Omaha’s Under the Radar Festival is OUTR of This World

John J. Pearse in Eight Songs for a Mad King at OutrSpaces. Photo: Aleksandr Karjaka.

“Comfort ye, comfort ye, my people,
With singing and with dancing.”
— “Country Dance” from Eight Songs for a Mad King, Sir Peter Maxwell Davies

“And get thee to Omaha,” might have been the next line of the song. Followed by: “Come for the woman-organized experimental performance festival; stay for the discerning curatorial and communal environment ideally suited to pushing envelopes.”

That woman-organized experimental performance festival would be the fourth annual installment of Omaha Under the Radar (OUTR), which descended on the Midwest last month, steered by the dynamo team of Amanda DeBoer Bartlett, Stacey Barelos and Auberly Byerly. All of them are Omaha natives and accomplished creators who wield substantial expertise in performance, music composition, experimentation and education. The festival grew organically out of their collective know-how, as well as mutual connections, individual projects and a will to develop something like OUTR in and for their shared hometown.

If the festival flies at all under the radar, those days are numbered. The four-day event delivered acts across and between performing disciplines, representing genres from modern dance to avant-garde classical to improv of all kinds — and also toy piano. By design, about half the artists hailed from Nebraska, and the rest came from regions across the country; all demonstrated a dual commitment both to excellent art-making and relentless exploration in an eclectic array of venues, from institutions such as Joslyn Art Museum and the definition-eluding KANEKO, to DIY artspaces like Project Project and OutrSpaces — the latter being literally a car wash, albeit the most elegant one I’ve had the pleasure to see an opera in.

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Beyond the presence of an artistic oasis in a state whose new slogan is “We Don’t Coast,” OUTR’s most unusual value is perhaps its sense of humanity. The festival’s improvised, open spaces encouraged participants to mill about, even during shows, whether it’s to enjoy a sculpture or to take a break. Artists spoke generously both on stage and off. The availability of time for dialogue, reflection and dinner created a delicious openness I hadn’t realized was missing from so many other artistic experiences.

For DeBoer Bartlett, who serves as festival director, that’s part of the plan. “This is the subtlety of presenting something in a place you know really well,” she explained to me a few days before the action started. “It’s having this deep, empathetic understanding of experiences of that community and where they’re coming from, and how different aesthetics are going to resonate with them or challenge them or inspire them — and then being intentional about that.”

This abundance of spirit pervades OUTR, which also features a substantial education component called Soundry, directed by Barelos. The sessions I attended boundlessly explored the mechanics of ensemble and the experience of sound, guided capably and creatively by festival faculty and music students from the Chicago Academy for the Arts. Later, on the concert side, I looked across a stage where violin/viola duo andPlay was crushing a work with electronics, and I saw babies bouncing on their parents’ knees. In a total breach with my usual concert-going persona, I loved it.

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Make no mistake: they’re friendly, but OUTR doesn’t “compromise on programming,” DeBoer Barlett cheerfully added. I caught the last two days of the festival, both of which spoke to the caliber of the festival’s applicant pool and selection process. Following a long, prop-heavy setup, the Aeron Flutes smashed through my skepticism with a laser-focused performance of Broken Birds by Danny Clay, which sounded — captivatingly — like screen-printed copies of birds, or birds who have somehow forgotten how to be birds.

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Katelyn with cabbage. Photo: Aleksandr Karjaka.

My trip to Nebraska could have been validated solely by a performance of the work cited at the top of this post: Sir Peter Maxwell Davies’ song cycle Eight Songs for a Mad King. Kansas City baritone John J. Pearse was scintillating in the title role, his total commitment most chilling in its moments of nobility. (I might have ended up with a cool, wet cabbage in my lap as a result of his ravings.) The experience felt like a mirage: somehow we’d floated to a car wash, in Omaha, at 11pm on a Friday, and gathered around for this insatiable work.

And that was Friday. Saturday morning found me in the throes of an art hangover. It turned out that the perfect antidote was the music of Morton Feldman, with cool timbrel arcs guided deftly by Zeitgeist. I loved so many other things that I saw at OUTR, not in proportion to their treatment here: the intrepid tbd dance collective, which left me with more questions than answers; Liz Pearse, who completely owned the premiere of Anthony Donofrio’s genre-flipping Canto III for self-accompanied soprano; and the festival rocking to a stratospheric close with Warp Trio.

The right amount of discomfort was also on hand. I was knocked on my ass by Impossible Woman, choreographed and danced by Carly Sinn. She had my attention immediately when, in full street clothes, she took the stage and…checked her phone — just like anyone, anywhere. The Temptations’ “My Baby” came on, and some painfully measured undressing began. Sinn finally melted into graceful, expressive gestures, free to move in her own space. But it never took off; fraught, nervous fidgeting interrupted the peace, and soon the Motown chart felt oppressive, leaving me with searing loss.

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The following work, Freedom From…, choreographed by Danny Sabra, provoked similar disquiet. It unfolded intensely on an American landscape dance floor strewn with the symbols of repression: filth, anxiety and suggestions of abuse. A banana peel hurled into the audience somehow carried with it the desperation of a generation while the strings played “America the Beautiful” in microtones and a dancer wept, pawing at the trash.

I was grateful, once again, for the restorative space curated alongside these compelling works; just knowing it was available helped me lean in further. As DeBoer Bartlett shared with me, “You start to have these checkpoints: ‘we should present this piece because it’s an important piece.’ And you have to reevaluate the context that you’re in, and the purpose that the art might actually serve in that context.”

What if more experimental works were inclusive in this way? What if they could encourage dialogue with an entire community, stretching boundaries with their sense of invitation? I can’t wait to see how OUTR comforts — and confronts — its audience in the future.