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Friday, September 4, 2015

Lizz Roman and Dancers Break with the Black Box

Posted By on Fri, Sep 4, 2015 at 8:00 AM

click to enlarge Dancers: Sonsheree Gilles, Megan Lowe - AFSHIN ODABAE
  • Afshin Odabae
  • Dancers: Sonsheree Gilles, Megan Lowe

Choreographer Lizz Roman has been making site-specific work in the Bay Area since 1995. Roman doesn’t just build a piece around a location, she invites her dancers to participate in the choreographic process from the moment they set foot in the space, asking them to respond directly to the physical environment. During a performance, the audience also moves through the space, making the experience as particular for each watcher as it is for the individual dancers. At the same time, dancers and audience engage in a distinctive experience of shared attention.

“I always encourage the people watching to look all around. [For the dancers] there is nothing more beautiful than seeing faces looking up at you.”

click to enlarge Dancer: Megan Lowe - AFSHIN ODABAE
  • Afshin Odabae
  • Dancer: Megan Lowe

If you join me and other fans of Lizz Roman and Dancers for a performance of This Beautiful Space “DANCING@CIVICCORPS," which opens at the CivicCorps job training building in Oakland on Friday, Sept. 11, you might find yourself watching one dancer swing from the rafters, even as you prepare to follow another up a steep flight of stairs. For the past four months, Roman, her nine dancers and the musical group WaterSaw have been working together at CivicCorps to develop a performance that could take place no where else. In keeping with Roman’s preference for open rehearsals, the job training programs that take place in the building have continued while the dancers have crawled, leapt, and rolled along ladders, staircases, and yes, rafters.

“Early in the process, one young woman [who was there for a job training program] was watching and saying, 'This is like art. This is very artistic,'” Roman said.

Roman, who cites Joe Goode as an influence, is among those artists who break with the black box and blur the line between art and the rest of life. Dance, she says, is life — a deceptively simple statement, particularly if you consider that Roman got her start in ballet. She moved on to study all aspects of theater at Chicago’s Goodman School, and then pursued psychology and social work, and also worked at a record label. She continued to dance, but sought ways to reframe the experience of performance, both for dancers and for audiences.

Her theater training gave her a fascination with sets (for one performance in a parking lot, she and her husband built a staircase that was 12 feet tall, four feet deep, and five feet wide), which developed into an interest in working with existing environments. She also began deepening her work with musicians, engaging them as equal creative partners, rather than as accompaniment. Collaborations with cellist Talitha Jones and participation in Vexations — dancer Kerstin Kussmaul’s 21-hour continuous take on composer Erik Satie’s durational piano piece — led Roman to embrace her ongoing effort to find fresh interplay among the static, the aural, and the kinetic possibilities of performance.

click to enlarge Dancer: Caleb Rhodes - AFSHIN ODABAE
  • Afshin Odabae
  • Dancer: Caleb Rhodes

“[For This Beautiful Space] WaterSaw began by watching the dancers rehearse and responding musically. Then they worked some things out on their own and came back with music that the dancers in turn respond to. The dance and the music meld together and generate one another.”

Roman says that over the course of months of rehearsal, a theme arose. It turned out that several of the performers were experiencing grief and loss in their lives. Contemplating the relative fixity of architecture, the performers may transmit a contrasting sense of the body’s ephemeral nature. But rather than being overtly elegiac, the piece is grounded in wonder that we are here now, alive, participating in an unpredictable world. This Beautiful Space “DANCING@CIVICCORPS” is not set to a count, but it is intentional and fully developed. Still, Roman maintains some improvisational tension by involving the audience as a moving part. Someone might momentarily block a duet, or get in the way of a leap, so that dancers have to make changes on the fly.

Roman tells me that when the company was rehearsing their 2012 show at CounterPulse, DEEPER, she had to regularly remove and then replace a pile of dirt under the risers that was part of an art installation. This Sisyphean effort itself seems like a metaphor for the act of artistic creation. The work is never done, but for a moment, the performers and audience inhabit a changed world. I recall that DEEPER began with the dancers in the hallway outside of the performance space, and that I was struck by how quickly the doorway I had recently passed through took on a new meaning. Through the door, now reframed by a dancer’s body, I caught sight of the street. A passerby peered in, and his face lit up with a mixture of alarm and delight. Roman invites us to share in this delight — to recognize the potential for mundane environments to become crucibles for the sustained attention that yields art and a sense of shared humanity.

This Beautiful Space DANCING@CIVICCORPS, Fri.-Sat., Sept. 11-26, at CIVICCORPS Job Training Center, 1425 Fifth Street, Oakland.

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Elizabeth Costello


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