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A leather-clad motorcyclist roars onto the sidewalk outside Crucible Steel Gallery Saturday night. He pulls off his steel-gray helmet to expose a shorn head and a hard-set chin. He is English -- Northern if the drawn-out vowels are any indication. He tugs at his dark gloves and greets a casual acquaintance standing outside before immersing himself in the rose-colored light that permeates the foyer.
DJ Cheb i Sabbah, the promoter of tonight's multimedia exploration into "Improvisation and Tantra," stands at the second entranceway, checking on a last-minute detail. A native-born Algerian, Sabbah often looks more like a small, ageless Tibetan wearing a tall, brimmed hat and puffy, long coat to protect him from mountain air. He smiles with distraction as people pass to enter the performance space -- a cavernous room lit by candles and Japanese lanterns. The British biker, 34-year-old Timothy Madden Greene, scans the room for a seat, but already the rows of folding chairs are filled. He sets his things on the floor near a baby stroller and three white-haired men with soft, beery middles. Then Greene heads over to the concessions table and orders a steaming cup of chai.
"There's a small Tibetan man brewing more tea in the back," laughs one of the volunteers. It is not clear whether he is joking, but Greene's interest is perked.
"I'm a bit intrigued by Tibetan culture," he says over his spiced drink. "Not that I've gotten off my arse to do anything -- just read a bit. Tantra and that. But, I thought the show might be worth a look. The lama [performing tonight] is white, I think."
Ngakpa Chsgyam Rinpoche is indeed a white man -- a bearded, balding white man with glasses who resides in North Wales with his wife, a "feminine psychologist" -- but he is also recognized as the incarnation of Aro Yeshe, the son of the early 20th-century gTertsn ("treasure discoverer") Khyungchen Aro Lingma. Starting in early adolescence, Ngakpa Rinpoche traveled to the Himalayas, where he studied with masters of Tantric Buddhism until His Holiness Dudjom Rinpoche advised him to return to the West to establish a non-monastic style of devotion. Many of the middle-aged members of the crowd have come tonight to see this man.
"It's easier for most Westerners to hear another Westerner" says 43-year-old Carol Slowiski, who has brought her 5-year-old son to the event. "Not because a Westerner can say it any better, certainly, but because we share a similar way of processing information." As for the odd assortment of twentysomethings (Cacophonists, ravers, goths, etc.) in the crowd, they've mostly come because Sabbah events always promise an astounding jam. Tonight's show includes some of the best musicians in the international music scene: drummer Hamid Drake, woodwind player Ralph Jones, guitarist Federico Ramos, and percussionist Adam Rudolph.
After a brief introduction from cell (collective exploratory learning lab) -- the self-funded artist-teacher collective that runs Crucible -- Sabbah cues up some earthy Vangelis-esque tune while the musicians pick their way through the candles sitting on the stage. Action painter Norton Wisdom, who first discovered his art form while painting the Berlin Wall under the lights of East German machine-gun towers, approaches a large backlit Fiberglas screen. Ngakpa Rinpoche takes his seat in an overstuffed easy chair covered in embroidered cloth. He sits still, smiling at the crowd while Rudolph strikes one of several gongs. The smell of red carnations in a vase at Ngakpa Rinpoche's feet mingles with the faint odor of incense.
The musicians begin, conjuring the organic elements of nature: wind, waves, lightning, rolling stones, rain, falling leaves, birds, rivers, rattling bones, thunder. A baby in the audience begins to cry and Ngakpa Rinpoche smiles at him until his mother has him consoled. Wisdom adjusts his overalls and plunges a brush into a black paint can. He starts with a swirl, punctuating the music by slapping his brush against the screen. Ngakpa Rinpoche watches and the black splotch takes the form of a thin, wiry man blowing a red pipe. The pace of the music increases and a savage, blue panther emerges in Wisdom's picture. The paint drips and runs, matching movement within the music. A series of fierce saxophone notes stalks like the panther. Wisdom answers with a swipe of his hand, turning the panther into a storm. Horrific images of butoh masters -- white faces, red eyes, and black, gaping mouths -- flash on a second screen overhead. Ngakpa Rinpoche begins.
"Thank you for the waves of pure desire," he intones as images flicker and paint splatters, and the music turns into smoky improvised jazz. "The sharp hot and cold of meeting ... energy and duality." A few audience members begin to bob their heads, caught up in the beatlike quality of the moment, and a few snicker. Wisdom begins scribbling like a madman. A demon frog appears in his clouds.
Oguri -- a dancer who studied under butoh founder Tatsumi Hijikata -- lurches onstage looking like a broken-down marionette. A third screen springs to life. Images of Buddhas, smiling Tibetan children, and monks in prayer form living mandalas on the adjacent wall as Oguri contorts his face and stumbles around the stage. He resembles a drunken street bum. Oriental stillness -- a discipline usually present in butoh performances -- is completely lacking in Oguri as he stomps and shouts at the crowd. Several folks begin to shift in their seats. One woman simply laughs aloud, sending her companion into a fit of giggles. Somewhere in the recesses of the warehouse, a dog whines whenever a particular horn note is reached.
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