Large and Loud--Plus Mimes!

Local performing artists show off works in progress to help pay the rent

It's a safety officer's worst nightmare: a warehouse full of Japanese and Afro-Brazilian drummers, fire artists, aerial dancers and--those most insidious threats to public order--mimes.

Rhythm Industry Performance Factory hasn't yet run afoul of the law, and so far, there's been no need to station ambulances at the ready in the parking lot. But we'll see what happens when all the Rhythm Industry resident ensembles converge on the "factory" at once for a public sampling of their works in progress.

This weekend brings Rhythm Industry's first quarterly review. Note that the word employed is "review," as in a literary quarterly, rather than "revue," as in a variety show. It's an evening of performance, not magazine-reading, but all the participants are very serious about their work. Besides, the facility isn't intended to serve as a performance venue; it's an arts-incubation space, where groups can rehearse, and build and store sets and instruments and costumes. The only reason the resident ensembles have decided to present a performance sampler there four times a year is to raise money to help pay the mortgage.

The whole thing was masterminded by Karen Falkenstrom of Odaiko Sonora, the local Japanese-drumming troupe. The group gets so many gigs, from concert appearances to team-building workshops to weddings and funerals, that several months ago, it was able to pile up enough cash to put a down payment on a new, 3,700-square-foot metal warehouse building on Tyndall Avenue, at some distance from the downtown warehouse district but also safely removed from that district's political and structural problems. Although Odaiko Sonora and Rhythm Industry's other residents have obtained grants to underwrite their programs, they so far haven't sought city money for the building itself.

"To meet the mortgage, my group has been working so hard," Falkenstrom says with a mixture of pride and fatigue. "Gigging 50 times a year is not sustainable. It's killing us. We need time to do our art, not just make money so we can meet our mortgage."

Thus this Saturday's fundraising showcase, and thus the earlier decision to open the warehouse to other carefully selected resident ensembles, which chip in with everything from mortgage contributions to packs of toilet paper.

"The building has become a permanent home for large, loud art forms," says Falkenstrom. "We all need a lot of space, and we all make a lot of noise, except for the mimes."

Besides Odaiko Sonora, components installed in the Rhythm Factory include the fire-arts group Flam Chen, the Batucaxé Afro-Brazilian percussion ensemble, Theatrical Mime Theatre, Thom Lewis Dance, and Movement Salon, which uses guided movement and creative writing to "help students explore relationships between bodies and space, choice and responsibility, and the self and others."

Maintaining a steady relationship between bodies and space has sometimes been difficult for small local-arts groups. Until two years ago, Odaiko Sonora and some other groups were based in Ortspace in the Tucson Warehouse and Transfer Building, which the company now known as O-T-O Dance had rented for nine years. But ultimately, the ensembles were supplanted by bathroom fixtures; the warehouse's owner, Benjamin Supply, needed the room for storage. (See "In Need of Space," July 6, 2006.)

"We've all been displaced before, so we know how tenuous of a hold we have on a home," Falkenstrom says. "We weren't in Benjamin Supply's business plan, and why should we be? When they decided they needed the space for storage, we didn't factor in.

"But now we're in a place we can really call our own. This is different from Ortspace, because we're asking groups to take more of a vested interest in the health of the space. With these reviews, people are pitching in to raise money so we can keep our home."

Beyond that, the Thom Lewis Dance group, for example, has installed mirrors and barres. Everybody shares cleanup duties, and Falkenstrom has designed an automated system by which the various groups can book their time and pay their rent without Falkenstrom having to ride herd on them. "I don't chase people down," she says. "I don't want to be a landlord; I want to be an artist."

So far, she says, all the residents have played well together. "I try to instill in the users that this is their home, and they have to take care of it," she says. "I don't rent to just anybody because I need the money; I try to find people who are like-minded and not assholes. We don't rent to people who don't share the same energy and gratitude for the space.

"I have no intention of it being a performance space. We already have performance venues in town, and we don't really need more; we need workspace for artists. So I'm trying to keep the users aware that the mission is creating work, manufacturing work, practicing work, not showing work. We're about the generative segment of the work, before it goes to stage."