May 30, 2009

How To Die, 2006

In 2005 and 2006, I was invited to create new works at Les Subsistances in Lyon and Les Laboratoires d'Aubervilliers in Paris. These residencies resulted in the 2 part performance How To Die, featuring musician-dancer extraordinaire Jules Beckman (Contraband, Cahin-caha) and the amazing butoh-drag-ritualist Seth Eisen (Circo Zero's Sol niger).

Homeless USA, 2005
(in French, SDF USA)
Performance: Hennessy & Beckman
Text: Robert Olen Butler & Hennessy

American Tweaker, 2006
Performance: Hennessy, Beckman, Eisen
Text: Kirk Read & Hennessy

Why now?
Rita Felciano, a treasure of Bay Area dance writing, just sent me a review that she wrote in 2006, and coincidentally we are in discussions to restage the work in January 2010, at Dance Mission in San Francisco, as part of A Queer 20th Anniversary, a series events celebrating the 20th-ish anniversary of my first solo performance Saliva. So consider this review and these pics as a promo teaser.

The review:

On my vimeo site you can watch Loren Robertson's 7' promo for How To Die, as well as full versions of both Homeless and Tweaker.

How To Die, 2006, Photos

Top photo:
A guy sleeping on the stairs of my house. At the beginning of How to Die I give everyone in the audience a photograph of a homeless or drunk sleeping guy, documented within a block of my place.

Middle photo:
Hennessy in Homeless USA, Photo by Andy Mogg. What you can't see is the 30 foot length of fish line going through the piercing hole in my septum, holding me in place.

Bottom Photo:
Hennessy & Beckman in American Tweaker
Photo by Mark I. Chester. This is the polite photo from the dance of insatiable crystal meth. What you can't see is Eisen, as Sylvester, lipsynching Do Ya Wanna Funk?

Check out Loren Robertson's promo video of How To Die. This link get you to my Vimeo site where both performances (Homeless & Tweaker) are available for online streaming.

Rita Felciano's review of How To Die:

May 24, 2009

Dada Fest, Davis CA

Performer, producer and UC Davis grad student Hope Mirlis organized a sprawling day & night of Dada performances, May 16, 2009, in central Davis.

Riffing off Joseph Beuys explaining his work to a dead rabbit, I whispered, grunted, and ranted for 30 minutes in the 99 F degree heat.

Here are a couple pics snapped by Hilary Bryan and the improv text that I wrote as a kind of rehearsal. Clearly I'm drowning and somehow delighting in the academic texts I'm reading. Fortunately, I finally realized that the critique of spectacle is hideously spectacular.

Help, I just realized that the anti-spectacle is indeed a spectacle

Yes it's true. My DADA needs a MAMA, but not in a heteronormative way, or even in a way that supports the idea of binary gender. My DADA also needs a ZAZA and a MEEMEE, a QUSO and a WEBFART.

What am I trying not to say?
Help, I just realized that the anti-spectacle is indeed a spectacle.

Most specifically I just realized that I am being interpellated by cultural studies texts that challenge the hegemonic culture making machinery. What does that mean? I mean that just when I think I'm resisting, or conspiring an "alternative", I realize that the university, the books produced in academia, and the language that we speak to critique hegemony, spectacle, and ideology are all spectacular distractions shouting, "Hey you, look over here!" Just when we get an embodied awareness of the matrix, we get seduced back into the fold, the plié, the crease, the contraction.

Cultural studies texts induce an internalized and masochistic prison industrial complex, including panopticonic surveillance structures, inescapable tortures, punishments, and incarcerations. The room has no windows. Only a ceiling open to an infinite sun, camera, eye. 24/7 people, I'm talking 24/7.

And I'm an artist. A performance artist past the edge of a nervous break (dance). No one understands me. Which is predetermined. We/they want it that way. And I am only now understanding how deeply embedded this failure is. But embedded does not equal embodied. The msm journalist in Iraq is disembodied, cut off from the socio-political body, in a way that should seem familiar to contemporary artists.

So I'm approaching DADA in Davis with some trepidation, some concern about my nostalgic formulations. Isn't nostalgia a further embedding of the ideology that is cyborg-izing what remains of the living tissue that was my bodymind. Ouch, why doesn't cyborg-izing hurt? Why isn't the surgery of interpellation leaving visible scars at the corporeal points of entry or exchange. And how are these points of contact, penetration, and embeddment, anything but the primary material of my dancing, where dancing is the live moment presence of the dance, the making of the dance, the embodiment of the dance?

So I refuse to dance DADA. I will speak to the dead object that is alive with fetishistic vibrancy. I will share my concerns with whoever can hear me. I know that the ear has not kept up with the eye, i.e., the ear listens from a more archaic paradigm than the eye, cyborgized at a faster rate by visual technologies and the languages that support them. So that means I will also sing, sound, moan, whisper, grate, shift, burp, scratch, vibrate and resonate.

Saturday. Davis. 90 degrees in the shade. I'll see you there wearing shades, dishing shade.

Keith X Hennessy

May 20, 2009

Liz Lerman Dance Exchange, Small Dances About Big Ideas

Photo by
Enoch Chan

Liz Lerman Dance Exchange

Small Dances About Big Ideas
Kanbar Hall, Jewish Community Center
San Francisco 4/19/2009

Modern dance, beginning with Isadora Duncan’s bare legs, uncorseted breasts and critical rants about women, socialist Russia, dancing children and free bodies, has always been political. Acknowledging the influence of formalism, minimalism, and various styles of abstraction, contemporary dance continues to engage social issues or pose socially resonant questions. But a dance about genocide and international law? Would it be doomed to disappoint or just depress? Despite Liz Lerman’s national reputation, I wasn’t surprised that they were giving tickets away in last minute email blasts to the local dance community. Who wants to see a dance about targeted mass murder? How can a dance meaningfully address horrors of this scale? With four free tickets, I could only convince one friend to accompany me. As I approached the theater I found myself repeating a new motto received from a UC Davis colleague Sampada Aranke, “Failure is generative.” Looking at failed utopian action as ripe with potential shifts the witness/critic role and encourages a more nuanced engagement with a performance or action.

Early in the piece, Lerman sits in a chair, her lap filled with notes, a mic in her hand, and begins to tell a story of being invited to make a dance for a conference at Harvard commemorating the 60th anniversary of the Nuremberg trials. She shared how she expressed doubt in the project, and how she was moved to request personal support and guidance to do the work. Charmed by this meta-performance that welcomed doubt and anticipated failure, I relaxed into my chair.

I have followed Lerman’s career as a choreographer, teacher, and thinker for over 20 years. Her projects inspire and facilitate social dialogue about ethically contentious issues, including refugees, genetic research, and now genocide. The dance company, Liz Lerman Dance Exchange, is diverse with respect to race/ethnicity and age. Lerman says that younger dancers dance better in the presence of older people, and she attributes this to love, the love that older people offer freely to youth. In Small Dances I was more often drawn to the two dancers that I perceived as the eldest, Thomas Dwyer, a tall lean white haired man and Martha Wittman, a long-haired woman who seemed to be the spiritual mother of the piece. Lerman is known in classrooms and studios around the world for Liz Lerman’s Critical Response, a methodology, which guides artists and teachers to give critical feedback without assuming culturally specific standards. The artist-centered process is based more in questioning than judging; it challenges the ideas of a common standard of artistic quality or aesthetic sense and supports cross-cultural collaboration. This multi-decade dedication to the art of social justice makes Lerman a likely candidate from whom to request a dance about the failure of international law to prevent genocide. Small Dances About Big Ideas premiered in November, 2005, at "Pursuing Human Dignity: The Legacies of Nuremberg for International Law, Human Rights and Education.”

In her opening monologue Lerman advocates a role for the body in political and historical discourse, especially in response to the often paralyzing impact of information and opinion. So what do the bodies do in this dance? Dramatic expression. Mimetic gesture. Representational images. The dancers line-up and get shot with staccato staggering and dense falls to the ground. They run in fear. Matt Mahaney represents Raphael Lemkin, who coined the term genocide and successfully advocated for a special class of international laws. The dynamic Mahaney/Lemkin jumps and waves, trying to get attention for his cause. When he fails, he falls repeatedly, almost violently. Stylistically the dancing and gestures recall socialist-inspired expressionist dance from the 30s, or the 70s ground-breaking feminist collective The Wallflower Order (which became SF’s Dance Brigade.) Ted Johnson, who plays the judge, could have done the same postures in Kurt Joos’ famed anti-war dance The Green Table (1932). Small Dances is postmodern in form but not in gesture, except when they fall, and here they release into the floor, spiraling to soften the impact. A younger man, Benjamin Wegman, shares the narrator role with Lerman. He introduces the characters represented by the dancers. There are the three mythical Norns (Shula Strassfeld, Meghan Bowden, and Wittman), Norse deities older than god, akin to Fates, who inhabited the waters in and under Nuremberg. Their natural hair, tattered scarves, long dresses, and a concern for the others, attempted to conjure a mythical feminine presence. There is Lemkin and the stoic, shiny bald, black robed Judge. Cassie Meador played The Bone Woman, based on forensic anthropologist Clea Koff who investigated atrocities in Rwanda. And there were two other characters that I called the man from Rwanda (Fiifi Abadoo) and the Bosnian woman (Sarah Levitt). I wanted more contact with these dancers, wanted to know which language they were actually speaking (as opposed to the languages I assumed for them), wanted to know even a hint of their personal story. How do they function, or identify themselves within the American-ness of Lerman’s perspective? Were they born here or there or where? The narrator played a reporter, a watcher. He seemed to speak both for Lerman and for us. What does genocide look like from across the gap of geography or generation? What does the witness do with the harrowing information and the implication of responsibility? The question was put before us, within us, and this alone validated the performance.

Lerman and her dancers wandered through the material like devastated archeologists, stepping over bodies, pausing to investigate the bones which hold all the memory of violence, daring to record the details of machete and sex. They touched bodies as if listening to their past. “Rape cannot be claimed as self-defense, ” someone claims. We have to think about that. Now. Lerman’s choreographic process led us on a difficult descent. She told us of being haunted by stories and bodies, but unable to stop the research. There’s too much to read. She lost the ability to remember in the evening a simple fact that she was told in the morning. And then she can’t sleep.

The most successful moment in the work led to its paradoxical disappointment. With all eyes looking forward to the proscenium stage, we were jolted by a loud sound at the back of the house. We turned to see the source of disruption, the narrator. He shook the protective aisle rail like it was a cage. Something fell and broke. It seemed dangerous, like maybe he had snapped, and had pushed the ‘play’ too far. The room was still, tense, charged. He told us that he was done listening, that he didn’t want to hear anymore. He questioned what was happening, and therefore he questioned our role, like his, of watching. He said, it’s good to talk about genocide, even to just try out the word, and that maybe we should just talk amongst ourselves. He was walking towards the stage as he spoke and we could now see that the other performers were watching him. No one was dancing. The stage was quiet. Lerman sat in the shadows, attentive. The house lights were up and we started to talk. I was with Neil MacLean, a researcher who has spent years on the questions posed by this project. I spoke about my resistance to the dancing and representational movement. I told him that the gesture of one arm chopping the other arm was done by David Byrne in the early 80s Stop Making Sense tour and I’ve thought it weird and undecipherable in too many choreographies since then. Neil sharped the focus and told me why he and many others find the term genocide problematic. He said that it should be ethnocide or something to indicate that it is not people (genus) but a specific family of people (ethnicity) that is under attack. We discussed how the politics of identity, including politics of naming and resisting genocide, often subvert potential solidarity by intensifying cultural and ethnic difference. And then our attention was guided back to the stage, and we were led in a group dance of mimetic gestures about pulling a story from the space around us, holding it, and then passing it to the person beside us. Although 90% of the audience participated in this follow-the-leader dance, I found it difficult to participate whole heartedly. It seemed to suggest a common experience and way of processing the intensity of the material, but really it served to pull us out of the intensity and back to dancing, as if synchronized dancing is a unifying experience, when Lerman and I both know that stories, bodies, and gestures are loaded with positions and identities that are more exclusive than inclusive.

The work continued for another 15 minutes or so, but I was still stuck in the break, in the disruption, in the moment of questioning what we were doing in a theater with this handsome group of sincere and talented people, and what good might come from speaking the word genocide aloud, together. Two weeks later, I’m still bothered, still asking.

I heard that after the performance, a World War II vet asked Lerman,“Is this adequate?” She acknowledged that it wasn’t. Of course the work failed to save lives already gone or rewrite UN charters or prosecute countries, including the US, who regularly shit on international law. I gathered with friends in the lobby. We were the minority who didn’t stay for the post-show discussion with Lerman & company. The lobby chat was lively and sharp. Although we had perspectives that resonated, no two of us had the same opinions about the work, about what happened, about what didn’t, what should have or might have. Respect for the work was our most shared experience. We were inspired to challenge or defend art’s role in addressing state violence. We felt pressed to reconsider historic atrocities and to strategize ways to prevent and recover from the kind of totalizing violence which permanently scars time, space, and community. This small dance, only 60 minutes long, idiosyncratic and maybe even trite, invited us to interact with history, with how violence, rape, and massacre are remembered and historicized. Lerman and company not only dared to accept this ethical imperative, but they held our hand and invited us to dance along, among the bones, which continue to haunt and to speak. Honoring a lineage of politically engaged choreographies, Liz Lerman’s Small Dances About Big Ideas touches people and helps us to listen.

May 19, 2009

Big Art Group's S.O.S. at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts

Big Art Group encouraged the audience to use their cellphones to take pics of the performance. These were snapped by Ernie Lafky who was sitting behind me. The top photo captures the balloon-gasm which concluded the performance.

Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco
April 23-25, 2009, 8pm

Q: “We’re parodies, what more can we do?”
A: “You’re a fool, dear.”

Big Art Group’s S.O.S. is (theater of the) Ridiculous B movie camp that may or may not be something else entirely. The hyper talented cast plays a trashy queer family of post drag revolutionaries sucking into the big nothing that might or might not be Realness, I mean, Realness ®. The gifted text crams the jargon of all the new academic Studies (Cultural, Gender, Performance, Queer, American) into chaotic fusion with the equally disturbing textual simulacra (infinite copies of ideological cliché) of the non-profit industrial complex. Are you with me? Neither am I. Now add lots of costumes, wigs, lights, loud music, body mics, live and prerecorded video projections, and children’s theater puppet crafts. (I mean by children not for children.)

S.O.S. is created by Caden Manson (director as well as video, set & costume designer), Jemma Nelson (writer, dramaturg, sound design) and Big Art Group. The script is near genius. I was jealous that I didn't write it first. The performers detailed professionalism does not detract from their freakish dissonance with professional theater. These people shriek and moan. I heart these fierce queens. The performance devolves more like a crisis, a situation. Picture a spectacular collision of lowbrow and high-tech with the budget and attitude of Vienna’s Superamas or Meg Stuart at Berlin’s Volksbuhne or an early opera by Peter Sellers. Big. Messy. Witty.

Eight large screens. Too many cameras to count. (They call it Real-Time Film.) More cheap f/x than you can shake an ur-text at. The fake fights of Reality TV. Facebook gossip. Twitters in a Cockettes film of Patricia Nixon’s wedding. And the Blaire Witch Project except that instead of dumbass actors who talk like mall rats lost in a suburban forest, it’s animals (or theme park mascots who think they’re animals) lost in a forest of technology. Anyway they’ve escaped the cage, their libido is wack, and they have no vocabulary to articulate their crisis.

Low-tech flashlights meet high-tech body harness video cams that televise the performer’s facial minutia in a banal mimicry of TV ads and drugged youtube videos. I say Hegemony, you say Fabulous. Hegemony! Fabulous!

These virtuosic speed talkers spit postdramatic text mashups of infomercial, black drag queens, academic critiques of accumulation and identity politics, spasms of relentless self-obsession and pop nostalgia for Patty Hearst era revolutionaries. Yes, its’ the Realness Liberation Front. Cut to Realness ® logo. Cut back to actor, queen, slave. Cut to stage hand (queen, slave) jiggling photo for earthquake-like background. Cut back to actor, fauxqueen, slave, spewing verbiage that we know too well.

Most of you won’t know what I mean when I say it reminded me of a particularly wild night at Trannyshack with a super fat budget but of course SF anarcho-queens would never agree to this many rehearsals and would never be granted the $50,000 in video equipment. Or was it more?

Frustrated screams morph into orgasmic moans and then neurotic giggles. “That is so totally fucked up.” I agree. “You are preparing us for consumption, for transition.” Wait I get the consumption bit but what do you mean by transition? Too late, they’ve spun faster than minds can acquire, “Slipstreaming past each other’s essentiality.” I’ll say. “The philosophy of the hopeless will be done with. We will begin the eon of a new Nothing!” These people look like they’re on acid but they talk like they’re on crystal.

Insane costumes of hundreds of those long twisted clown balloons consume the actor within. S.O.S.’s increasingly mad antics climax with an orgy of balloon attack and mic feedback. My buddy Jeff Mooney points out that this is the only time they directly touched each other. Meanwhile the escalation of spectacular nothingness continues to explode outwards while simultaneously sucking everything into its black holes of non-center. Lights out. The end. The revolution will be ridiculous.

What happened? Big Art Group re-presents trashy 70's drag freaks with massive techno budgets and very ambitious updates of Ludlum and Cockette. The text was pretty brilliant and the performers are delish but is it good or bad or just something? After they sucked us all into the big Nothing, most of us left empty, as in, I feel empty. Is Big Art Group the Dada provocateurs of our time: meaningless art to confront meaningless spasms and twitters of unending war and capital accumulation? Why don't I love it the way I love the Dada of 1916? Half my friends thought that S.O.S. constructed a brilliant and empty spectacle about the brilliance and emptiness of the capitalist spectacle. How brilliant! How empty! The rest acted like they’d snorted poppers and ran naked into a summer rain, smiling widely.

Then I realized that as much as it had one foot in the 70s and another in the 00s (pronounced, the naughts), Big Art Group’s S.O.S had another ancestor in The Living Theatre’s 1963 production of The Brig. The play, written by Kenneth H. Brown, is a hyperrealist representation of a US Marine prison in 1950s Korea. In this hellish dystopia the men can’t speak to each other. The stage is a complex grid of territories and every line crossed requires a ritual of submission and humiliation. The audience knows it’s bad, it’s hell, and they might be there forever. In S.O.S. we don’t even know. We think it’s fun or smartly ironic. The animals think they’ve escaped the enclosure but of course they can’t survive in the wild. They can’t even tell that there is no wild, that there’s only enclosure, surveillance, projection, a reality game. Their solidarity breaks down and they consume each other. In The Brig someone tries to escape. He cries out, “I am not a number. I have a name!” He is beaten and carried away in a strait jacket. In S.O.S, no one tries to escape. There’s nowhere to go. It’s all a borderland swamp where escape and captivity merge. Submission and humiliation are natural traits, embodied. We think we chose these products, these rules, these enclosures. Hyper connectivity and abbreviated codes for accelerated chat echo in the prison of a technosphere maintained by a panopticon of personalized webcams. We’re all on TV all the time. Ok children, everybody surveil themselves, turn yourselves in, beat yourself up. In both projects – The Brig and S.O.S. - the performers sacrifice themselves to an equally rigorous labor of seemingly meaningless gestures – stand here, cross this line, don’t move, move like this – all the better to control their every desire. The demand on the actors, by the director and the writer, reproduces a totalitarian regime rooted in some kind of consensual SM that any ballet dancer or football player would recognize. A ritual of sacrifice enacted on the young bodies of the players.

According to Big Art Group’s website, this sacrificial ritual called S.O.S. has a much older ancestor than The Living Theater. In 1913, Le Sacre du Printemps caused some kind of riot or disruption with Stravinsky’s dissonant and polyrhythmic score and Nijinsky’s choreography for a pagan girl, sacrificed by her own people. She dances herself to death. Attempting a “celebration of renewal through chaos” S.O.S. revisits the scene of the (art) crime to ask the question, "Can sacrifice create a new beginning?"

May 18, 2009

Lizz Roman & Dancers AT PLAY

Photo of Sonya Smith on the Dance Mission fire escape by Rapt Productions.

At Play
Lizz Roman & Dancers
Friday, May 15, 2009
Dance Mission Theater, San Francisco

I hate missing anything. I’m very good at negotiating site-specific performance and pride myself in being a good ‘participant’. In At Play, Lizz Roman’s newest choreography of architectural archeology, a vibrant quintet of dancers enlivens the walls, windows, doorframes, studios, hallways, bathrooms, and fire escapes of Dance Mission Theater. And it’s impossible to see everything. Shit. Then I realized that partial viewing is the point. It’s about the unseen, the surprise, the revelation and the sudden disappearance. It’s about the periphery in relation to the center and it’s about, “Where did she go?” and “Where did he come from?” Not only can the whole choreography not be seen, Roman challenges the idea that there is a whole.

Just as someone disappears from view you discover that someone else has been dancing for five minutes without you having noticed. Roman plays with our attention, abruptly tricks us, and then gently leads us. With the audience crowded into spaces never intended for public gathering, it’s clear that we’re not all watching the same thing. We can’t. Forced to choose, we follow different impulses and while half the audience has their necks craned to the right, the others are leaning to the left to see who just emerged from the stairwell.

A basic element of Roman’s site-specific dances, like most site or environmental performance, is to reveal the unnoticed and to bring our visual attention to places we might usually ignore. That’s why I refer to it as architectural archeology. However, Roman and her dancers seem as concerned with imaginal and archetypal spaces as with the visual or actual site. Watching a dancer fall out of our line of sight we might ask, “Who caught that woman as she fell into another room? What’s around that corner?”

I catch myself wondering if people dance in and out of bathrooms in other cities as much as they do in San Francisco*. Then I wonder how many people will find a new way to perform the fire escapes and external brick wall of Dance Mission. The Dance Brigade, Project Bandaloop, Jo Kreiter/Flyaway and I have all done it. This is neither the natural outdoor performance of Isadora nor Ted Shawn’s naked men at Jacob’s Pillow. This is closer to Trisha Brown’s 1970s experiments with rigged dancers walking down the sides of buildings, but subtract the minimalism, or Anna Halprin’s dancers on scaffolds in the 60s, but add a released and lyrical dance vocabulary that was not yet imaginable 30 or 40 years ago.

Co-composers Alex Kelly on cello and electronics and Clyde Sheets on percussion and electronics, parallel the experiments of the dancers. When some sounds, textures, or rhythms are prominent, an undercurrent of other sounds is happening in the sonic periphery. A child’s voice (Dahlia, Kelly’s daughter) recites her A, B, C’s as if she’s in the next room or just happened to sit next to daddy while the composers recorded a driving beat. Although we often can’t see the musicians except when traveling from one site to the next, we know they’re playing live. For the outdoor section, they play like neo-gypsy street musicians, using battery powered amps, a snare, Kelly’s electro cello, and a CD of prerecorded samples that was too mute to recall. Again, an evocative partiality occurs. Someone closer to that amp will remember it differently. Others might not have heard them singing live, unmic’d, briefly.

At every performance choreographed by Lizz Roman, I’m impressed with the ensemble, the team, the family of dancers. They shine as individuals, seem truly affectionate in duets, and are solid as an ensemble. They seem somehow unlikely as a team. When I heard that ODC veteran Brian Fisher (most recently seen dancing with Sean Dorsey) was in Lizz’s current company, I was surprised. But Fisher, again and again, shows us what a generous, willing, and versatile dancer he can be. Afterwards I told him that I’d never seen him do so many hand balances. He responded that he’d actually been a gymnast before a dancer. Roman treats the group democratically, sharing solos, alternating duets. Sure the men lift the women higher and more often, but women also support the men, and the same-sex lifting is where the affection is visceral. (But I’m biased towards actions that read as queer and feminist.) The way these dancers move between solo, duet, and company, alternating central focus and periphery, reveals a group bond that is more than a willful accumulation of disciplined labor. Maybe this invisible yet tangible bond is part of the unseen - the vibrant imaginary - that the work evokes.

It’s hard to imagine a better use or further exploration of the building, especially the transitional spaces - doors, windows, hallways, and the spaces between spaces. Sonya Smith and Tara Fagan performed a sweet duet for an improbable triangular space that links two dance studios. The molding above a door became as likely a place to find support as from her partner’s shoulder. All of these dancers, especially the three women, have lovely, muscular arms. They spend a lot of time, gently swinging onto their hands, pausing with their feet on the walls, and they seem to lift each other, or suspend themselves from doors and railings with ease. Kelly Kemp floated in a window frame overlooking the stairwell and James Soria jumped to grab overhead storage shelves like a parkour runner or playground athlete. Our experience of the dance and the space was enhanced by the spare and subtle touch of Jenny B. of Shady Lady Lighting. I especially liked the audience sofas bathed in blue and when the dancers in the lobby performed under a string of red bulbs, like a summer porch or vintage fairground at night.

Years ago Roman choreographed a piece at ODC Theater on 17th Street (now undergoing a radical rebuild). In that work (8-1/2 x 11) the audience watched the same dance from two different viewpoints. Imagine seeing a dance through a narrow doorway, knowing that you are only catching glimpses of a larger choreography viewed by the other half of the audience. In At Play, the audience is again offered a standard doorframe through which to watch a dance. Crowded, half of us sitting on the floor, we watch the five dancers in a line, leaping into and out of sight. We see landings with no take-off and rebounds with no landings. One dancer is carried into view, another is pushed halfway out the 2nd floor window overlooking 24th St BART, before he rebounds back into the studio, and then flies out of view. One dancer lies on the floor, and a dancer we can’t see, drags her from view, her legs trailing… as another dancer bounces into the visible.

For our final move we gather on and around two large sofas. An audience of strangers is now a happy family. Negotiating politeness is no longer necessary. We’re all in it together and accept the choreography that Roman has intended for us as we huddle together, sharing the same democratic spirit that the dancers have modeled. The music is pumping and the dancers are moving faster. Weight exchanges and supports are precise yet still seem gentle and easy. They are dancing now in the lobby where we sat to watch a hallway dance over 30 minutes ago. And we’re watching from what is usually the stage. As the music calms, the dancers disappear, Lizz points to our right, where they reappear at the top of the risers. Fearless Sonya Smith claims the steel beams that hold this building together. She recalls Joanna Haigood, a pioneering dancer of dangerous heights and exploratory spaces, concealing the work involved as she appears both relaxed and weightless. The final gesture of the evening is Smith’s back arching over the steal, her arms open to the side, heart open, available. Lights fade. Applause.

This review was, so far, easy to write. But I didn’t love everything about the performance and I wish I could as easily find the critical language to discuss what I considered the weak points of the work. To complicate things, I am a performer/choreographer in the same community as these people. I’m friendly with some of the dancers, the musicians, the choreographer, the lighting designer (Jenny B), the board operator, the videographer and the people who run the theater. Mutual respect among underfunded dance artists is important to me. I write about Bay Area dance and performance because of a painful lack of public discussion, visibility, critique and consideration. I don’t follow rules of journalism nor of academia, although I flirt in both fields. I’m stylistically prejudiced against most traces of Modern dance and Ballet vocabulary and compositional structures. So if I don’t always like or appreciate Roman’s movement choices, I tend to refocus on other aspects of the performance. Once I reveal my prejudices, of what value is it to critique an artist’s movement or compositional choices?

I want to ask the dancers about their faces. Where are they looking and are they trying to express something particular? Are the faces choreographed, like the arms, or the leaps? I’ve noted that the work investigates a physical, architectural space as much as it suggests psychic, imaginal, and allegorical spaces. Recognizing this dual or complex relationship to ‘site’ might explain the performer’s shifting choice of gaze and presence. Sometimes the dancers looked at us, acknowledged our presence, and acknowledged that we were looking at them. Other times they looked as if gazing over a distant horizon, or blanked their faces as if to reflect an internal meditation. I generally found this latter look confusing or off-putting. My alienation got worse when the cello sounded airy or moody to match these dreamy faces, and the gestures seemed less grounded in physical curiosity or in necessity. With a gestural vocabulary shifting between abstract and practical, I was caught between worlds, even time periods. But my attempt at critique only highlights the partial and inbetween where this dance played throughout the evening; playing between rooms, between inside and out, between visible and invisible, between the body and the imagination. Now it’s 5am and I’m still caught between, writing myself into further sites of transition and translation, between what happened and what I experienced. Thanks Lizz Roman & Dancers.

* Local spaces where performers have entered or exited from bathrooms: Smith/Wymore at CounterPULSE, Sunny Drake at The Garage, Lizz Roman at ODC, Neon Weiss and others at 848, Twincest at femina potens, Lizz Roman at Dance Mission…

Note: Audience size is limited to 30 people, and it is highly recommended that you buy tickets in advance. No late arrivals.

Lizz Roman & Dancers
May 15-17, May 22-24, 2009
Two shows a night 8:00 9:30
Tix $20
Dance Mission Theater, 3316-24th St. @ Mission, SF