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San Francisco Bay Area Roundup

Review of November & Preview of December

by Heather Desaulniers

Published December 2010

  • “ODD” – Axis Dance Company and inkBoat\
    November 12, 2010 – Malonga Theater, Oakland, CA
  • “Works in the Works 2010”
    Presented by Choreographers’ Performance Alliance and 8th Street Studio, Berkeley, CA
    November 20, 2010
  • “Deviations” – written and directed by Joe Goode
    Department of Theater, Dance and Performance Studies, UC Berkeley
    November 21, 2010 - Durham Studio Theater, Berkeley, CA

It's no secret that interdisciplinary performance and I don't always get along.  But even a skeptic and cynic like me knows that every once in a while, this genre gets it right -- well-researched pieces with formal and narrative cohesiveness, favoring collaboration and cooperation above randomness and mismatching.  In November, I saw three such programs where the integration of elements had been afforded the necessary time and energy.  It is not enough to just throw things together (and so many of today's choreographers do that), relativity must be the primarily goal in order to achieve any level of artistic depth.

”ODD,” the recent collaboration between Axis Dance Company and inkBoat demonstrated a better way to look at and think about connection and integration.  Director and choreographer Shinichi Iova-Koga opted to have the artistic collaborations happen live and in real time -- the cellist who had composed the score, a soundscape artist adding additional elements to the music, a painter transforming blank canvases and dancers moving and speaking text.  I generally feel that interdisciplinary projects tend toward ‘too much,’ but this was incredibly cohesive and brilliantly orchestrated.  Iova-Koga’s process of human movement was equally compelling.  Primitive organisms were apparent as dancers inched their way across the stage like worms and crawled with the co-ordinating (same arm as leg) motion of salamanders.  In addition, the body's transitory movement from one state to another was highlighted.  As the performers slowly passed through a plethora of ‘in between’ positions, we saw an emphasized representation of the small reflexive motions that each body experiences.  Attention to enunciation was obvious even as the dancers walked towards us.  You could see each metatarsal as every toe separated and articulated -- extraordinary, intentional and almost sensuous.

Although I clearly found the concepts and choreography intriguing, “ODD” was overshadowed by a huge cloud of distortion, and not in a good way.  Violence, hostility and neurosis were the name of the game, epitomized through the grotesque: gnarled hands, body twitches, spastic sissones, bourées attempted with turned-in, locked knees.  The overwhelming facial distortions were reminiscent of Butoh, and although they make sense in Butoh, here they didn't really fit (especially not to the extent they were used).  Not only did the distortion pull focus, but it also concealed the ‘positives’ in the piece: the interdisciplinary interactions and the physicality itself.  There is definitely value in exposing audiences to all kinds of movement, though emphasizing one idea too much always runs the risk of losing its impact.  Instead of being challenging and unexpected, “ODD” became monotonous and a little boring.

The “Works in the Works 2010” program offered the chance to see five dances at various stages of growth: “H1” (Abigail McNally/A Mused Collective), “My Hands/Tus Brazos” (Linda Bair Dance Company), “Banksy's Children” (MeND Dance Theater Company), “What Is It About Memory?” (Jetta Martin), and an untitled work performed by the San Francisco State University Dancers, choreographed by Ray Tadio.  The breadth, diversity and quality of the work is something that all the choreographers (and this long-running festival) should be proud of.

I did have favorites among the group, the first being Linda Bair's “My Hands/Tus Brazos,” a modern piece that delved into the reality of a relationship, emphasizing the dramatic and less-happy interactions that we try so hard to hide.  We saw Bair and partner Jorge Luis Morejon (both seasoned performers) running around each other, forcing affection, and controlling movements and reactions.  Though the angst was predominant in the duet, there were also instances of tenderness, particularly a number of cantilevered, off-balance poses which could only be accomplished through communication and working together.

Another highlight was Ray Tadio's untitled work.  At first, this piece seemed abstract, though as it continued, I came to wonder whether Tadio was examining how one's physicality changes as others are present or absent in their space.  His experimentation with the number of dancers in each segment led to this question: solos versus partnered duets and solos juxtaposed with spatial duets.  It really seemed to be a comment on personal awareness.  All seven of these young performers were amazing, and it was so great to see compelling stage presence and strong technique from a variety of body types.  Having said that, the group does need to work a little more on the fluidity of their partnering lifts.  The women have the core strength to hold any position and the appropriate preparation to achieve height and ballon.  The men also have the muscular strength to support these complicated and intricate lifts.  The problem happens when the two meet -- the strength of both parties explodes a bit resulting in a 'splatty' lift.  They are almost there; they just need a little more pas de deux training to maintain their individual strengths, while allowing the lift to evolve organically and calmly.

Joe Goode's new work, “Deviations,” presented by the Department of Theater, Dance and Performance Studies at UC Berkeley, demonstrated the complexity of concept through text, scenework, and movement -- taking it from a static one-dimensional notion and placing it on an active spectrum, where it can range from problematic to hopeful.  To me, the word ‘deviation’ has a negative connotation; it implies that something has gone awry.  And, desired outcomes are permanently, and perhaps forever, compromised.   However, there can be an upside to deviation as well.  This one-act theatrical musing introduces seven characters, all on their own individual journeys of deviation, which for some provides positive changes in their lives, while for others leads to lack of focus, sorrow and heartache.  The seven personalities are framed by Annabelle, a storyteller and writer who narrates the action to some degree.  In doing so, “Deviations” raises issues of real time -- are these actual events or the results of Annabelle's imagination?  In this theatrical equation, not only is the idea of deviation appropriately fuzzy, but reality also becomes an undefined integer.  In ninety minutes, we learn that all these characters (real or imaginary), are experiencing upsides and downsides from their personal deviations -- deviating from their chosen course of action; deviating from their relationships; deviating from assumptions; deviating from their roles.

Accompanying movement unfolded alongside the text and dialogue, satirically and comically.  Goode designed the choreography to emphasize and highlight what was happening in the acting scenes, as opposed to the movement propelling the story forward on its own.  This may have been one of the reasons why the piece made so much sense.  The movement was truly embedded and entrenched in the dramatic action: reaching limbs supplemented scenes where the characters were searching; trying to capture and find something or someone.  One pas de deux mirrored a tumultuous, though naturalistic relationship -- the desire for companionship juxtaposed against wanting to escape and the need for solitude.  Still other dance segments cleverly spoke to some of the more farcical subject matter, including an incantation that explained metaphysics and a game show presentation of the perfect man.  This was interdisciplinary practice at its best.  I will say that “Deviations” was a little light on the movement -- the work was more play and less dance theater than I have come to expect from Joe Goode.  And, because the movement was so brilliantly integrated and an imperative addition to the action, it would have been nice to see a little more of it.

Some dance critics suffer from December dread because the dance stages become filled with traditional (and sometimes fluffy) holiday fare.  Well I, for one, cannot wait for the familiarity of Christmas Eve at The Stahlbaums.  To get my San Francisco/Bay Area holiday fix this season, I'll be checking out ODC’s “The Velveteen Rabbit” and three different “Nutcrackers”: San Francisco Ballet, The Joffrey Ballet (whose Artistic Director, Ashley Wheater is well-known to San Francisco audiences, having danced with SFB for many years), and Mark Foehringer Dance Project SF's modernized version at San Francisco's Children's Museum and Theater.  But, my December will not solely be filled with childlike wonder.  Another dance-based feature film will soon be released, and “Black Swan” promises to be a fantastic, suspenseful thriller.  Last but certainly not least, Sweet Can Productions will present an acrobatic wonderland at Dance Mission Theater, one of my favorite performance spaces.

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