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Flying High 

Jo Kreiter speaks softly but swings from a big stick

Wednesday, Apr 4 2001
You have to laugh when soft-spoken Jo Kreiter calls herself the Shape Nazi. She doesn't mean that she leads Weight Watchers groups sporting black boots and a bullwhip, nor that she recklessly sculpts her body through liposuction and plastic surgery (leave that to Michael Jackson and Cher). Rather, she means that she is a dictator of dance forms, an autocrat for the beauty that can arise from shapes, and a tyrant toward the space she works in. Jo Kreiter, in other words, is a fiercely serious artist.

Kreiter, a 35-year-old former gymnast turned choreographer, is the kind of woman who would give a Nazi nightmares. Her dance troupe, which has the whimsical but apt title of Flyaway Productions, performs in the air on poles, trapezes, cranes, fire escapes, and any other provocative props Kreiter can find. In 1986 she got herself arrested during the shantytown sit-ins at Duke University while protesting the school's investment in South Africa. She has stood with workers in her dances and opposed the KKK in North Carolina. In addition, she is a quiet but ardent feminist who optimistically sees each generation standing with greater strength and freedom on the shoulders of the one that came before. What's more, despite her size (only 5 feet 2 inches and around 110 pounds), Kreiter has upper body strength equal to plenty of guys. Gymnastics and circus arts training have given her a level of physical prowess few promoters of Kinder, Kirche, che ("children, church, cooking") could abide.

Beginning this week and running through April 22, Flyaway Productions (Kreiter, Christine Chen, Patricia Jiron, Krista Denio, Rachel Shaw, Rachael Lincoln, and Dominique Zeltzman) presents the premiere of Kreiter's latest aerial work, Maybe Grief Is a Good Bird Flying Low at the SomArts Theater. Like all of Kreiter's work, it is a dance that involves apparatus. But unlike the queen of apparatus-based dance, choreographer Elizabeth Streb, who uses walls, catapults, and harnesses like a speed freak unleashed at the circus, Kreiter regards her apparatus with the loving admiration of a conceptual artist. "Steel is very luscious," she says, laughing, in a recent interview. "I love that it's hard and not padded, and I like the contrast of the hardness and the frailty of the women's bodies against it. When you see men work with steel you get these immediate images of the worker, but we don't get that with a woman's body. Working with these hard physical elements, the question for me becomes: How can one transcend that hardness?"

For her 1999 piece Body Project, the soul needs a body she centered the work around the brutally demanding stationary pole used in Chinese circus, which she had learned after five years of training with pole master Lu Yi at the San Francisco School of Circus Arts. This time she has asked designer Lawrence LaBianca to contrive trapezes, steel shelves, and a contraption she and her dancers call the merry-go-round all out of 1-1/2-inch pipe and some of the loveliest eye bolts a hardware store is likely to house. The trapeze hangs from a ceiling 40 feet up, allowing for a formidable arc, while the swinging circular device that sails 20 feet into the air resembles less a carousel than an outsize chandelier from a Laredo saloon with all its lights shot out.

Its evocative title taken from a poem by S.F. writer Kim Addonizio, Maybe Grief Is a Good Bird Flying Low is what Kreiter calls an investigation into female grief. Kreiter shapes the piece with the rigor she brings to her second passion: writing. "The only composition I ever studied was writing," she says, "and I learned to compose for the stage by learning to craft on the page." Like any good author, Kreiter avoids extraneous details in her work and builds subtle rhythms into her dance phrases using gymnastics, contact improvisation, release work, and rigorous modern dance movement.

As I entered the dark theater of SomArts, where the company was rehearsing two weeks ago, Kreiter's voice called down to me. After looking about blindly I located her 30 feet up on a narrow perch of 2-by-6 beams, where she and Rachael Shaw were rehearsing their molten duet of tender antagonism and gentle succor. Tucked below them in a dim corner, Krista Denio rocked in maddened isolation. Behind a corrugated wall put in place for another production, Patricia Jiron swung with svelte strength to her perch to curve, thrust, contract, and coil inward in an unsettled, interior solo. She repeatedly brought her index and middle fingers to her mouth, like a smoker, a gesture she said came from her own mother and meant "Don't say it in front of your father."

With the audience arrayed at the front and back ends of the narrow theater, the dancers will move from their stationary pedestals, where they stand like troubled icons, to free-swinging devices, at which point they'll begin to sail and dangerously hurl themselves into space -- low-going birds that embody the complexity and anguish of a woman seeking freedom. "Grief is something you have to deal with in a society where there's violence against women," Kreiter explained. "It's our social inheritance. So the engine driving the work was the question: How can I make a piece that engages some of the emotional issues I carry around?"

Using a combination of tension and melting, the movement makes clear that her concern with grief begins with the body, encompassing sorrow's gestural language and its emotional tone as well as its private and social character. The piece then moves to the confrontation with the industrial-strength metal of the apparatus, a confrontation that is thrilling and unpredictable, bound yet free. But even with all the steel and strength, a red dress appears and reappears throughout the course of the dance. "I want things to be beautiful even when they're tragic," Kreiter laughed.

"There's a fine line between grief and rage, and one of the main questions of the piece is how to take your grief and transform it. What is the strength it takes to do that? My mother grew up believing that women were second class. It poisoned her own life, but she made sure not to pass it on." With Maybe Grief Is a Good Bird Flying Low Kreiter gets the chance to shape that ancient grief and let it fly away.

About The Author

Ann Murphy


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