Saturday, November 27, 2010

"Deviations", written and directed by Joe Goode

University of California, Berkeley
Presented by The Department of Theater, Dance and Performance Studies
Durham Studio Theater
November 21, 2010

I am both suspect and perhaps overly critical of interdisciplinary performance. 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. When the necessary time and energy is spent on the integration of elements, interdisciplinary work can be significant and telling. 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.

Joe Goode's recent work, “Deviations”, presented by the Department of Theater, Dance and Performance Studies at UC Berkeley, demonstrates 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 these characters (real or imaginary), Annabelle included, 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, comically and organically. 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 - moments of tenderness and 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.

Photo by Austin Forbord
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 great to see a little more of it.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Works in the Works 2010

Linda Bair Dance Company, Photo by Matthias Falk
Presented by Choreographers' Performance Alliance and 8th Street Studio, Berkeley, CA
November 20, 2010

In the past two years, I have really made an extra effort to see works-in-progress.  Whether in a rehearsal setting, in a previewed excerpt or at an informal showing, I have come to realize that these opportunities are invaluable.  Critics are with choreography for such a short duration - even if you see the same piece multiple times, the cast, staging or venue are likely to be different, thus, making the piece different too.  Being present for the process of dancemaking is such a different experience; an intimate gift that provides unique insight that the finished product alone may not. 

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.  My only critique of the work is that we were told prior to the dance what it was about and what the choreography was trying to say.  This wasn't really necessary; give the audience the chance to reach its own conclusions.  Another highlight (for me, at least) 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.

Abigail McNally's "H₁" had a very unique movement vocabulary, a joining of modern with hip-hop (popping, locking and accented isolations).  There were lots of bent elbows and extensions that purposely collapsed as the joints gave into flexion.  The first solo dancer had adapted well to this fusion style; the other three were well-versed in the modern aspects of the choreography, but the hip-hop was a little outside their comfort zone.  MeND Dance Theater Company's "Banksy's Children" blended many genres: contact improvisation and acrobatics under the auspice of dance theater.  Artistic Director Grace Alvarez's conceptual framework was very clear (childhood), though she was trying to answer too many questions all at once.  Perhaps each of her ideas should be the fodder for a series of single works.  Unfortunately, trying to say everything often leads to an unfocused result.  "What Is It About Memory?" by Jetta Martin was definitely the loveliest dance of the night.  Both women in this duet (Jetta Martin and Coral Martin) are beautiful dancers and accomplished performers (technically and artistically).  But, the choreography was a little predictable.  The best part of the piece was the opening image: the dancers facing upstage and simply rolling their shoulders.  That moment was special and it needed to be explored, but instead what followed was a number of 'ballet class' combinations.  Absolutely stunning but utterly safe.         

Seeing dance at different points of development helps build and foster the relationship with that work.  I hope I get the chance to see some of the "Works in the Works" pieces at another viewing in the future.

Monday, November 15, 2010

"ODD" - Axis Dance Company and inkBoat

photo by Michele Clement
photo by Pak Han
Malonga Casquelourd Center - Oakland, CA
November 12, 2010

"ODD", the recent collaboration between Axis Dance Company and inkBoat played to a packed house at Oakland's Malonga Theater last Friday night.  Obviously the result of intense examination and development, the entire work existed in a strange 'in between' place, serving up a main course of distortion with a side of integration.  The formal aspects of the piece really 'made' the dance: the unique take on interdisciplinary performance and the choreographic study of physicality.  Unfortunately, the overuse of distortion in "ODD" led to an entire hour and a half that stayed on one level.  The structural nuggets had such enormous potential but the finished product did not allow them to be fully realized.

Interdisciplinary performance works that combine the different contemporary arts are super trendy right now, and usually done poorly.  But, "ODD" 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 who transformed blank canvases and dancers who moved and spoke text.  The physical set-up also forced the audience to be responsible and culpable for what they were seeing.  The musicians were far stage right, the dancers mostly in the center and the painter downstage left.  We had to choose how to view the piece and determine what aspect drew the attention at any given moment.  I generally think that interdisciplinary projects tend toward 'too much', but this was incredibly cohesive and brilliantly orchestrated.                

The 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.  It is difficult to notice these tiny adjustments in yourself, but pausing television is an easy way to see what is really happening in the body's muscles as they move.  The bizarre facial expressions that you sometimes capture are examples of these fleeting moments.  Attention to the enunciation of the body 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.     

Though I clearly found Iova-Koga's concepts and choreography intriguing, everything 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, bourĂ©es 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).  This wasn't a Butoh performance, period.  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 losing its impact.  Instead of being challenging and unexpected, "ODD" became monotonous and a little boring.