is astoundingly impressive to see her flawlessly play an accordion while singing and putting on a choreographed performance of her own creation.
Located on N. Rampart past Bywater's last street, Kentucky, Music Box Village is located appropriately and precariously close to what locals refer to as The End of the World, the spot where the Mississippi River meets the industrial canal. Among the vestiges of port-side industry, Music Box Village stands out like something out of a Lemony Snicket novel. It looks too fantastical to be real. Here’s the thing—the Music Box village is exactly what its name describes. Several installations allow visitors to utilize this fairytale-like space to create and engineer music.
Saturday was one of those New Orleans nights where one had been waiting all day for the blissful sunset to wipe away the oncoming summer heat. Being an outdoor venue, the trees that reside in the music box provide a natural canopy. When one notices the stars flashing through the swaying trees, they might even think that they were looking at the ceiling of the Seanger Theater. Going from being entranced with the performance, to looking at the outdoor setting provided by the venue, was often akin to waking from a dream.
Evan Spigelman, co-founder of the Skin Horse Theater and a self-proclaimed Vulgarian drag queen who has worked with Nealand on his side project "Creep Cuts," opened the show while also doing a terrific job on lights for Nealand’s show. He showcased his many talents by lip-syncing, singing, and even performing a rendition of Patti Smith’s “Piss Factory” to segue into Nealand’s show.
After Spigelman, two young women clad in black clothing ascended the platform that is behind the audience—20 feet off the ground, opposite the stage. With an unseen voice that sounded eerily similar to Nealand’s echoing over the solemn audience, these two girls managed to fill the entire space with an intimate indie-jazz performance.
Just as the audience could wait no more, Aurora Nealand emerged, out of nowhere, on the balcony next to the stage. Her musicians begin to assume their posts on the periphery of the stage. Instead of facing the audience, they were facing the performers. The drums were located on the canopy opposite the stage, 20-feet off the ground.
Nealand began her performance by seducing her audience with a monologue reminiscent of her brand of witty and rustic lyricism. Her orange hair stood out starkly from her black-and-white clothing and matching accordion. Throughout the rest of the show, Nealand barely put the accordion down. One of the things that makes Nealand so captivating to watch is her theatricality, she possesses the face of an actor. She can rant with an expression of incredulity and she can stare the audience dead in the eye, convincing us that what she’s singing is real.
The show was, undoubtedly, a reflection of Nealand’s perception of the current plight of America and its place within modern society. The digital album, Kind HumanKind, includes music videos where she is trying to swim her way out of shredded paper while singing about being last in a maze of faulty electronic time-fillers in which she is deleting emails, talking to her remote, etc. While the music video appears spacy and indirect, the show is focused and engaging. As the power of the music and choreography begin to coalesce, and the increasingly electronic-toned guitar reaches a fever pitch, Nealand pauses to let the dancers do the talking. Suddenly, the bodies become lost in a synchronized, but pointless state of exertion.
Just when it seems the bottom has fallen out of this conception of modern life, Nealand returns center-stage to gaze over her creation like a darkened overlord. In the darkness, the music gains strength, and Nealand returns to her perch where she began the show. Instead of singing a song of victory, she descends to a phone booth located right of center-stage. She frantically babbles into the phone, at one point exclaiming, “this is only a test.”
This play relays the underlying causes of why we replace genuine experience with time wasted in consumer electronics and shows why it’s so difficult to break free. For many younger listeners, it’s hard to imagine a world where we aren’t lost in consumer-electronics and Nealand’s obsession with rustic America takes us to this place while questioning the norms of modern America. Kind HumanKind ends right at the point where we feel we are about to break free from this cycle of distraction and overconsumption.
As the show ends, dancers and the performers join hands in a moment of exultation. The dancers whose linen jumpsuits were at first white, are now stained with dirt and sweat. The musicians who were scattered about the periphery of the stage finally make their faces known. Nealand grabs the hands of those center stage, and the audience joins the performers in a moment of mutual appreciation. The incredulous look on the faces of the panting performers says it all.