Monday, October 06, 2014

"Paul C.'s Homeroom Journal"

Dance Up Close/East Bay presents
Stranger Lover Dreamer in
“Paul C.’s Homeroom Journal”
Photo: Matthew Kertesz
Shawl-Anderson Dance Center, Berkeley
October 5th, 2014

A recent conversation with a wonderful San Francisco choreographer has me thinking about viewership. How do we see dance? What do we look for? What moves us in performance? Are we more interested in conceptual themes or in form, structure and functionality? I tend towards content – I like to try and figure out what a piece is about and look for narrative implications in the movement. It’s not that I don’t recognize structure, but it doesn’t speak to me in the same way that story does. So I decided to do an experiment – begin by approaching a piece from a formal perspective, and see where it leads. What I learned is when you look at the structure, form and function of a contemporary performance work, a host of discoveries abound, even a few narrative revelations.

“Paul C.’s Homeroom Journal”, a new ensemble work by Stranger Lover Dreamer, takes its audience on a journey back to the odd, glorious microcosm that is high school. Inspired by a found, anonymous journal (the author is simply referred to as Paul C.), this contemporary dance collective (led by Andrew Merrell, Elizebeth Randall and Shaunna Vella) has crafted an evening-length, site-specific, mobile work that is incredibly entertaining, with a perfect mix of depth and humor.

The first triumph of this piece is in its setting - Shawl-Anderson Dance Center had truly been transformed. The lobby became a high school hallway on the first day of a new school year. The cast mingled with the audience; the Principal was keeping order; music was playing; photos were happening. Following the homeroom introduction, the audience was divided and led through multiple different spaces – my group’s schedule was homeroom, gym class, art and then finally assembly. Each individual studio was thoughtfully and appropriately outfitted with posters, trophies, school supplies and in the main room, an old-school overhead projector. To kick things off, we were each given our own journal, and an assignment from the Principal. Consider three questions and jot down thoughts, comments and responses: who do we think we are; how do others perceive us and who do we want to become. The setting was nothing short of perfection.

Onto structure, form and functionality. “Paul C.’s Homeroom Journal” was like a living diary; a collection of vignettes and dances. Each was introduced with a date and a short verbal statement (from Paul C.’s journal), and they occurred in random, rather than chronological, order. In the first homeroom sequence, the overhead projector worked in concert with sculpted choreographic shapes. Dancers would create and hold a posture, which would then be traced on the overhead projector. Functionally, it brought active projection and real-time movement together as collaborating theatrical elements. But it also revealed some content, specifically the space between perception and reality. Other dances functioned to introduce and celebrate different personalities and idiosyncrasies. In gym class, one trio focused on individual interpretation and internal reflection through gestural movements. The ‘yes I do like snow because it is awesome’ ensemble dance was another ode to individualism. Every hand gesture was unique; the cast was reacting to this phrase in distinct ways – both verbally and physically. And how it revved up into a crazy tornado, perhaps like a snow blizzard, was delightful. Still other choreographic sequences functioned as more literal interpretations of the journal entries. In art class, the ‘we’re writing…’ scene saw arms and legs writing in the space; in the air, on the floor, quickly, expansively. From a functional perspective, there was such range and diversity, and that made every moment in “Paul C.’s Homeroom Journal” wonderfully unpredictable.

By far, my favorite choreographic segment was Randall’s ‘Under my bed is a trundle…’. One soloist cycled through the technically demanding choreography; levels constantly changing, evolving from one state to another. The cast was scattered around the space, standing still, clutching pillows. Choreographically and visually, it was a very moving experience.

Contemporary dance performance is important, but I don’t know how often it is also fun. Stranger Lover Dreamer’s “Paul C.’s Homeroom Journal” is both. The show runs for another weekend at Shawl-Anderson Dance Center in Berkeley – go see it.

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