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ODC House Special

'The Film:image/Word.not_a_pipe=,' 'LEVYdance,' Premiere by Erika Shuch

by Toba Singer

August 30, 2003 -- ODC Theater, San Francisco, CA

ODC/San Francisco is in the midst of a big expansion campaign to increase its services, studio space and the size and ambit of the ODC Theater. In the spirit of that campaign, it has launched a new program called "House Special," a showcase for promising choreographers. Brenda Way, ODC's founder, introduced the first of these programs by sharing ODC's rationale for deciding to open its arms to new talent outside of the ODC family.

Citing the bi-partisan attacks on arts funding by federal, state and local government, Way said that ODC hopes to utilize the "House Special" program to open its doors to the otherwise venueless among a new layer of "evolved and developed enough" choreographers and dancers. The evening's House Special's fare offered works by three young and not-quite-so-young choreographers: Yannis Adoniou, Benjamin Levy, and Erika Shuch.

The program opened with a collaborative work by choreographer and Kunst-Stoff Artistic Director, Yannis Adoniou, with dance filmmaker, Evann Siebens. The piece, "The Film:image/Word.not_a_pipe=" is an installation that gives the audience the rare opportunity to leave its seats in order to appreciate the work from all available angles. The motif careens -- from the pedestrian -- to the dourly philosophical. In one part of the installation, there is a Greek-chorus of veiled, semi-nude dancers, kneeling or standing in place in front of screened images of San Francisco traffic. The screened images are interflected with the dancers' spoken words and occasional, slight shifts within the space. A woman's voice among them recounts the day of a dancer in San Francisco as he/she makes his/her way to rehearsal (late) after attending a Greek wedding.

About five yards from them to the northwest stand three dancers at a microphone, reciting random words, while a bowler-topped man in black, carrying a black umbrella gives us a few steps of his own and the Magritte-inspired (or was it “Magrittomania”-inspired?) theme pushes tongue into cheek with the passing of apples from one male dancer to the next, by hand and mouth, with the appearance of the bowler man among the screened images. The words we hear are: "Every man has his folly; it is worse to have no folly at all. I'm sorting out my own brand of folly." Yes, indeedy.

The crenulated imagery is what works best in this piece. The lighting is what's worst, because even given the opportunity to circumnavigate, it is still difficult to really see much of anything. Somewhere in the middle is the verbiage, which in one instance is embarrassingly degraded by a nasal just-outside-Chicago accent, and in another, unpardonably bad French grammar: "These are not breasts" is translated as "Ce n'est pas seins."

This is a mannered piece, straining with 1990s Thermidor-type affectation. What the installation is not is readily affirmed by the contrasting elegance of the pieces that follow.

Next up is “LEVYdance.” Choreographer Benjamin Levy says a word or two about its origins. He explains how the company's process changed: He used to set a few steps on the dancers, explore the movement, reverse it or put a bit of this with a bit of that, and then Levy (who seems too young to have the words “used to” in his lexicon), decided to switch to the opposite way of working.

He asked his dancers to have a conversation in movement about the last time they needed to be held, when there was nobody there to do the holding. He asked who it was that wasn't there, and what the dancer would express with movement to that absent, but needed person. "We had been working from the outside in. With this change, we are now working from the inside out." Those are the kind of words that "process" maven, Anna Halprin, would celebrate—especially if she could see the very affecting result that issued from such a simple instruction.

The movement the dancers found, which Levy made into dances, is organic and profoundly truthful. In their simple, undulating, naturalist costumes, the dancers move like amoebas to a kind of depthfinder-sourced music, composed and performed by Matt Johnson. They fit together like pieces hot off a jigsaw. They are unlike the members of so many pickup companies. That is to say they look relatively happy, cared for, cared about, and on call for the long haul. While the dancers are astonishingly lithe, there is a noticeable weakness in technique which, mended, could refine the ensemble's collective line into something rather sublime. In this performance, they stopped just short of what ought to be the top of a full extension, and so when a leg comes down it does so just under the apex of its developpe, gravity winning out over deliberation. Levy and his company have a guileless style that is fresh and unaffected, and very welcome in a city where work that is very much the opposite gamely passes itself off as the coin of the realm.

It is easy to see why the likes of Brenda Way took to the likes of Erika Shuch. Shuch is way like Way. With an ensemble of 12 better or worse dancers, Shuch's eye is everywhere and beyond, and she pulls the very best out of each one. How? She tunes in to the versatility quotient present in every personality. She builds a path for it through improvisational work.

The piece opens with a thematic device of the dancers measuring their distances -- quite literally, with a tape measure -- as they would continue to do at various interludes in a series of vignettes. The first of these interludes features a two-woman duet, a same-sex send-up of the romantic song, “So in Love with You am I.” The dancers are accompanied by a smokin' live band including Pete Hiteman, Will Waghorn, Ruben Rodriguez, Dwayne Calizo, and among them, an uncredited vocalist, who under normal circumstances would easily have stolen the show. The female duet slithers, gapes and lip syncs its way through the gymnastics of sexual hubris, while the remaining cast runs amok onstage.

Another improv-cum-voice measures its dynamic, drawing the conclusion that "You are my negative projection," offering a simple take on the many seemingly inscrutable mysteries of human interactions and behaviors. As if to emphasize the folly of quantification, the tape measure is brought out again to measure what can't be measured. This work is rigorous, and falls apart only when "moments" go a bit long, but those can be edited. The women partners reprise their roles, this time to give us Labor and Delivery, where one woman gives birth to the other, who then tries to crawl back into the womb, laying waste (waist?) to a few Freudian shibboleths in her passage.

A very beautiful and comedic dancer delivers a monologue in Portuguese, arguing two sides of the same question until she's whipped herself into a froth of buffoonery. She is joined by a male dancer, in a deliberate “wrong” pairing, and through the anomalies that occur in normal human intercourse, they become tangled up in each other's clothes. Their effort to extricate themselves from this now-impossible "relationship" is raucously funny. The ensemble's finale to the downbeat-driven Beatles' "Oh, Darlin'" sends the house into a special frenzy.

Thanks to ODC for inviting this mostly new generation of dancers and choreographers, gifted with improvisational wit and perspective onto its stage. Other venues should feel duly challenged to follow suit.

Edited by Mary Ellen Hunt.

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