Monday, October 23, 2006

The Live Billboard Project-San Francisco

Dancers are brave people. It takes trust, guts, and courage to jump towards someone and believe that they are going to catch you. It takes an inner confidence and strength to know that you can balance seven feet in the air while sitting on the palm of someone else’s hand. Dance is about so many things-talent, ability, technique, and creativity. But, it is also about expectation, reliance, and dependence. As a dancer, you expect that your body will cooperate and do the things that you need it to do. You rely and depend on your peers, your advisors, and your partners to support you both physically, emotionally and artistically. This is the nature of dance and choreography-you become used to putting your safety, your body, and your soul in someone else’s hands. And, the reward for doing so is usually worth the sacrifice.

Jo Kreiter’s Flyaway Productions takes this idea of daring nerve and gallantry to an entirely different level. Their recent outdoor performance, The Live Billboard Project, took place on the side of a building at the corner of 24th and Mission in San Francisco. Harnessed and rigged from above, a trio of dancers propelled down the wall, attached themselves to hanging frames, and an additional soloist balanced herself at and on the edge of the roof, all while dancing. This aerial feat was masterful for two reasons. Firstly, even with the mechanics, complexity, and limitations of the overall concept, Kreiter’s choreography was successful in examining her chosen narrative: the nature of media and the feminine form. This achievement is particularly noteworthy because she managed to convey her message without a conventional performance space. Some of the other modern dance choreographers in this city have difficulty attaining that goal even when they have both a stage and a floor at their disposal.

I have to admit, when I read the director’s note in the program, which stated the impetus for her piece, my first thought was, here we go again. Another modern dance work focusing on the degradation of the female body in the media. This theme has become to modern dance what tortured love stories are to ballet. Over and over again, choreographers search for a new way to scrutinize this which appears to offend them so deeply. But, I should remember in the future that sometimes my first reaction is hasty and may cause me to view performance with a pre-conceived (and sometimes incorrect) notion. As I watched the piece, it became clear that Kreiter’s investigation of this concept was different-it was for lack of a better word, balanced (no pun intended). Many find the portrayal of women in popular culture to be demeaning and offensive, but even with this opinion also comes an strange appeal to and fascination with what is being portrayed. Whether this is good or bad is really up to the individual to judge, but it is important to realize that both thoughts often do exist. In the choreography, Kreiter managed to illustrate that this idea of women and the media is often a pull in two opposing directions. The trio section of the piece included images of being hung and being trapped with movements that were contracted, uncomfortable, and strained. At the same time, she also incorporated choreography for those same three dancers that was freeing so that it really looked like the trio were joyously flying through space. The solo that was danced at the edge of the roof also was indicative of this duality. One minute, it seemed as though the soloist was fighting an inner battle against her constraints towards her need for freedom. She would attempt to break away from what was restricting her by almost flinging herself over the edge of the building with an extension of her leg, her arm or occasionally a lay-out of her entire body. Then, at other times, the choreography evoked a feeling of calmness and a grateful serenity through small, flowing movements. With these, the audience could see her appreciation for what was keeping her attached to the roof and preventing her from falling over the edge. This illustration of duality is extremely important. Societal issues aren’t one-sided and a realistic portrayal of both views is what made the piece so powerful, convincing, and cohesive.

Secondly, and more obviously, the piece was an amazing spectacle to see. Dancers were actually doing choreography in the air. They hit key positions at the same time; they moved in unison; they extended; they contracted; they performed. And, they manage to accomplish it all without the standard support of a floor. It was an astonishing demonstration. How often can you walk down a street and see a rehearsed, choreographed and produced art-piece? On that night, on that corner, art was accessible to anyone who wished to see it. Yes, some of the audience had come to the Mission district specifically to see that performance. But, others just happened upon it-they were walking down the street, on their way to whatever they had planned for the evening. Some stopped and watched, others just glanced as they passed by. I have often heard the phrase, ‘art imitates life’. I think the message, the concept, and the fabrication of The Live Billboard Project was less on the subject of ‘art imitating life’ and more about art being a part of life.

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