This week, The New York Times Lens blog featured a project by photographer Richard Renaldi, in which he invites New Yorkers, not known for being as openly affectionate as we on the Left Coast, to pose with strangers, bodies touching.
The results -- linked arms, palms meeting, side-hugs -- seem to be diagrams on the discomfort of proximity. In one, a man dressed in a rumpled version of white-collar-casual blue oxford shirt and khakis slings an arm around another in wife-beater and stained pants. His left hand is in tight fist, and his head pulls to the right, subtly straining away from his partner, whose hands, feet, and head perfectly parallel his stance of veiled distaste.
In another, an adolescent girl in short-shorts and a flag T-shirt places her hand on the arms of the police officer twined around her, holding them gently away from the menace of a choke-hold or a molestation. The recoil is subtle but perceptible -- intimacy can't be feigned.
Karl Frost's 90-minute Tocamé! (Touch Me), presented in June and July at Studio 12 in Berkeley, operates under a similar premise: Audience members are invited to become exceedingly intimate with a dozen performers, who themselves are randomly assigned duet partners just before the show begins.
The mode for the evening is contact improvisation. The performers wear bright-colored tanks and pants. The music is a mix of songs you might play for a late afternoon party: pleasant, good-spirited, but unremarkable, punctuated by bongs that mark intermission and end. Audience members sit on the floor along the perimeter of the room, and those wishing to join place themselves on stacks of gym mats.
As Frost describes it, Tocamé is "post-dramatic," a "collage of discrete experiments in physical and emotional contact." The first movement is literal, performed in twos and threes, with one blindfolded, highlighting the sense of touch and trust to which contact dancers consent.
Certain rules seem clear enough: Occupy the negative space of your partner. Share weight. Push your partner. Audience members are drawn in at predetermined moments to share the floor with performers. At intermission, Frost invites us to inspect the spreadsheet listing cues and partners, on which are listed terse prompts ("skin," "joints," "feel your body/bodywork," "awkward," and so on) that are realized without substantial contrast.
The results are variable. Moments of beauty emerge in the evident resilience of the body when asked to bear weight and resist gravity. At times it seems that everyone is engaged in an endless series of falls. At one point a pair of fingers met and wove like cilia in a warm puddle.
But there are also moments of embarrassment, of primitive impulses to probe each other's orifices, sweat that wets and stains the clothes in unseemly regions, the unavoidable attention to the palpable knobs and blobs of the body. All these are consequences of being close enough to give up the distance that keeps us civilized. What makes an invitation to move: a look? a smile? a breath? a desire to mirror the other?
Do we lean into the cavities other people leave for us or into the convexities of their flesh? When pushed, do you push back or do you fall? To what extent can we enter into the sensory experiences of others, and, ultimately, should we? The questions presented are fascinating, but the event as a whole somewhat shapeless.
Frost presents a deconstructed version of Tocamé, Improvising Touch on July 24 at the Garage, 715 Bryant St., S.F. Tickets are $15-$30; visit bodyresearch.org.