With her latest production, “Shockwave Delay,” the artist Yoshiko Chuma promises that no two performances will be exactly alike. That’s always true of any live performance, but even more so when it comes to the highly collaborative and volatile happenings that Chuma directs for her multidisciplinary company, the School of Hard Knocks.
It was certainly true of the two shows I saw, on Thursday and Sunday, during the first week of a two-week engagement at La MaMa’s Ellen Stewart Theater. On Thursday, opening night, it appeared that technical kinks were still being ironed out; some performers looked a bit lost, including Chuma, who told the audience she had wanted to cancel that evening. (Was she serious or not? With Chuma it’s hard to tell.) By Sunday, the ever-shifting cast, a mix of core members and rotating guests, seemed to be finding its groove.
At two and a half hours with no intermission, “Shockwave Delay” is characteristically audacious and ambitious. It’s a lot to take in. Layering movement and music (live and recorded) with video and spoken text, it unfolds as a series of distinct but intertwining episodes.
Though decidedly not a retrospective, it includes footage from some of Chuma’s recent works and a short film from 1980, “The School of Hard Knocks: Adventure in Moving,” a highlight of the show. Directed by Chuma and Jacob Burckhardt (who, on Thursday, emerged from the audience to talk about the process of making it), the film stars a plucky young Chuma and John Nesci, on a mission of some sort around deserted New York streets.
In dialogue with her past work while hurtling forward, “Shockwave Delay” also deals with themes that Chuma, who was born in Osaka, Japan, and moved to the United States in 1976, has explored over her more than 40-year career: the artificiality of borders and the necessity of crossing them; the destructive forces of American imperialism; the possibilities of art as activism and healing. Breaking up more somber moments are two festive interludes, a School of Hard Knocks award ceremony and graduation, celebrating members of Chuma’s wide-reaching artistic circle.
From the work’s tangle of tensions and contradictions, a certain contrast of scale periodically comes into relief: between unfathomable devastation and the delicate strength of human life. Early on, a film of the 1946 nuclear tests at Bikini Atoll (Bruce Connor’s “Crossroads”) releases the sound of explosion after explosion into the theater. In the first shot of the detonation, the thunderous noise arrives several seconds after the image; I wasn’t the only one to jump in my seat. It’s a different kind of shock when you catch a glimpse of the beguiling dancer Ursula Eagly, who has appeared at the periphery of the stage, firmly and gently holding out a palm.
In a later section, Chuma and the pianist Dane Terry tussle in front of a screen that displays raw news footage of a California forest fire. Chuma steps on the piano keys or drapes herself across Terry’s back as he plays something beautifully plaintive. He carries on despite Chuma’s disruptions; they carry on together despite the persistent images of disaster.
Throughout the production, the urgent, searching movement of the dancers often happens in shadow or near darkness. In one potent solo, Mizuho Kappa illuminates her spiraling, crouching body with a flashing light. Dissonant emissions of sound come from the sidelines, courtesy of the violinist Jason Kao Hwang and the trombonist Christopher McIntyre. The singer Marisa Tornello makes a single appearance to deliver a crystalline rendition of “Que Será, Será.”
If there’s any anchor to the multidirectional proceedings in “Shockwave Delay,” it might be the steady voice of the well-known downtown actor Jim Fletcher, who sits at a table side-stage, reading aloud from an iPad. On Sunday, when he was joined by the equally steadying Kate Valk (a founding member of the Wooster Group), the text included musings on the violence of property ownership, as several performers, toward the end of the show, rolled out a bright-white picket fence in the shape of an X.
Seeing “Shockwave Delay” twice revealed that beneath its haphazard surface is a solid if flexible structure, complex in its malleability. The title, too, took on more dimension. The impact of Chuma’s work, on the individual viewer or on the greater systems she seeks to dismantle, may not be apparent right away, arriving instead in waves, perhaps when you least expect it.
Through June 11 at La MaMa, Manhattan; lamama.org.