December 21, 2008

DELINQUENT MUSINGS, a little about me

While working on Delinquent, a collaborative performance-confrontation with the juvenile justice system, I was asked to write a personal essay about becoming an artist.
Fall 2008

At the age of 40 I wrote my first honest artist statement. “I am a political animal. My primary sense seems to be an attention to power, equality, justice, betrayal, cooperation, and consensus. I am passionate about the choreographies of protest and dissent, of uprising and resistance.”

Justice was a big issue in our house. We called it fairness. Fairness meant that all six kids got the same rules, resources, and treatment. Except that we didn’t. The rules of fairness were trumped by the hierarchies of both age and gender. From my perspective as child number five, and son number three, I developed an acute eye for equality, power, and its abuses.

I have rarely fit the images or behaviors that were expected of me. I have either felt limited or alienated. I almost consider this to be my natural state, either feeling constrained by external pressures or rejected entirely and living outside the walls. I’ve been ambivalently masculine since before I knew the word masculine. I felt drawn to dance and artistic expression long before I understood how foreign that was to my father, and to the majority of people in my hometown, especially as a profession.

I’m looking at a school photo from the mid-70’s. My bangs are overgrown. I’m wearing a red sweater. Underneath is a white, button-up shirt, with the large collars extending over the sweater’s neck. Around my neck, tucked between the collars and into the sweater, is an ascot made from a blue bandana, my attempt at dissident fashion. When all the other guys wore t-shirts and jeans I would wear a white shirt with tie or an improvised ascot and carry my books in a black brief case. A precocious queer with no actual identity yet to claim, neither aesthetic nor sexual. Not yet.

In our house we didn’t cry very often. The most common form of punishment was a thin bread board slapped hard onto our outstretched hands. Ten times. Five hits per hand. If we cried we were threatened with double the number of hits. Same threat if we retracted our hand. Mostly we did not express emotions around adults. And mostly they did not express emotions around us. Anger was the exception to the rule. The cultures of children and adults were pretty firmly divided, and our parents were infamous in our neighbourhood for being stricter than others.

It was all very Catholic and old school. Punishments included standing or kneeling in a corner, missing dinner, breadboard to the hands (mom), and in severe cases a belt to the bum (dad). Until Grade 8 we all went to Catholic school (which was public) where the nuns had similar standards and practices. Their corporal punishment including a short leather strap to the hands. A similar threat of further strapping if we pulled back our hand to avoid the hit. Excellent unintentional training to not respond to fear. None of this was very frequent because the threat of corporal punishment was enough to keep us “good” within eye and ear range of adults. It also helped us to develop a kind of subversive youth solidarity, which included elaborate lying, protecting each other, and giving misleading information. I don’t recall ever confessing these lies or subversions.

When upset I tended to disappear. My surface remained calm regardless of turbulence or confusion. I spent a lot of time alone, reading. And I spent a lot of time out of the house. After school projects, sports, drama, dancing, there was always a reason to not come home. Basically I separated emotionally from my parents before Grade 8. I didn’t ever speak to them about my feelings or thoughts, wishes or fears. I didn’t really have honest conversation with them until my late 20’s and even then there was always withheld information, skirting of issues and, when possible, avoiding conflict. Nonetheless there were plenty of arguments, willful attempts at independence, and tense battles for power. By my late teens these battles included political debate, an area where passion was expected but not encouraged.

By the age of 12, I was an accomplished shoplifter. Once with a few older boys that included my brother Neil, son number two, I won a contest to see who could steal the biggest object from a hardware store. I think I coiled a six-foot length of bicycle brake cable and hid it under my jacket. I was already identified as a performer and was praised for being able to lie under pressure. We called it acting. Neil couldn’t do it. He always felt guilty and thought that he would get caught no matter what. He said his face gave him away.

On the way home from elementary school we took a path through a small forest that linked two neighbourhoods. Neil and I, with John who lived next door, would light small fires and then stomp them out. Once the fire grew too fast, and we burned down an acre of grass and trees. From a distance some people saw us running from the fire. When the police arrived at our house, Neil and I agreed that he should hide in the basement and I should speak to the police. With my mom standing behind me, sternly demanding my obedience, I told them that indeed we had been at the fire, but only to try to put that darn fire out, and that we gave up only after our school books had been lost to the flames.

Somewhere around that time, I was caught shoplifting. While babysitting Bruce, brother number four, age six, I stole a few books for him from Woolworth’s. I really wanted him to enjoy reading as much as I. When we got home my mom asked him where he got the books. He innocently replied and the next thing I knew we were in the car driving back to Woolworth’s. My mom handed me off to the manager who took me to the back of the store near the freight elevator. It was an unfamiliar and scary location. He told me that I was lucky to have such good parents, and that he had the right to take me to the police where I would have to spend time in jail. Something in his mask cracked, and I knew he was bluffing, trying to scare me. The authority that he and my mom represented suddenly seemed fake and manipulative, a power that existed only to justify itself.

Twelve years later I was still drawing inspiration from that experience. In handcuffs in the Berkeley jail, I stared down a cop as he yelled and threatened me. The more intense he became the more I knew that he was simply frustrated and had no real power over me. I was scared, in uncertain territory, being threatened with both violence and prison, and yet the whole scenario seemed like an exposé of power and its abuse. What the cop didn’t know was that I was an illegal alien using a false name. He also didn’t know that I was studying his performance and responding with a manipulation of my own. A few hours later, after he had sent my friends home, he dropped my charge from felony to misdemeanor. I was able to lie to a bail bondsman about both my name and where I worked and I got out. A number of years later I got a green card (now that was a performance!) and have been arrested several times since. Now it’s more of a civic duty than an anti-authoritarian thrill, as much a result of an early Jesuit influence as a later anarchist affinity.

We grew up politely Irish and Catholic in a mining town in Northern Ontario. As far as I knew, gay people did not exist. That included me. Decades after I left, my hometown still struggles with the closet. AIDS deaths were not publicly acknowledged until nearly 10 years into the epidemic and the first gay pride picnic occurred in 2000. In our family it wasn’t just queer sexuality that was ignored. No one talked about sex, let alone intimacy or love. There were no jokes, no acknowledgement, no questions, no shaming. My sexual life was an inarticulate interior experience with no public outlet. I remember practicing making out with girls on van rides to diving competitions when I was 13 or 14. We were serious athletes who trained every day. Why not practice kissing? Somehow we worked together to keep the driver, our coach, from ever seeing or knowing what was going on. Another case of solidarity, subversion, and secret.

I was called a fag on a regular basis for the entirety of high school. Often I ignored the comment. But sometimes, and especially if there was an audience, I would retort with some smart remark like, you’re just angry because I came in your hair last night. Then I would run. I don't think most guys who tried to hurt me with this label actually thought that I would grow up to love having sex with men. To be a fag was to be cursed as weak and unimportant. It took years to realize that my avoidance of gay community was caught up with a resistance to the negative traits that homophobic society projected onto us. I didn’t identify with the abject outcast that others called gay. A few weeks ago some young Latino guys in my neighborhood yelled faggot as I rode by on my bicycle. It must have been my silly pants. Too colorful, too gay. They weren’t expecting a response. I yelled back calling them cowards, sexually ashamed cowards.

In high school I was often in trouble. Fortunately I was also a good student and active in student affairs. Unfortunately I didn’t want to be there. I hung out with a small crew of alienated geeks and freaks. Visibly fat, invisibly queer, too smart or just too sensitive to assimilate into any of the other cliques, we ate lunch on the stairs. Despite, or maybe because of, our social disenfranchisement we felt entitled to confront authority at whim. I remember a ridiculous power struggle with a particular math teacher. After an argument I walked out of his class and then ran as fast as I could to the office. I tried to report him for delinquent teaching before he could report me for disruptive behaviour. I claimed that his teaching, or lack of it, did not justify our obligation to be in school. Thirty years later, in grad school, I refused to take a compulsory class and wrote a sharp letter detailing the inadequacies of a professor coasting on her tenure. She no longer teaches that class.

A sexual attraction to boys and men wasn’t the only unacknowledged latency in my life before leaving home. I danced all the time and never realized that I was a dancer. I remember two albums belonging to older siblings: the theatrical sound track to Jesus Christ Superstar, and Sly & The Family Stone’s Greatest Hits. I played them so often that I can still recall most songs in detail. I danced to Sly and sang along with JC Superstar and somehow no one noticed. In late high school I danced several days a week, at the bottom of ‘our’ stairs, with the girl I referred to as my dance partner. Marie-Hélène was French, from France, and therefore sophisticated and worldly. We entered numerous dance contests, both jitterbug and disco. We were underage, but I was the only one who couldn’t hide it so we would practice in the parking lot outside of a bar and then enter just before the contest began. Our little gang would try to hide me from bartenders and servers and somehow I never got thrown out. I danced with Marie-Hélène for three years. I barely mentioned it at home, and no one in my family every saw me dance. I lied about going to bars and couldn’t tell my parents about the contests, which we occasionally won. When I left the house I usually had my club clothes in a bag and would change in the car. My parents and I would sometimes argue about being out late. If I lost the argument, I had to crawl out of my bedroom window and meet my friends a block away. My first trip to New York was a disco dance contest prize that we won the year after high school. I saved the prize until I went to college and then went to NY without telling anyone. Dancing was underground activity, both disobedient and unconscious.

My current performance project is called Delinquent. I describe the work as a poetic intervention of juvenile justice, crime and punishment. I’m directing a diverse team of young artists aged 16-24: poets, dancers, circus artists. Some of the cast have been incarcerated and several of them have parents who have been in jail or prison. One of them hangs out and sells drugs a couple blocks from my house. It is likely that he is friends with the guys who called me faggot. We collect stories, make lists, watch West Side Story, and choreograph images with eight-foot high walls. I intend to stage not just their stories, but more importantly their struggle to speak.

I’m charmed to see so many parallels between my life as a kid and my career as a dissident artist. Confronting fear is a strategy in all of my artistic work, whether it’s embodying risk and trust or speaking the kind of truth that makes one sweat and lose breath. I still aim to unmask authority, including my own. I want things to be fair.


By Keith Hennessy
Winter Solstice, 2008

I’m middle-aged, white, male and gay. I tend towards long-term, mostly monogamous relationships that leave a little room for occasional, unashamed sex with others. My last gay partnership lasted nearly 7 years, involved sharing a bed in a fabulous apartment we renovated together, and we twice lined up to get married during Gavin Newsom’s renegade Valentine’s campaign. I’m also a legal, non-denominational priest who has married several couples, straight and gay. I love weddings and I think that everyone who wants one ought to have one. I don’t think that the state or government or any church should stand in the way of any 2 (or more) people who choose to celebrate a loving commitment. Love and blessing and community need each other.

Like many people I am a fan of equal rights for all couples yet think that the battle for gay marriage should be fought in whichever religious institutions one wants to be married in. (1) There is no stopping any couple from inviting their friends and families to their wedding. If you want to get married, get married. Andrew Sullivan writes, “My own marriage exists and is real without the approval of others.” (2) There are many churches, parks, mountaintops, country clubs, backyards, dance studios, temples, dojos, street corners and rented halls where your marriage would be very welcome. If you can get your family, friends and co-workers to come to your wedding, the healing of queer wounds will happen faster than by any court-ordered mandate. If you can’t, then it’s tough to imagine that the pains of being queer and abject will be abated. Either way, the struggle for justice will continue. And for many of us, this struggle is easier when our families recognize and celebrate our loving.

When I think of the fight for gay marriage I think:
• wasted money
• misdirected passion and effort
• a small clique known as the gay leadership
• reactionary assimilation
• a lack of awareness and/or strategy
• oh how much I miss the pre-Clinton days of ACTUP, Queer Nation, Lesbian Avengers...

Proposition 8, funded mostly by Christian and Mormon political conservatives, attempted to outlaw gay marriage by limiting the legal definition of marriage to include only marriage between a man and a woman. The electoral battle was one of the most expensive in US history; in 2008 it was exceeded in spending only by the presidential contest. Imagine if the pro-gay marriage forces had spent $27 of their $37 million supporting queer resource and drop-in centers throughout central California, and opening storefront LGBTQ centers in places where they don’t already exist, and then spent another $10 million investing in a better future through a fund for LGBTQ artists, scholars, and organizers. Or imagine if the $35 million was spent only on securing equal rights for gay and lesbian couples nationwide.

In California the difference between marriage rights and domestic partnership rights are legally insignificant for most couples. Did over $70 million dollars just get spent fighting over a word? It sometimes seems that way. Immigration rights, which are federal, would be denied California gay couples regardless of state laws. This injustice is rarely mentioned in gay marriage campaigns and needs to be addressed at all levels of struggle for equal rights.

When Prop 8 won, there were immediate protests throughout California, then throughout the US, with additional protests internationally. Mostly I was embarrassed that no one, especially those motivated to take the streets for social justice, protested the failure of Proposition 5, which would have reduced jail terms and increased treatment options for non-violent drug offenders. Signs referencing Prop 2, which called for increased cage space for farm animals, read, “Chickens 1, Gays 0” and “Chickens have more rights than me.” Yes it’s true that more people voted for chickens to have more room in their cages than for gays and lesbians to have the right to marry. But it’s even more tragic and ironic that more people voted for chickens to have more room in their cages than for PEOPLE to have more room in their cages.

California has the biggest prison industrial complex in the world. A growing cancer that eats up more people and resources every year. Think about this: Prop 5 could have made a huge impact on the men and women in jail for non-violent drug offenses by decreasing punative jail time, depopulating the racist prisons, exposing the failures of the war on drugs, re-uniting people with families and communities while increasing their chance of survival and success by increasing their treatment options. Are the supporters of gay marriage who filled the streets after Prop 8’s win out of touch with the political issues facing California prisoners and the communities they come from. Sadly, yes, drastically out of touch. So when too many gay people jumped to blame Black and Latino voters in the wake of Prop 8’s win, that out-of-touch-ness was ignorantly flaunted.

I can’t conclude this better than Bob Ostertag, so here’s the intro to his recent piece:

It's just plain sad what the gay and lesbian movement has come to. November 4 was so extraordinary, so magical. The whole world seemed to come together. Except for gays and lesbians in California. We were supposed to feel crushed over Proposition 8. And now the whole scenario is gearing up to repeat itself on January 20: the whole world will celebrate the inauguration of the first black American president and the end of the George Bush insanity - the whole world except gays and lesbians who will be protesting Rick Warren's presence at the inaugural.

How is it that queers became the odd ones out at such a momentous turning point in history? By pushing an agenda of stupid issues like gay marriage.

"Gay marriage" turns the real issues of equal rights for sexual minorities upside down and paints us into a reactionary little corner of our own making. (3)

1.Bob Ostertag, Why Gay Marriage is The Wrong Issue, Dec 21 2008, The Huffington Post
PACS, pacte civile de solidarité, Wikipedia

2. Andrew Sullivan, The Atlantic, The Daily Dish, Nov 5 2008,

3. Ostertag, ibid 2008.

October 31, 2008

Tracing the Roots of Contact Improvisation in the Bay Area 1972-1982

Contact Improvisation defies any specific definition or historical analysis. The dancer most often credited for CI’s development is ambivalent about his role and some of CI’s early participants have divergent stories about the development of the work. Following improvisational process and the intelligence of the dance itself, early practitioners resisted a suggestion to codify the form and certify the teachers. Telling a Bay Area history is further complicated by an attempt to counter-balance historical favoring of NY artists and histories. And most histories are reduced to narratives of single male heroes, dismissing or minimizing the significant contributions of women and collectives.

In Sharing the Dance: Contact Improvisation and American Culture, Cynthia Novack tracks CI’s roots to a variety of sources including: 1950’s and 60’s popular dance cultures, NY and SF avant garde dance-performance-theatre scenes, social movements for gender and sex liberation, somatics and new body therapies, and the influence of Japanese and Chinese martial arts forms, specifically aikido and tai chi.

Before CI’s unofficial naming in 1972 there were many experiments, exercises, performances and scores that engaged a new kind of touch and weight exchange; more engaged with gravity and less dependent on gender. Key American artists and events included Anna Halprin, Yvonne Rainer, Carolee Schneeman, The Living Theatre, The Performance Group, Trisha Brown and Steve Paxton’s Lightfall, Nita Little’s Crawling Under/Over score, Simone Forti’s Huddle, Mary Fulkerson’s Anatomical Release, Robert Ellis Dunn’s composition class at the Cunningham studio and many more.

Brown, Rainer, Forti and many others who were central to dance’s evolution in the 60’s and 70’s spent time in the Bay Area working with Anna Halprin. A dance pioneer who moved to Marin County in the 50’s with her husband Lawrence Halprin, Anna merged influences as divergent as the Beats, Fluxus, Civil Rights, human anatomy, child developmental movement, landscape design, experimental film, physical comedy, and a deep commitment to being in and listening to nature. Until recently Halprin’s role in contemporary dance history has been under-reported. A major museum exhibit produced in France (presented in SF at Yerba Buena, 2008) and a wonderful new book, Anna Halprin: Experience as Dance, by Janice Ross recognize Halprin’s seminal contributions.

Contact Improv’s birth is most often attributed to a series of experiments in 1972-73 instigated by Steve Paxton. Paxton had been researching, teaching and performing new approaches to dance (and life) with Merce Cunningham/John Cage, Judson Church Dance Theatre (1961-64), and Grand Union (1970-76). The Judson performances, by an evolving collective that included over 40 artists, are recognized by many as a key ‘moment’ in the evolution and rupture called post-modern dance.

Paxton staged two pioneering events in 1972. Magnesium, a project created during a Grand Union residency at Oberlin College in January 1972. The performance involved Paxton and eleven male students on a large wrestling mat in a near wild series of falls, leaps and collisions followed by Paxton’s signature ‘stand’ or ‘small dance’. The small dance is the micro movement of the body’s balancing, adjusting, sensing and responding to gravity. The whole piece, documented on video by Steve Christiansen, lasted just over ten minutes. Local choreographer and dance advocate Brenda Way was working at Oberlin during this era and played a key role in nurturing early CI experiments.

Six months later there was a five-day performance installation, or open process performance, at the John Weber Gallery in New York. With a $2000 grant Steve invited 12-15 students and colleagues he’d met while teaching at Oberlin, Bennington, and Rochester to live and work together for two weeks. The performances, lasting five hours daily, were presented more as a visual art event-happening-installation rather than as a dance concert. Audiences were small, coming and going at their own pace. Christiansen videotaped daily providing immediate feedback to the impromptu company. In the video Chute, a ten-minute montage of clips from Weber, we can recognize the falling, spiraling, yielding and flying of two bodies that has become a transnational language called Contact Improvisation.

At the center of the experiment called Contact Improvisation is a (utopian?) proposal for democratic social relations reduced to its simplest form: an improvised encounter between two people. Referring to the usual choreographic process as a dictatorship of teachers and choreographers creating watered-down versions of themselves, Paxton attempted a less authoritarian form of leadership based on suggestion, invitation, improvisation, and collaboration (Novack, p. 54). CI reflects the counter-cultural context from which it emerged. Feminist and youth resistance to hierarchy and tradition responded to a harsh realization of the injustices of American ‘democracy’. Challenges to consumerism and capitalist recuperation of culture led some people to an anti-private property lifestyle, inspiring artists to make art beyond product or object. Live, immediate, collaborative encounters were prioritized: the Happening, the Action, the Collective. By 1972, the Vietnam War was ending in disaster. Nearly 60,000 Americans and over two million Vietnamese were dead (Numbers are contested, no official Viet count). The leadership of the Black Panthers had been mostly killed by police or were in prison for life. Four white students had been shot at Kent State and millions had heard of vibrant queer resistance to a police raid at the Stonewall Inn, a NY gay bar. Paxton, reflecting back on the era and considering CI’s development in Argentina and Israel during political crises in the 1990’s, suggests that CI might be a shock absorber for social trauma.

Soon after the John Weber shows, three of the dancers, Nita Little, Curt Siddall and Nancy Stark Smith, moved to the Bay Area. Home to the country’s most influential counter-culture, the Bay Area featured a vibrant experimental performance scene that included historically significant artists such as The SF Mime Troupe, Anna Halprin and the psychedelic drag family The Cockettes.

Theresa Dickenson moved to the Bay Area in 1969 after five years of dancing with Twyla Tharp and encounters with The Grand Union. Eager to work both collectively and experimentally she performed with the women’s collectives Freefly and Motion and co-founded Tumbleweed in 1973. Initially a vehicle for Dickenson’s choreography, the group became a collective in which all members created dances often using CI in both choreographic research and improvised performances. Consuelo Faust and Rhodessa Jones were among the dozen or so members. Dickenson recalled that, “Working collectively, intimately, and improvisationally turned out to be good preparation for Contact when it showed up.”

Contact Improv was first seen and practiced in the Bay Area in February 1973. Jani Novak, who had been a buddy of Dickenson’s at the Cunningham studio in NY, organized a series called “People Are Dancing” which included choreographed and improvisational work as well as jams. Dickenson notes that it was common for the audience to dance after or even during the show. In February the series hosted Steve Paxton and the Oberlin/Weber dancers who were touring the West Coast with a show called You Come We’ll Show You What We Do. The group included Paxton, Nita Little, Karen Radler, Nancy Stark Smith, and Curt Siddall. The performances and subsequent jams were presented at both the Natural Dance Studio (owned by Nina Wise and Susan Jackson) in Oakland and at the Firehouse Theatre (now the Lumiere) in San Francisco.

Little taught CI at the Natural Dance Studio in September of 1974, which was, to her knowledge, the first official on-going CI class in California. She remembers the studio hosting a number of events in the mid-70’s including a CI Dance Marathon. She, Smith and others organized a Contact Symposium in 1975 to discuss issues. Meanwhile they were still getting together with Steve Paxton and others to tour CI under the name (and variations) of ReUnion. Smith printed a couple Contact newsletters while living in Marin County and in 1975 the newsletter evolved to become Contact Quarterly. Based in Northampton MA, the biannual CQ continues to be a living archive for developments in the forms, communities, evolutions and reverberations of contact improv.

In 1976 two pioneering men’s collectives gave their first performances in San Francisco, The Gay Men’s Theatre Collective and Mangrove. The GMTC, influenced by feminist process and politics, created Crimes Against Nature, a dance-theatre hybrid fantasia of coming out stories, radical critique and queer visioning. Mangrove improvised performances that included spoken text and physical comedy as well as the intimate and playful touch and weight that was common to CI. After meeting at local jams, five men - Curt Siddall, Jim Tyler, John LeFan, Aaron Hemmen and Byron Brown - performed at five different venues around the Bay Area. They charged $2 a show. Prioritizing performance improvisations Mangrove became one of the most visible CI ensembles through local, national and international tours.

I asked Mangrove dancer Byron Brown about favorite moments that seem to define the time. He mentioned several, including: “Jani Novak doing Boko Maru evenings at a warehouse in SOMA where you were blindfolded, brought upstairs in a freight elevator, ushered into a large space with classical music, had your shoes removed and had warm oil poured over your feet before you could see anything.” Mangrove collaborated with Tumbleweed (men and women’s collectives together) and with Ed Mock, a Black jazz dancer and virtuoso improviser. Brown also recounted a Mangrove performance at Terry Sendgraff’s annual birthday event in which they wore paper suits that tore until the men were naked.

Brown remembers, “There was an amazing alternative dance/theatre community in the 70's. It was alive and fluid with people collaborating in different ways as well as watching, visiting and supporting each other. There were many venues in the form of small and midsize studios where it was easy to work and perform and publicity was fairly easy and audiences were interested.”

Sara Shelton Mann, a protégé of Murray Louis and Alwin Nikolai, first danced Contact with Peter Bingham and Andrew Harwood in Canada. Illustrating the migratory lineage that makes dance history, Little reminded me that she was Harwood’s first CI teacher in the mid-70’s in Vancouver. Mann founded Contraband in 1979 and moved to the Bay Area soon after. Mangrove dissolved into a non-profit called Mixed Bag Productions which produced a series of seminal projects and eventually was transformed into the administrative home-base for Mann’s Contraband, a company that integrated CI in research and teaching, and became a leading proponent of contact improvisation in contemporary performance.

I asked Ernie Adams, who toured with Mangrove to Europe in 1980, how he would describe the Bay Area dance/performance scene during the 70's? Adams responded, “Experimental, collaborative, collective, youth oriented, sensual, sexual, artistically and spiritually driven, a quest for self, for an alternative to modern dance and ballet, a move away from abstract art, a move towards dance as life...” He concluded with, “It was a great time to be a dancer in San Francisco.”

Martin Keogh moved to the Bay Area in 1978 and started dancing CI in 1980. In his first year of study he worked with nineteen teachers. Keogh recalls, “I arrived doing contact at the first big apex of the form. In 1980 there were thirteen contact improv companies in the US and Canada. In 1980 Reagan was elected and things changed! By 1982 there was not one CI company still in existence.” For a few years Keogh ran the only jam in the Bay Area at the Presbyterian Church in Berkeley. Then the Harbin Jams started which brought people together for intensive retreats, and inspired Andrew Clibinoff to propose an annual festival. Founded as a collaborative venture by many of the local teachers The West Coast Contact Improvisation Festival (WCCIF) became an annual gathering for the local community as well as a model for CI events around the world. Despite the gaps between funded dance companies and those who perform CI, contact-based performances are still frequent in much of the world, primarily in the context of the growing number of CI-related festivals from Tel Aviv to Buenos Aires, from Rome to Seattle.

Author’s note:
This is a first installment of a larger research project. Future work will include a discussion of Bay Area dialect or style. I apologize to any and all for errors and omissions. Your corrections and additions, personal stories and favorite events are very welcome. Thanks:

Paxton, Steve. CI Founders’ Talk facilitated by Keith Hennessy at CI36, Juniata College, June 2008.

Novack, Cynthia J. Sharing the Dance, Contact Improvisation and American Culture. Univ of Wisconsin: Madison. 1990.

Ross, Janice. Anna Halprin: Experience as Dance. UC Press. 2007.

All quotes are from email or telephone interviews with the author.

Grand Union (1970-1976): Evolved from Yvonne Rainer’s Continuous Project Altered Daily in which rehearsal process was integrated into the performance. Trisha Brown, Barbara Dilley, Douglass Dunn, David Gordon, Nancy Lewis, Steve Paxton, Yvonne Rainer.

September 9, 2008

West Wave Dance Festival 2008

This is an absurdly long review, rant, questioning of Bay Area dance via the 35 companies I saw in two days. It will get posted in more professional contexts once I get a few comments and a little distance.

Keith Hennessy responds to the 2008 WestWave Dance Festival

August 16-24, 2008
Produced by Dance Art, Dancers’ Group, YBCA
Performances – Dance Wave 1, 2, 3 – The Novellus Theatre at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts

Equality. Free Speech. Democracy’s Body. The Bay Area. The West Wave Dance Festival. In the future everyone will have 15 minutes of fame. In the West Wave Dance Festival each choreographer had five minutes on the big stage at Yerba Buena. Three programs. Thirty-five companies. An equitable and representational form of democracy that celebrates a utopian correction to the cultural segregation of most of our daily lives. This kind of democracy is also championed by the Izzies (the Bay Area’s Isadora Duncan Dance Awards) and might even be considered a San Francisco or Bay Area ‘Value.’

Diversity is generally a white liberal idea. Multicultural ensembles, as well as arts spaces and festivals that offer multicultural programming, serve an audience that is primarily white, i.e., not diverse. This held true for this year’s West Wave festival. If diversity programming does not attract diverse audiences, what is its goal? What aspects of the West Wave festival were not compelling to local audiences? With each company having only five minutes on stage, the reason to attend was not to see a specific company but to be wrapped in a crazy quilt of found fabrics, to taste test from an international smorgasbord, to enjoy or be challenged by juxtapositions, comparisons, frictions, and resonances between companies. From this holistic or systems view the 2009 West Wave Festival was a delightful success. But if so few people want to experience this wide-angle portrait and if the blackouts between pieces symbolize cultural divides that no amount of stage sharing can bridge then should this form be repeated?

The intentional creation of multicultural ensembles (SF Mime Troupe, The Dance Brigade, ODC) has its roots in a radical critique of mainstream society’s institutional racism. These troupes emerged from 1960’s and 70’s counter-cultural contexts inspired by the radical left, lesbian-feminism, and a series of ruptures in the arts. During the turbulent 60’s the established powers that refused to defend Native American independence or Civil Rights were quick to fund Alvin Ailey as the #1 American cultural export. An image of African American inclusion contrasted the facts at ground level. Progressive and reactionary forces are continuously at play and depending on one’s perspective social justice is improving (Obama) or not (US schools, prisons). The white choreographers and audiences of the SF Ballet receive massive and disproportionate funding from both public and private sources. Simultaneously, there are people in several powerful positions in Bay Area arts funding and presenting who are deeply committed to equitable distribution of resources and increased visibility for minority and/or marginalized cultures.

A review written in the spirit of the West Wave Festival would give an equal amount of commentary to each company that performed. It might even give each group the same quality of praise and/or critique, interrupting any attempt to favor or privilege one performance over another. My response is more subjective, as evidenced already by a particular politicizing of perspective. I am a fan of postmodern strategies and critical of dance that seems either nostalgic or unquestioning of tradition.

There was a striking similarity to most of the 35 dances staged in the festival. Dancers entered in the dark. The lights came on to reveal dancers in a still shape. Dancers moved in time to music for somewhere between four minutes, thirty seconds and five minutes. And then, in an obvious relation to music or narrative, the dance ended with stillness (or a repeating movement), and a slow fade to black. The audience applauded.

Interruptions to this structure were infrequent enough to stand out as nearly daring even if they simply used other accepted choreographic tactics, like walking on in light (Smith/Wymore), beginning in the audience and then moving to the stage (Chris Black), or dancing as if there was no beginning or end (Amy Lewis).

I have been looking for a way to simply describe Bay Area or American dance that seems to ignore most of the innovations and experimentation of the past 50 years, since Anna Halprin and Cage/Cunningham through Judson, performance art, contact improvisation and even Sara Shelton Mann/Contraband. (Disclosure: I performed with Contraband from 85-94.) European dance writer Helmut Ploebst uses the awkward term “modernistic American post-post-modern" to contrast Bill T Jones, Stephen Petronio, and Neil Greenberg from their contemporaries in Europe including Meg Stuart, Jan Fabre, Jerome Bel, or Vera Montero. I think his term could also apply to several contemporary Bay Area companies including ODC, Deborah Slater, Stephen Pelton, Brittany Brown Ceres, Janice Garrett, and Leyya Tawil. But of course this kind of classification is mostly useless and unnecessarily divisive. Kathleen Hermesdorf’s group choreographies might fit this term but her duet work with musician Albert Matthias does not. Alex Kelty’s choreographic research projects interrupt many modernist notions but his dance for Axis shown in West Wave was an expressionist dance-theatre drama that could easily be classified as post-post-modern.

I apologize in advance to the 35 choreographers whose work I mention here. I use your creative labors to spark an eclectic critical commentary on tendencies in Bay Area contemporary dance (and beyond). Certain prejudices prevent me from experiencing your work as you intended. Seeing the performance and reading the program bios demonstrates each and every choreographer’s deep commitment to dance. From a deep well of dance-making experience I respect the deep commitment, personal vision, and years of hard work with inadequate resources that is embodied in each of the following dances.

Given the massive effort it takes to accomodate 35 companies sharing a single stage, each program ran remarkably smoothly, production values were high, and everyone looked great in lights designed by Michael Oesch. Congratulations to the producers, technicians, designers and dancers.

Dance Wave 2
Wednesday August 20, 7pm

To a striking song of acapella voice and clapping by Quay, Alayna Stroud began the evening with a dance on and around a suspended vertical pole. Bold sharp arm gestures punctuated a dance of moody poses. With Quay singing of an inability to let go of the pain, the dance ended with Stroud, high on the pole, spinning, inverted, holding on.

An ex-SF Ballet dancer now award-winning international choreographer, Robert Sund offered a trio ballet to Leonard Cohen songs. Leaping and spinning, Ryan Camou generated an energy that was not met by his partners-en-pointe, Robin Cornwell and Olivia Ramsay. The choreography and performance seemed more like an earnest study for young dancers than a finished work appropriate to this scale of venue.

Ankle-belled and brightly dressed in orange and green, seven dancers from the Odissi dance company Guru Shradha performed a ritual dance of slowly spiraling arms in lovely light. The group formations, always frontal facing and symmetrical, seemed to freeze the action within the confines of the stage, rendering it a visual event to be viewed rather than a spiritual event to be felt.

A trio of women in white danced an impeccably synchronized choreography of glances and head gestures. Choreographed by Wan-Chao Chang whose extensive cross-cultural training includes Balinese dance and music, There was like something that Ruth St. Denis dreamed of making but lacked the technical training to manifest. The work recalled a women’s Modern dance chorus from the 1920’s or 30’s updated with deeply embodied non-Western movement that could only be possible with the cultural migrations and fusions of the past thirty years.

Cynthia Adams and Ken James of Fellow Travelers Performance Group choreographed an absurdist romp that satirized martini culture, an easy target. The central image was a dancer (super compelling Andrea Weber) attached at the back by a long wooden pole to an enormous wheel. It looked like it a design by Fritz Lang or Hugo Ball. As she muscled herself to spin, the wheel circled the stage while martini holding dancers ducked or swerved to avoid being knocked over. Dancers traded clothes, Ken ended up wearing a dress, and Cynthia crossed the stage with a vacuum. No one noticed the woman-machine that kept it all moving.

In this festival everyone gets five minutes. That’s one image, one gesture, one relationship, one moment within a twelve-scene event. In this context Christy Funsch made a clear and subtle choice. Alternating curvy sensual gestures and sharp punctuating lines, Funsch slowly traversed the stage. The music, like the dancing, was emotional but not dramatic. Reading her body’s writing from audience left to right, I was drawn into the choreography, and therefore the body, and thus an intimate encounter.

The most memorable sense I have of Deborah Slater’s Gone in 5 was the joyful meeting of full-bodied dancing (big leg circles, tumbling off tables), bluegrass with a driving beat, and untamed red hair. A female trio in red wigs and black dresses seemed to enjoy every bit of their five minutes but I missed the conceptual/intellectual engagement that inspires most of Slater’s dance theatre. By this point in the program I wondered if the five-minute rule and the late summer scheduling encouraged a lite touch, or discouraged more serious inquiry.

Innovators of the American Tribal style of belly dance, Carolena Nericcio and Fat Chance Belly Dance began with controlled undulations of arms, spine, pelvis, and belly. In super colorful costumes they gathered speed, energy, and volume, with finger cymbals rocking, into a final gesture of accelerated spinning, their skirts dancing like flames.

Amy Lewis’s Dada meets Judson happening was a delightful revelation. Titled and performed as a series of tasks, 35-40 performers filled the stage playing cards, wrapping gifts, stacking blocks, juggling, stuffing balloons in their clothes, and jumping rope. A trio of musicians played live. Two dancers in wheelchairs snaked through all the activities linking them like unraveling yarn. Someone read kid’s books. An actual kid did something else. Andrew Wass and Kelly Dalrymple, wearing their signature white shirts, red ties and black pants, repeatedly lifted each other from a chair at center stage. Others ran into the audience distributing free gifts. And that’s not all that happened! The stage came alive. The audience woke up. Reviewer Rachel Howard wanted to flee the theatre. People wanted to know what was going on. (What the heck was going on?!!) People wanted it to end. People wanted a gift. This is the piece that made it worthwhile for me to leave the house and risk my attention on dance. Thank you Amy.

Hip hop renaissance woman Micaya served up a celebration of booty that recognized its own hype and played the hip hop game with a self-awareness that the suckers on MTV can’t conceive. The choreography flirted with the music’s butt-worshipping lyrics, as if the body (booty) could talk back, call and response. Her diverse young crew, SoulForce, jumped through musical genres and even crumped to classical.

As soon as SoulForce arrived on stage, their friends (friends of hip hop) started calling out to the dancers in a kind of direct feedback that Rev. Cecil Williams referred to as “listening Black”. Dance styles are not the only ways that dance marks cultural difference. Audience response differs as well. Do we “listen Black” or “White”? Do we enter ritual spaces, times and trances or do we observe with fourth wall intact? And if we have a preferred style of response, is it appropriate to jump forms, or do we stay obedient and respectful of cultural norms? Some of us experience everything on the proscenium stage, from ballet to Afro-Peruvian, hip hop to performance art, as post-colonial and post-European. Are there any traditions that have escaped colonial conditioning? There is a difference between shared (diverse) and universal (we’re all the same). I wonder if by foregrounding the equitable sharing of space by diverse communities we exaggerate difference and emphasize borders, preventing the awareness of the universal fact that we all dance.

Kara Davis made one Tuesday afternoon… for a group of young ballet dancers from (I assume) the LINES ballet school. Eleven dancers moved from whole group movement to duets in which the dynamics of shared weight spoke to human connection and mutual influence. One falls and domino ripples of weight pass through the group. It’s easy to fall into the trap of treating young or student performers as the adults they want to become. Davis artfully avoids this trap by leading these ballet bodies into relaxed weight and playful encounters. As well the simple costumes of nearly monochrome brown street clothes helped a more innocent sensuality emerge. The minimalist bluegrass score by Gustavo Santaoalla well supported the piece.

Kumu Hula (hula teacher) Káwika Alfiche and several of his students performed A Goddess with live singing and drumming. The work began as a solo invocation within a circle of light. The fabulous costumes involved big full skirts and circles of what seemed to be dried grass or brush around their ankles, wrists and head. The headpieces were like organic halos, bursts of energy extending in all directions. The program notes inform that the dance tells a dramatic story of volcano goddess Pele’s youngest sister. The movement was mostly front facing and synchronized and I lacked experience to follow any gestural or energetic narrative. What I could sense was cultural pride through an attention to visual, sonic, and gestural craft.

In Program Two there were nearly as many people on stage (partly due to Amy Lewis’ cast) as there were in the audience (approx. 100). Why aren’t more audiences attracted to this programming? Is it so tough to convince friends or colleagues from particular (dance) communities to see you perform if you’re only on for five minutes and sharing the stage with eleven other companies that do not share the same music and dance culture? I think that if the tickets had been $5 or free with a request for donations, (instead of $25 with a $7 service charge), the producers could have doubled or tripled attendance with no loss in box office income. But that doesn’t answer the larger question about what compels people to attend or avoid contemporary dance performances in any style.

Dance Wave 3
Wednesday August 20, 9pm

Working in both San Francisco and European dance contexts causes some dissonance in my perception. In the Bay Area we accept overt religious practice in the form of folkloric songs and dances as a normal occurrence. In Europe this would be considered highly unusual, either ridiculed as naïve or witnessed from a non-believing distance. I have never experienced what we unfortunately call Ethnic Dance in a contemporary dance context in Europe unless the dance/music forms are in an experimental encounter with European forms, or the forms themselves are being questioned or deconstructed. Every time I refer to my work as ritual (and I do), a European brow gets wrinkled. Still I question the language of god and religion in our work, especially as we advance towards a presidential election in which every candidate feels compelled to end their speeches with an emphatic, “God bless America.”

Aguacero is a Bomba company directed by Shefali Shah. Focused on Afro Puerto Rican Bomba the company sincerely describes their work as connected to basic folk religion practices: healing, ancestor worship, embodying the natural world, and initiating youth in traditional practice. Their work is a syncretic encounter of West African cultures filtered through the Caribbean while reframing Spanish colonial dresses, shoes and language. At Dance Wave 3 they performed Hablando con Tambores a dynamic skirt waving dance that surfed the fast-paced, joyful wave created by three drummers and four vocalists. After a lively solo, a second woman came on stage in a competitive/collaborative face-off of tightly patterned skirt tossing, moving so quickly that my eye memory retained traces of circling and spiraling fabric.

Like her Ballet Afsaneh colleague Wan-Chao Chang (DanceWave 2), Tara Catherine Pandeya has cross-trained in several non-Western dance forms and traditions. In a dance of circling hands and micro percussive movements of shoulders and head, Pandeya danced in a sensual world evoked by the music played live by the trio Marajakhan. The traditional Uyghur music and the long braids attached to Pandeya’s hat recalled the work of Ilkolm Theater (Uzbekistan) who performed the gorgeous epic Dance of the Pomegranates at Yerba Buena earlier this year. Both performances evolve from diasporic Central Asian Turkic cultures.

Alex Ketley in collaboration with Rodney Bell and Sonsherée Giles of Axis Dance Company created a tense and intimate dance drama. Punctuated by quick gestures and sudden conflict the lovers seemed caught between intense attraction and secret fears. The dancers’ intimacy with each other’s bodies further demonstrated the struggle of any two people to connect. In this case the two people had to cross the divide between man and woman, as well as between a person who walks on feet and legs and another who travels by wheelchair. When Bell fell backwards to the floor, supported by Giles, we realized that he was fully strapped to his chair and could now crawl like a snail with house attached until he muscled his way upright. The piece ended the way it began and why not? Most couple encounters circle through familiar territory.

Brittany Brown Ceres choreographed Shade a quintet of women bound in a space defined by a rectangle of light. The work alternated synchronized and solo movement with a variety of lifts to a score of uninspired contemporary techno. An unfair question blocks my vision. “Why are they dancing like that, working so hard with such tired vocabulary and choreographic assumptions?” This question only reveals my inarticulate frustration. Also it seems too specific about dance ceres (whose work I’ve never seen before) when in fact I ask it all the time when seeing post postmodern Bay Area dance. In the program text Ceres tells us that Shade was “crafted in public spaces to study landscapes which are designed to substitute for psychological balance and to unlock descriptive communication made of movement instead of words.” The gap between their craft and my experience was overwhelming.

The strangest work in the West Wave Fest was Brooke Broussard’s Moving The Dark. A solitary figure in black unitard, complete with hood, moved continuously in rhythmic patterns of extended sweeping limbs and undulating spine. In some contexts this costume and this action would cause uproarious laughter but here it was only weird, as in otherworldly. Three lengths of blue carpet were unrolled to mark the space into a geometry of lines and triangles but the choreography seemed to ignore these differentiated spaces, so after a couple of minutes I did the same. Six other dancers in three pairs completed the cast of this surreal-psychological modern ballet. Blackout. We clap. Then we hear a loud scream.

A woman’s voice is heard from the balcony. Some pop song I can’t name. “I’m gonna make a change in my life.” Then singing erupts throughout the well-lit house. The singing, by choreographer Chris Black and company, was charming as if we caught these citizens singing along with headphones on a rural trail or alone in their apartment. Moving towards the stage one of the performers faces the audience from the front row and sings only the first half of U2’s “And I still haven’t found (what I’m looking for).” A repeating motif of “change” of course recalls Obama but it is only afterwards that I find out that the piece is entitled Headlines and includes found gestures from print media with a fractured medley of pop music. Musical encounters between the performers grew increasingly complex, mashing one song against another, or everyone briefly singing the same song. Counting aloud, Michael Jackson’s Man in the Mirror, and little dances of borrowed shapes in absurdly out of context scenarios, became a virtuosic arrangement and performance of everyday life. The emotional power of this piece was a surprise. What seemed like a formal intervention and a cute referencing of pop culture became an impassioned cry for renewed meaning and solidarity. Wow.

Tango Con*Fusion offered a round robin of tango duets danced by an ensemble of six women betraying (they call it bending) the gender roles of traditional tango. Bay Area values have evolved to a point where bending gender and queering tradition is neither radical nor compelling. The dancing seemed polite, lacking the intimacy and tension that tango often evokes. I was reminded of Terry Sendgraff’s aerial dance company in the 80’s embodying a (lesbian) aesthetic that avoided competition and celebrated equal partnership. You might need to check your punk rock at the door to be able to enter the best of these egalitarian worlds.

Through Another Lens by Sue Li Jue is a modern ballet that confronts the legacy of the Vietnam War within a body that is both American and Vietnamese. The sound score succeeded in blending two distinct voices: a blues text by an American vet underscored by traditional Vietnamese folk music. Soloist Nahn Ho is a strong dancer whose spiral falls, clear shapes, and sudden turn to the audience dared us to witness him, a young man pushed to the limit by the political tensions that he embodies.

Second generation South Indian dancer and choreographer Rasika Kumar crafted the festival’s most overtly political piece. Gandhari’s Lament represented the story of the blind mother of 100 sons who were all killed in the Great War of the Mahabharata. With ankle bells marking every percussive step, Kumar’s powerful dancing used both abstract and mimetic movement to communicate a mother’s grief. Her bitter, closing curse could as easily be directed at today’s murderers.

Zooz Dance Company’s En Route opened with a gorgeous solo by Jessica Swanson in a backless top that highlighted her amazingly articulate back and hips. The fusion dancing of Zooz, co-choreographed by Jessica McKee, features ensemble Middle Eastern dance that is super precise and seductive. Their skirts, especially the boa-like trim, did not meet the quality of the dancing.

If an internal voice demanding “Why? Why?” prevents me from seeing most Modern dance made by contemporary choreographers, the volume elevates to near screaming when I’m watching modern ballet. Liss Fain’s Looking, Looking was another of the festival pieces that seemed like a study for young ballet students. How did these works get curated over the sixty choreographers who got turned down? Was there a category for student works? Or did these pieces represent the best of the ballet applications? In Fain’s work two men and five women in sexy black shorty shorts danced for five minutes to Bartok’s dramatic Concerto for Viola. There were lifts and arabesques; the dancing was neither stupid nor compelling.

Dance Wave 1
Thursday August 21, 9pm

Charlotte Moraga restaged and performed an original composition by Kathak icon Pandit Chitresh Das. The dance basically manifested its title, Auspicious Invocation. With liquid wrists, crystalline forms and an open expressive face, Moraga began in a circle of light, dancing her invocation to the four corners. Properly concluding the ritual, she ends with a bow. Moraga is an excellent dancer who has been immersed in this form for 17 years.

But what does it mean to wear a sari or Indian costume on stage in San Francisco? What relevance or resonance does a contemporary audience appreciate when watching traditional ritual dances? What combination of training and inspiration might result in a local Akram Khan? Someone who masters Kathak and subjects it to contemporary and global questions of performance? Someone who no longer feels responsible to represent a nostalgic or idealized cultural representation? Similarly what social context might encourage an African American dancer in the Bay Area to dare the kind of genre-busting performance of Faustin Linyekula? Someone whose expression of African-ness is dependent neither on folkloric tradition (pre or post slavery) nor on the specifics of urban Black cultures? I wonder what might happen if some of the local ‘ethnic’ companies abandoned representational music, costumes, and static ritual forms. I have been inspired by the complicated revelations of Khan, Linyekula, and other companies directed by non-Western artists traversing the borders of genre, ethnicity and culture, reframing ritual and spectacle for today.

Recent Bay Area resident Erika Tsimbrovsky crafted an evocative teaser of visual dance theatre that suggested we keep an eye towards further projects. Paper gowns that ballooned around the dancers as they dropped suddenly and a scratchy recording of a slow turning music box evolved a performance language sourced in image and memory. The dancers hid inside the dream space of their skirts, and two of them birthed themselves naked as the lights faded.

Sheldon B. Smith and Lisa Wymore made a smart, hip little dance generated from YouTube. Imitation, lip-synching, and multiplying the action via ensemble movement heightened our attention to the found sources and challenged a reconsideration of live performance’s relationship to online videos. What does it mean when highly trained dancers are viewed by an audience of 100 or 200 when non-professionals can be viewed by 3 million? Not only is YouTube a bigger performance archive than we could ever have imagined, but early all of YouTube’s most viewed videos involve dance or bodies in performance. Too many of the Dance Wave artists entered in the dark and held a static pose as the lights came up, so it was an unintentional and pleasant intervention to have the Smith/Wymore quartet walk onto the stage with the lights on.

In Mary Sano’s Dance of the Flower a woman’s head floats above a massive parachute skirt, under which we assume many dancers are hidden. To Bach’s cello the skirt begins to breath. I’m in a retro shock. Really retro. I’m thinking Duncan, perhaps after Fuller. This is neither an innovative skirt dance like Fuller’s nor a well-researched prop piece that recalls Mummenschanz or Momix. It’s more like a children’s theatre game evolved from metaphoric, expressive early Modern dance. Emerging from the skirt we are presented with a lovely poem of skipping women in Duncan-style, Greek-inspired tunics. (How many companies in this festival are all-women?) Sano, a third-generation Isadora Duncan dancer, choreographs under the influence of a series of assumptions about nature, women, dance, bodies, and flowing fabric without any recognition of the nearly 100 years of challenging and rewriting those assumptions.

Most Bay Area dancers work with such a poverty of resources (money, space, time, scheduling, management) that it is a marvel that there were nearly 100 companies applying to be in this festival. Nonetheless the lack of engagement and risk with visual design, especially light and sets, is often disappointing. This is as true for the last ODC concert that I attended as it is for most of these five-minute wonders. Dandelion’s Oust (excerpts) began with an odd solo backlit by an upstage performer with a handheld instrument, while a woman at a microphone laughed. The light shifts to another dancer who writhes, falls, twitches and freezes. Unfortunately this is neither Eric Kuyper’s strongest work with the company nor a great example of why we ought to experiment with light. But Kuyper continues to intervene with tradition, challenge conventional assumptions, and craft risky interdisciplinary experiments.

Smuin Company resident choreographer Amy Seiwert created Air a ballet pas de deux featuring Jay Goodlett and Tricia Sundeck. These dancers have considerable professional experience compared to the ballet dancers in Programs 2 and 3 which made this dance all the more disappointing with its lack of risk and insistence on neoclassical vocabulary and stale gender roles. The crowd was loud and vocal with praise. SF Chron reviewer Rachel Howard thought it was the best of the fest. I’m sure that Goodlett is a fabulous dancer but at Trannyshack, SF’s legendary drag club, he would be referred to as a ‘man prop’ (the male as functional object in service of the “female”). In diva culture this is not necessarily an insult.

Charya Burt’s Blue Roses reimagines Laura from The Glass Menagerie as a Khmer princess trapped in her own world. Wearing traditional Cambodian clothes Burt knelt in a circle of light, her wrists held at a sharp 90 degrees, palms pushing out, her fingers reaching well beyond their physical length. Despite the specific cultural invocation of gesture, costume, music and light projection Burt avoided mimetic acting in favor of detailed and articulate physical expression. Her intense presence and sensitivity were so palpable that even the subtlest of wrist and head movements seemed to charge the space around her. Similar to the slow intensity of early Butoh or Deborah Hay’s cellular movement the audience could either be bored to sleep or provoked into a radical encounter with the present, presence. I was impressed, touched.

Nine bodies in white, on their backs, marking the diagonal. In waves of canon the dancers of Loose Change pulse into and up from the floor. Choreographer Eric Fenn’s vocabulary reveals itself slowly in fragmented reference to break dance, hip hop and more. Percussion-based group movement proves this crew is the strongest large ensemble of the festival. Invoking a future city of dance monks the team falls into place remaking the opening image.

Another transition between companies. Another attempt at discreet set up in soft blue light followed by a black out, followed by lights up on dancers in stillness. Would it hurt to reveal the action, skipping the blackout and the precious stillness? Does the stage have to remain this nostalgic place of magic? How did the dancers get there? I don’t know they just appeared in gorgeous light and then started dancing.

I’m curious to see more work by Limbinal a young collective of artists directed by Leonie Gauthier. For their five minutes they presented INside which featured two man/woman duets, one on a table, accompanied by live cello. The work on the table, the mutual lifting, and the increasingly dramatic cello suggested a meeting of Scott Wells and Sara Shelton Mann in a chamber ballet.

Women lifting men ought to be more common in 2008 but its only other occurrence in this festival was with Wass & Dalrymple in How many presents… Contact Improvisation began in 1972 with an intention to democratize (remove the hierarchies from) the duet. But this is only one of the aspects of the postmodern dance ruptures that seem generally absent in Bay Area contemporary dance.

Luis Valverde (choreographer) and Eleana Coll gave a rousing presentation of Peruvian Andean dance. She, fabulosa in pink satin and white ruffles. He, dapper in blue suit, black boots, woven belt and wide brimmed white hat. Hankies revealed in their right hands, they begin to court each other. Indigenous footwork in colonial drag, they dance a timeless seduction of approaches, smiles, spins, and retreats. Their steps are rhythmic and light. The music alternates between symphonic and a military snare. These are handsome people and we want them to get together. When their faces pause almost touching, almost kissing, I want to cheer. The steps increase to skips but she never loses her coy cool. Now the hips are marking time more than the feet. A big energetic finale, racing against the music and they freeze, together. Big applause.

A voiceover instructs us to turn on our cell phones and invites us to document the dance. On stage are two men and one bride. The audience starts snapping pics. And thus begins Snap a work by Jenny McAllister for Huckaby McAllister Dance. A long tulle train attached to one man, when pulled, drags three pink dressed ladies onto the stage. The voice clowns our habit-obsessions with phones and the documentation of every waking moment. “Keep the truth safe from time. Isn’t that beautiful?” For a while this is physical comedy via ensemble dancing. Then the voice talks about grandparents in Minsk and the only photo in which no one smiled. “Bubby says it was just like that.” With efficient craft the weight of history is invoked and the simple social satire becomes only a preparation for a more intimate touch to occur.

Somei Yoshino Taiko Ensemble closed the evening with a fusion performance in which the dancers were the musicians, and the dance was an enactment and embellishment of the musical score. Four drummer/dancers moved around and within a circle of large and small drums. Sharp strikes from one arm. Boom! The other arm shoots vertically to the sky, extending its line with drumstick in hand. Quick shift. Boom! The energy ebbs and flows in a continual flirting of yin and yang carrying marked by stark freezes and silences. Synchronized activity amplifies the sound in such a concrete way: more drummers, more force, more sound. The pace increases towards a quick finale. The final gesture’s silence is the loudest action of it all. And they drop, disappearing into the center of the drums.

In a film clip shown at the Nijinsky Awards in Monaco a French interviewer asks, “WHAT IS dance to you, Mr. Balanchine?" The response was, "just dance."

September 5, 2008

Laugh Scream

Ok I've learned to embed videos. Here is a recent improvised performance I'm calling Laugh Scream. Ten minute solo performance, no prescribed choreography, at CI 36, an international conference/gathering on the 36th anniversary of Contact Improvisation. Questions endure about value and representation and how sucky video is worse for dance than showing nothing at all.

Gus Van Sant MILK trailer

I cried watching this trailer

I love Gus van Sant
I love Sean Penn
I love Harvey Milk

I miss my boyfriend(s)
I miss queer rage
I miss queer activist solidarity protests and hugging in the street and everywhere
I miss my 30’s when I was hot because the world around me was sexy hot
I miss the hope that despite his rhetoric Obama cannot ignite but Harvey could

I don’t even care if this movie sucks
I already love it
My only hope is that the promo budget is insanely huge and that it destroys the media- and blogo-spheres with rainbow solidarity electricity

September 3, 2008

Trannyshack Finale

Notes from the last ever Trannyshack at the Stud. Tuesday, August 12, 2008, midnight.

Trannyshack was a weekly drag show at the Stud Bar hosted by Heklina. Trannyshack is a brand. Trannyshack is a legend, an icon of trash drag performance art club ritual. Trannyshack is a postmodern feminist queer movement of disobedient gender tricksters, art dissidents, and addicts of all kinds. Trannyshack is fucked up, fabulously.

Heklina - Pat Benatar - “We are young We are strong” - 3 hookers defend themselves against a slimy pimp. She says, “That was my first Trannyshack number. It was Retro then! Layers of respectful homage, camp trash, and wannabe appropriation collide when street hooker simulacra takes the Tshack stage.

Juanita More! in black/brown face as Eryka Badu singing “Tyrone” - small joint, super fat joint (cigar size), massive joint... all toked and then passed thru audience in participatory ritual, spreading saliva and ganga through mutual contact, filling the room with smoke. Trash ritual at its best. Break the law, turn on, rock out.

Falsetta Knockers in medley of Donna Summmers’ Love to love ya baby - smoking a cigarette like half the rebel queens that night - a club kid nightmare, with wig that shifted styles with each quarter turn pulling us thru the decades 70 80 90 00’s of a spiraling drug-induced stupidity resulting in madness and a conceptual endurance performance that broke all the drag rules. Yes.

Nikki Star taking us to church in a pop gospel (my joy? it’s from jesus!). Parting the densely packed, nearly immobile crowd, like the Red Sea and dancing dancing as we clapped and clapped and got higher and higher. Only at Tshack could this number be performed almost without irony, definitely without any winks. A veteran black queen, Heklina’s drag mother, Nikki in her Sunday best working the crowd for Jesus. Well!


Suppositori Spelling - what was the song - excellent synching and fabulously dynamic energy - huge femmed Mohawk, classic Spaz costume of bra, panties and accessories, two well timed stage dives each time returning to the stage on cue. (photo #1 by Don Shewey)

Too much Jordan, Kennedy and mediocre numbers that were numbing to those of us standing packed together for over 4 hours. Especially with some of those too cold gay boys who don’t want to acknowledge (or relax into) touch despite the fact that there was no choice but to touch. What a waste of potential pleasure and friendship.

Lot’s of cigarettes on stage. The last taboo. A final remnant of the illegal dangerous incorrect and transgressive roots of T’shack.

So many memories of all the drugs (and sex) of the early days

No direct mention of HIV and the role that AIDS has had in their personal and collective life

Glamamore not doing the tragic act that I adore. Instead doing a Judy/Barbara duo with Mercy Fuck. And then doing 2 songs - which like most of the queens in that never ending epic night they just had to perform more than necessary. The whole event was more than necessary. The club has been ‘ending’ all year. It’s all about excess and decadence and too much (remember Joe Goode’s 29 effeminate gestures which locate Gay in the Too Much).

Rimming straight boy James!! (Photo #2 by Don Shewey)

Followed by Jim Jones doing David Bowie “And we’re gonna have a party” while camo’d queens (one faux) with plastic machine guns handed out coolaid cups to all of the evening’s performers and assistants ending with a massive body pile on stage. I cried.
Unfortunately they didn’t indulge in the maudlin as much as I'd like. (All night long, whenever the mood approached ‘emotional’ it would be corrected with snappy retorts or distractions - which seemed very apropos of the pomo drag culture - fake and real, sincere and camp sincere in a dizzying fusion). But I couldn't watch when they all jumped up for Donna Summer’s Last Dance... at least half of them knowing the lyrics and ‘singing’ along.

Proclamation from city honoring Tshack’s fusion of punk and drag. (OK that's brilliant and righteous but the deliverer of that proclamation, B. Dufty is no gay hero of mine. He was originally an appointee of that ultra rich brat Newsom and both of them are basically republicans in terms of class politics. It really sucks that two progressives ran against Dufty at the same time. Get it together fools. That tactic was doomed to fail and we got another term for a nice gay man who consistently votes against the progressive interests of the majority of District 8.)

Electro as a bare-chested (boob taped) satyr with hind legs puppet manipulated for leaping and flying scenes - lipsynching Sesame St I think... rainbows, the lover the dreamer and I?? Is it obvious that I am not a pop culture 80’s child? That was my punk, tribal, live music only decade.


52 Tuesdays x 12.5 years = approx 650 shows/happenings
with approx 8 performances per night = 5200 performances

How many original numbers did Heklina do? Clearly she duplicates her faves (and not so faves) annually, but she had to have created hundreds of 3-5 minute performances, learning the lyrics to songs, plus costumes and wigs. How many pairs of shoes did she accumulate? How many wigs?

Will her archive end up at the Historical Society? Where are all the Mr. David dresses going to be exhibited?

September 2, 2008

Performing Improvisation / Improvising Performance

Why should I show video documentation of work that celebrates and investigates the ultra live here and now? I can't answer that question, but we could talk about it for a long time. Here's a link to a 10 minute performance action from this year's CI36 at Juniata College in Pennsylvania.

And then a compilation vid of moments from improv performances in 2005 & 2006.

Improv Videos

How do I share Here's a compilation of a couple improvised performances 2005 & 2006.

July 7, 2008

Friederike Plafki & Maria Francesca Scaroni in Berlin

Off in the unknowns of further east Berlin I went with my buddy Jess to see student showings at the Ernst Buch school, which offers trainings towards the equivalent of a BA in theatre, dance, or puppetry. I hear they just started a Master's program as well. With all the hype and money around some of the newer dance schools here the Buch school is off the cool radar, which means it's more likely to show work whose quality of engagement and manifestation is not dependent on current trends (despite my own interest and investment in current trends...)

On July 5, 2008, I saw a showing of an ongoing research/performance by Friederike Plafki - a duet with Maria Francesca Scaroni. San Francisco viewers might know Maria from her work with Jess Curtis (Under the Radar, The Symmetry Project) and Sara Shelton Mann (Inspirare, an impressive duet with Kathleen Hermesdorf).

Here's what I saw, thought...:

Two women walk on, Maria just behind Friederike, matching her pace. Street clothes. Pants. Nothing loose. They stand side by side, just off center. Maria's finger extends, twitches. Is this intentional, as in choreographed, or is she simply releasing energy, settling in to stand?

A slow synchronized dance begins. Quiet. Adaggio. I wonder if it's a subtle improv, duet flocking in which whoever can see the other is the follower. But occasionally gestures seem too detailed and matching in their detail, even if the overall synchronization is not extremely precise.

After what seems like 2 minutes they repeat the choreography. OK it's definitely not improvised. 

They begin a 3d time. Now there's some play with timing which pulls them in and out of synch. There's no music, basic overall lighting, and minimal costume. We're watching movement and we're watching 2 dancers sensing each other, talking to each other with subtle shifts of weight and impulse.

A 4th time.
A 5th time. The subtle games continue.

Now F has travelled around M to stand on the other side. Simple quiet steps, weight shifting, they face each other. The repeating phrase is gone, or maybe it lingers as a distant reminder. The work close, in and out of each other's space. Not touching. Facings shift. Feet once planted easily step - lightly, quietly, quicker now. Occasionally the sound of foot turning is heard. Arms, hands extend towards each other. Bodies arch to avoid contact then thrust back to fill negative space. (Jess tells me later that Freiderike considers this to be Contact Improvisation. Despite the lack of touch I recognize the dialogue, the sensitive listening, responding, playing.)

The space between them grows. They continue to respond to each other's timing, spacing, energetics. Now 4 meters apart on a diagonal. Copying one then the other in the flocking score that I had anticipated earlier. Their facings shift as roles of leader and follower shift. Quicker shifts of role and facing. 

One time they miss & briefly solo. It seems as if Maria thinks that F is still following her but F looks over her shoulder to see M facing away and she continues anyway, her arms float up into the air, bend at elbows to cross in front of her face. M spirals around and quickly picks of F's movement.

In the time it took to write the last few lines, the roles changed at least 3 times.

They close the space. Now F stands directly behind M, both facing audience, downstage right.

A very subtle copying score begins. Details of fingers, shoulder weight, mini pliés that drop vertically. I can't tell at times who is following whom. Maybe the roles shift. The way they pay attention to each other and to their own bodies is captivating. Invited into the dance, I'm watching everything so closely. 

Now side by side facing us. The sensing score seems less visual, or their response to each other is no longer based on visual matching.

Touch happens. Then soft wrist or hand grabs that extend the other's arm into space away from the body. This leads (follows?) into counterbalances which leads to games or sensing exercises that maintain contact, grabbing, a communication of shared, shifting weight. They also continue to revisit copying scores, shifting (or sharing) their attention to weight to visually match the other.

Two people walk out. I see Maria see them leave. At one point, as they are low to the ground, I see M smell F's hand, not by bringing her nose forward but simply by paying attention to scent and acknowledging it. The action, like most of this dance, is subtle yet very alive.

After 5-ish minutes they face us again. A short follow-copy weight score takes them to their knees, then to their backs, then back up to stand side by side again. Their eyes are scanning us. They relax and exit.

July 3, 2008

Castorf at Berlin's Volksbuhne, July 3 2008

OK I'm starting a blog.

I could have started anywhere but I begin with notes taken during a performance by my favorite director Frank Castorf.

In the past 10 years I've seen 3 or 4 performances directed by Castorf at the Volksbuhne in Berlin. Not clear on the number because I think one of the plays that seemed to carry his signature was perhaps by someone else... it just felt related to Castorf's post-modern and pop-cultured extensions of Brecht. Castorf's work is consistently the most engaging theatre I've ever seen and I don't understand a word of German.

I saw a theatrical recreation and deconstruction of a Fassbinder film (The bitter tears of Petra von Kant), a ritual of nostalgia as contemporary performance. I was provoked, inspired, seduced, maybe even bored at times but I knew I was in the hands of a major artist and couldn't wait for more. 

My next opportunity was Castorf's Trainspotting. This was the play that convinced me that German actors have the best vocal training in Western Theatre. Maybe some classical Korean or Noh actors have their talents, but for sure there are few if any American actors who can screech and roar, bellow and grind like the actors I've seen in every Volksbuhne production. The female lead never left her bed, which meant that 2 tech guys had to wheel her on and off throughout the event. She only communicated by yelling her text, often in a broken voice that would have destroyed the vocal talents of most actors. Within minutes of her first appearance (and sounding!) I looked at my program to see if she performed this vocal circus act on consecutive nights. Yes. A virtuoso freak show of raw emotion communicated with a formal rigor that was as cool as it was stunning.

Tonight, July 3 2008, I saw Die Massnahme/Mauser based on Die Massnahme by Brecht with music by music by Hanns Eisler and Mauser by Heiner Müller. The Mauser section included choreography by Meg Stuart, an American whose company Damaged Goods has been based in Brussels and now Berlin for several years.

My notes are simply an attempt to describe what happened and what caught my attention.  If you want to read a critical slam of the work by one of the many people who think that Castorf's work is a steaming heap of clichés, go to:

Roughly constructed scaffold/platform extends diagonally from audience to upstage left, dramatically spanning a 3-4 meter drop into the orchestra pit, and trimmed with red plywood pieces. The upstage end slopes upwards to make a steep ramp suspended from pulleys and cables. Upstage right, seen through the 3 meter platform legs, are 20-30 cheap white plastic chairs hosting approximately 10 audience members who paid less.

Sounds begin. Horns. Because it's contemporary art in Europe I can't tell if they're tuning or if this is an intentional composition or both.

When we entered I say to my buddy Jess that we could go to ACT - San Francisco's biggest funded public theater - from now until eternity and we would never see a set this rough, unfinished, engaging, or risky.

Opening image:
2 young men in dark suits (one with velvety jacket, another with red shirt and loose black tie) pick up a woman (dark long skirt and belted jacket closed tight all the way to neck) and run up the ramp, then down, then towards us along the diagonal platform, then back to center where an older man is seated facing stage left in one of the white plastic chairs. She speaks. When he responds another young man (in white shirt) stands with the other 3, video camera in hand. A close-up of the man speaking - 55-ish with grey beard and black framed glasses - appears on a 'screen' above the platform, stage right. The screen is approximately 3m x 3m of plywood with what appears to be blank posters (white pieces of paper - 11x17 ish) pasted over most of it.

The orchestra begins. The conductor, who we can't see, is projected onto the back wall, huge. Then a 70 voice choir bursts into song behind us. Filling 2 rows at the back of the steeply raked house, they take their direction from the projection.

More happens: 2 projection sites, actors, choir, orchestra.

German actors have the best vocal training (in the West). One after another 2 men screech their texts in upper register. Loud. Funny-weird. Amazing. All actors respond, ensemble choral, in equally high-pitched, loud-volumed voices.

2 women singers (in satin party dresses - one black, one turquoise - and heels) scurry down the aisle stairs, making little squeaks, and continue to down stage center. They spit once up towards the actors on the platform and then they turn to us and sing an operatic duo. The full chorus, still behind us, responds while three young male actors smear paint on their face - one red, one blue, one green.

When the choir is not singing, the back wall projections are stills of Russian or Chinese communist-era posters, with one of the actors' faces superimposed.

The audience in the discounted onstage seats see very little, watching the backs of the actors and missing half the projections.

At this point in the production (20 minutes?) I realize that the chorus is following the projected conductor. It's a practical device (or a practical joke?).

Now it's snowing heavily. Actors pace and stagger. The conductor projection is seen through a blizzard. Chorus now in full song. When the chorus sings, the lights are on them & therefore us.

Snow stops. 3 male actors repeat choreography: walk, stagger as if hit in the belly, up the ramp, fall and slide down. Choir continues. How to describe full, opera-ish, multi-part choral singing? It's big, almost bombastic. I don't know have articulate language for this. I love their broad age range. All so alive. Costumes vary, a mildly tacky version of formal wear. A pregnant woman is in gold. More than one turquoise dress. The men's suits are generally dark.

The 3 actors sit at the bottom of the ramp, joined by the woman. They speak to camera and are now projected close-up on both 'screens': side and back wall.

Later, a scene takes place in the theatre lobby. We see and hear it only from projections and audio system. On stage, a woman from the chorus, gathering the hem of her long black, center-split dress with her right hand. She sings solo, intermittent with chorus, actors, orchestra. The actors return to live view, now in the house.

A long procession of the chorus singing a round. In two's they travel down the right aisle, out the door, back onto the stage, around the onstage audience, exit stage right, walk through the lobby. Their voices, once a blended whole, become distinct parts as they progressively exit and enter our hearing range, and then even more distinctly as they pass individually before the camera and mic.

This event is continually destabalized, bouncing from opera to film to various genres of theatre and experimental, physical, and visual performance.

Actors arrive downstage left, talking while pasting HUNGER posters (black text on white paper - yes the same size as blank posters on projection screen stage right). 2 women singers return, stand amongst actors and posters. They sing. The full chorus walks through scaffold to downstage and sings while pointing accusingly at the actors/duo/posters.

For a while I don't write.


Older male actor returns. Now a cop, he kills the woman actor by bopping her in the head with a toy rubber billy club. This is done near (for?) the onstage audience. We see the live action, obstructed, and close-up variations projected.

In a live off-site performance, staged as a film in the making, we see the old man (now wearing a fat belly costume over his clothes) and the woman making crass, childish sexual innuendos with chopsticks, wrappers, and fast food.

Other male actors punch through cheap walls until holes are big enough to push their heads into the scene. They watch the couple flirt and eat.

In the corner of the tiny film set stands the solo vocalist. We rarely see her face. She starts to sing. The older guy lipsynchs. 

Only now do I realize that the film set is onstage, hidden upstage left under the ramp. It's in plain view of the onstage audience. I see that the mic is on a boom held by a second tech guy. Like any film shoot. This explains the sound quality being better than any video camera.

Often the text is performed chorally - 3 or 4 actors together - or the whole chorus - playing the solo voice in contrast with the group.

With the chorus onstage, singing, the actors leave the theatre, engage with people in a cafe across the street. The visual signal occasionally pixillates which seems to prove that the action is live. They approach a cat observing the street action from a first floor window sill. It flees. We laugh. Now it's not film but television. It's late-night reality Letterman. The actors sit with some boys on grass. Then they race back to the theatre screaming. One of them vaults a bicycle. Nice leap. They screech around a cop car. Coincidence? Real danger? And when they burst onstage there is applause.

They stand in the scaffolding over the edge of the pit, their toes extending past the beam that supports them, indicating the void below. We hear a mechanical hum. The pit raises to reveal 9 musicians, conductor, framed by the whole chorus on two sides. One of the music stands is draped with a HUNGER poster. The actors enter the apron/stage and deliver the next series of text amongst the musicians (seated) and chorus (standing). The conductor, back to audience, head bowed. Unlike the multi-generational chorus, the musicians seem to be in their 20's. But when they stand and depart, onto the main stage and then exit, I see that the piano player is at least 10 years older. After all the performers have exited, a crew of technicians removes the music stands and chairs and cables and all until the apron is empty and the stage is quiet.

With no intermission a new set is constructed beneath the platform, center stage - white plastic round table with several mics, and 5 matching chairs. I think Wooster Group in the round. The actors enter, khaki jackets replace dark suits, and sit at the chairs. They talk. Mauser has begun and we exit house left. It's been over 90 minutes and it's time to meet some friends coming out of the difficult piece Spectacular by Forced Entertainment, directed by Tim Etchells.

Jess and I saw this yesterday. There's much less to say about this thinly stretched anti-spectacle that would have made a great improv sketch in the studio. My one line review is: Forced Entertainment's Spectacular Killed Me.