Sunday, September 27, 2015

Poetics of Space

Poetics of Space
presented by Z Space and Joe Goode Performance Group
Joe Goode Annex, San Francisco
September 26th, 2015

The last few times that I have been to a performance at the Joe Goode Annex, the place has been transformed. And, with Poetics of Space, Joe Goode’s newest full-length interdisciplinary composition, it has been transformed once again. This one was perhaps the most spellbinding conversion to date. With an intricate set of curtains, platforms and a catwalk (envisioned and created by collaborating scenic designer Sean Riley), the huge open room became a life-size dollhouse. In Poetics of Space, Joe Goode Performance Group revealed a meticulously devised collection of scenes, rooms and interactions, ranging from comforting to creepy.   

Poetics of Space was another example of the ‘mobile performance installation’ model, where the audience moves throughout the work. In this particular piece, that movement was partially guided. Sometimes the viewer was led from one space to another and sometimes they were left to make their own decisions, choosing what to watch or how long they might stay with any given vantage point. This seems to be the structure of the moment in contemporary performance art; very popular and very prevalent. That’s because if it is done well, it really works. And it worked here.

Goode began the piece from atop a metal scaffolding ladder - a preamble in which he contextualized the experience that would follow and introduced two narrative ideas. The height gave his speech an extra measure of authority. But Goode’s costume and makeup communicated something more. With tattered clothing, dark eyes and a ghostly white face, his character was definitely speaking to us from the beyond. Amidst this dark, foreboding and penetrating visual, first he challenged some general considerations about space – how do we inhabit space; what is space; what happens in various spaces. Then, Goode also explained that Poetics of Space would convey a tragic (and I’m assuming fictional) story of a young person named Logan. Both narrative themes drew you in. And though they were never at odds with each other, the through line connecting the two did prove elusive from time to time.

Pictured: Felipe Barrueto-Cabello and Marit Brook-Kothlow
Photo: RJ Muna
The entryway into the Annex was covered in leaves and vines; dancers (in futuristic costumes) emerging out of walls and doorways, like spirits. It was kind of A Midsummer Night’s Dream meets Studio 54. We then moved onto a text/choreographic duet that acquainted us with different parts of a single personality. A complex individual who was struggling for each part to be known and valued. We followed one of these characters into a tent vignette (we were inside a tent fort with her). Through an intuitive and intimate soliloquy, she questioned the self. How does one treat one’s self? How does the self reconcile appearance versus reality? We meet the other character, a boxer, in the next scene, a domestic living room. Through a boxing lesson and a gestural movement phrase, he tackled the notions of toughness, power and dominance. In these early sections, Poetics of Space established itself as a dance play – an interwoven story of tension and truth, combining movement, spoken word, vocals and ambience. It was about human existence, relationships and interactions, told through a literal and symbolic spatial framework. Making space for reactions; making space for sadness; making space for mistakes. A story of illumination.

As the curtains were drawn and the room opened up, the audience moved about more freely. Performers appeared on several levels/platforms and in different locations, reciting text. These recollections quickly morphed into a set of vignettes in the center of the main floor. Here we saw inner voices - some inviting, some soothing and some dramatic in a diva sort of a way. An ensemble choreographic sequence then emerged, full of release and suspension; balance and counterbalance; and movement that initiated from the xiphoid process.

One pitfall of any mobile performance is that the audience doesn’t really see the whole piece. Individual segments happen simultaneously in different locations, and you can’t watch them all at once. But in Poetics of Space, there was an awareness of ‘the other’, of what you couldn’t see. Goode and Riley smartly placed all of the action in a single large room. Yes, curtains sub-divided the space and there were specific designated regions. But you could hear the scenes that were outside your viewpoint. You could sense their significance and absorb their ambient contribution. And because of that, you didn’t walk away from Poetics of Space feeling like you had missed anything.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Fire of Freedom

Lenora Lee Dance
Fire of Freedom
Fort Mason General’s Residence, San Francisco
September 12th, 2015

Lenora Lee Dance’s Fire of Freedom opens with twelve simultaneous preludes. Upon arrival, each audience member was assigned to a group and right before the piece started, led to that group’s designated space in the General’s Residence. This was where they would view one of the twelve preludes, which would serve as the beginning of the dance for them. Once that introductory vignette had concluded, the instructions were to roam freely around the building, including the outside grounds. And so, every person would experience Fire of Freedom differently, each with a unique perspective of the world premiere work.

While I cannot speak to what others saw, here are some thoughts and observations based on my own journey through the space and through the dance.

A site-specific, mobile, mixed discipline project, Fire of Freedom was a tapestry of interwoven stories and chapters. They unfolded over the course of an hour, overlapping each other throughout the house. Scenes depicted assault and struggle; rage and aggression; battle and shock. But there was also desire for peace, for hope, for clarity, for rest. For her eighth anniversary season, Lee has crafted a robust narrative work. Fracture and fragmentation were Fire of Freedom’s primary themes, but there were also glimpses of repair and renewal.

My group began on the upper floor of the General’s Residence. Costumed in a long white gown, a woman sat at a dresser staring into a mirror. She then cycled through a frenetic choreographic phrase, a combination of whirling, spinning, crawling and writhing. She seemed alarmed and afraid. Perhaps of what awaited her in the next sequence downstairs. As the entire company (and the audience) gathered in the ballroom, a Rite of Spring type scene developed. The bride figure was thrust around the room from one person to another, with no personal agency and no control over her situation. She appeared to initially protest, but eventually submitted to her imposed circumstance.

Pictured: Lynn Huang and SanSan Kwan
Photo: Robbie Sweeny
Then, as the cast began to disperse and scatter into various locations, the audience followed suit. In one room, a dancer performed flowy, circular vocabulary while a video of a couple was projected on the screen behind her. Was this a juxtaposition of reality and fantasy? Did it represent two different points in time? Maybe both; maybe neither, but there was definitely a sense of fragmentation. A second video (this time of physical fighting) was shown on the outside of the building while a soloist clung to the handrail and stairs. It seemed as if she was desperately trying to ground herself amidst a chaotic fractured environment. In the final choreographic sequence, the company reassembled, in what appeared to be a moment of repair. Though I wouldn’t describe it as peaceful, the unison movement had a calm meditative intention that felt very aware and mindful.

What struck me most about Fire of Freedom was how Lee managed to embed the narrative into the installation’s structure. By not directing the audience to any particular dance or any specific place, the sense of fragmentation and fracture was heightened. So many different things were happening all at once and no one could predict what was going to occur, or when, or where. From time to time the audience looked almost disoriented, wandering around, not knowing where to go next or what to focus on. This is not a criticism; rather, it shows how carefully Lee wove the narrative into everyone’s experience, including the viewer’s. This is what happens when one is fractured – they are disoriented and don’t know what to do. So not only were we watching fragmentation, we were feeling it too.

But there was also a drawback to this free mobile structure. You end up getting caught up as the whole group tries to move together. Or you stumble onto choreographic segments as they are concluding. What I saw of the choreography was impressive, and the narrative was strong and powerful throughout. But without some form of guidance, I feel like I only viewed a small fraction of Fire of Freedom, and missed much of the dancing.

Monday, August 24, 2015

SHE WENT phase 4

SHE WENT phase 4
SAFEhouse Arts, San Francisco
August 22nd, 2015

Without exception, every RAW (Resident Artist Workshop) evening reminds me how important risk is to the performing arts. This definitely held true as SAFEhouse Arts showcased a triptych of experimental dance created and performed by women this past weekend. Featuring Alma Esperanza Cunningham’s hard-hitting, hypnotizing SHE WENT phase 4, guest artists Rosemary Hannon and Daria Kaufman joined the bill with their own stunning solos, Work in Progress and Product respectively.

With the audience’s seats arranged in a perimeter around a designated stage, Arletta Anderson, Keryn Breiterman-Loader and Caitlin Daly entered the space to open Cunningham’s SHE WENT phase 4. As the three began an initial series of poses with a sense of neutrality, even disengagement, a note of egalitarianism was also present. The trio was placed among the audience. Two dancers then ventured into the center stage space and started yelling at each other over and over again. Certainly startling at first, the repetition also had that dance theater property of anesthetizing as the vocalization went on. Repetition like this, used as a performative, revelatory tool, would be an ongoing theme.
SHE WENT phase 4
There is no doubt that Cunningham has created a narratively charged contemporary work with SHE WENT phase 4, though for me, it was the structural properties and formal composition that captivated. Cunningham constantly played with the duet versus solo arrangement in the dance, while the expression of ‘threes’ was deeply rooted in the choreographic sequences (triplets, pas de boure├ęs). The egalitarianism that had been established at the outset continued, demystifying the relationship between performer and audience and challenging comfort levels. One dancer hit various positions (long arabesque, front attitude) very close to audience members, while another brushed a few viewers with her hair. The spatial awareness demonstrated by all three performers was also striking. Throughout SHE WENT phase 4, they traveled blindly (and quickly) backwards in space, often very close to one another and never once collided.

Costumed in a full-length sparkly gown, Hannon took the stage in Work in Progress. Pedestrian movement informed this intense, but short solo, with continual changes in direction, dynamics and level. After a few minutes, Hannon shed her dress and danced the rest of the piece in a simple black two-piece: boy shorts and camisole. That visual shift ushered a similar shift in narrative; deconstruction revealing true essence. How does it feel to lie on the floor? How does your body react when you move quickly and then suddenly slow down? How does the leg circle in the hip socket? Work in Progress was pure, unencumbered movement.

Kaufman’s Product was an evocative and wonderfully clever performance piece. She began by sitting on a chair and cycling through a gestural phrase of ‘situating’: fixing her dress, tailoring her attitude and experimenting with her facial expression. This kind of adjusting and adjustments continued as Kaufman rose from the chair and proceeded to read an instructive script aloud. A combination physical and verbal monologue, Product was a purposely-exaggerated sales pitch inserted into a performance platform. This was a highly successful experiment with a number of probing questions arising. What should be? What are you supposed to want? What is the correct way? How can you accomplish a particular task? Where does individual decision-making come in?