Late Bloomers

Stranger things than Ethel exist in classical music, but not many.

Then again, classical is not exactly the right word for this string quartet that plays nothing but decidedly new, often bizarre music.

In the House of Ethel — a site-specific spectacle at the Miami Beach Botanical Gardens — is set to open the 2005-2006 Miami Light Project season October 28. Unpredictable and tough to classify, this will not be your typical chamber music concert.

Deep down, the group basically comprises four musicians gone terribly, terribly mad. So mad, they're a hit: As a hot crossover act that could make PBS wonks weep, they've opened for Todd Rundgren and Joe Jackson, backed up artists as varied as Sheryl Crow and Steve Reich, and blithely spanned musical borders from stark minimalism to bluesy jazz to bouncy klezmer and back.

The South Beach version of In the House of Ethel invites audience members to follow the musicians as they play in and around the tropical greenery of the Botanical Gardens, most likely improvised riffs and pieces from their eponymous debut CD. This has been Ethel's repertory for a couple of seasons, but no performance is ever the same — the place, the audience, the mood, and in this case the tropical weather should make Miami's unique.

"This will not be an evening about walking into a theater, taking a program, sitting down, and listening," says Miami Light Project director Beth Boone, now in her eighth season at the helm of South Florida's edgiest arts organization. "Not that there's anything wrong with that. But this is something else, a way of bringing our audiences face-to-face with the artists and with each other."

Judging by Ethel's CD, the concert should be enthralling. The adventuresome Kronos Quartet may have led the way in this particular niche of the classical world, but Ethel refreshingly shows how infinitely varied a string quartet can be — performing giddy feats of virtuosity with protominimalist insistence and the tiniest touch of jazz, a constantly throbbing pulse, catchy choruses, and American minimalism drenched in melancholy — while still remaining part of one of music's richest traditions.

Ethel might be difficult to define, but it's hot.

Also tough to categorize is the remainder of Miami Light Project's 2005-2006 lineup. As spectacular as it is eclectic, the season culminates March 14 in a monumental finale with sax god Sonny Rollins, and includes along the way the physical dance theater of Elizabeth Streb, Miami's own scruffy Mad Cat Theater troupe, and the even-harder-to-classify talents of Rudi Goblen Cano, Lisandro Perez-Rey, Helena Thevenot, Clifton Childree, Nikki Rollason, and others. The bunch is impossible to pigeonhole, but together they make for a promising, strange-as-usual Miami Light Project season.

Perhaps most significant is that the popular Homegrown Heroes: Here and Now project returns (February 1 through 18 in the Light Box) with an impressive array of local talent, from theater at its loudest to dance at its most serene, and from Mad Cat's director Paul Tei in his first solo project to the ongoing saga of the brilliant Natasha Tsakos's epic Upwake — an intensely personal performance incorporating mime and dance, unveiled locally piece by piece to considerable acclaim. The complete version of Upwake is surely the most promising and most eagerly anticipated performance art event of the season.

Will Power, the keynote speaker for last season's Project Hip Hop, follows Ethel in the Miami Light Project's conventional performance series with his one-man show Flow (December 16 and 17 at the Byron Carlyle Theater). Boone saw Power perform Flow — a tongue-twisting rhythmical journey with griot narratives, morphing characters, and more than a touch of hip-hop — at the New York Theater Workshop and decided on the spot to bring him to Miami.

"He was tough to pin down," says Boone, "because he's really in demand now. He's a true theater artist, activist, a person truly doing his part to forge new ground for theater. The man's a knockout."

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