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Into Thin Air 

Exploring gravity, before and after the fall

Wednesday, Feb 6 2002
In Jess Curtis' upcoming Fallen, you won't find an ankle-deep sea of office paper and fake body parts onstage. You also won't see any imploding buildings projected onto the backdrop, nor does the choreographer use film clips of people running from disaster in horror. That's because Fallen is not about Sept. 11 -- not explicitly, anyway. Fallen, according to Curtis, is a study of our bodies' mechanical need, with every step we take, to fall a little way toward the earth in order to move forward. It's also a look at our ability to drop into love, and an examination of the flawed state into which we are each born.

Yet because Curtis was working on Fallen when the planes hit, the evening-long dance-theater work has also become a paean to the catastrophic fall of New York's twin towers, and especially to the people who chose to leap from the highest floors of the World Trade Center, falling to certain death, rather than wait for fire to incinerate them.

"We thought people might think that the piece had been made as a response to 9/11," says Curtis by phone from his base in Berlin. In fact, he and his company, Gravity Physical Entertainment, have been working on it since last spring, as part of an effort jointly sponsored by ODC Theater and the German presenters Artblau and Fabrik Potsdam. "9/11 certainly had an impact on the piece, but some of the more blatant-seeming connections, like the body outlines on the ground and the name of the piece, were already in place" before the towers collapsed, he explains.

When the dance opens, the stage is marked by five forensic-style silhouettes of fallen bodies, above which are suspended several large, empty picture frames. The body forms are cartoonish but haunting. They recall, for me, a time last year when I came upon what looked like an homage to the artist Keith Haring near the Palace of Fine Arts. There on the ground was a beautiful white outline of a form on the black asphalt. It appeared to be the shape of a human body relaxed in sleep. I was delighted: Somehow an innocuous but rakish bit of art had spilled from the art deco theater onto that busy entrance to the Golden Gate Bridge. Then I read the commentary beside it -- which said that the form marked the spot where a jogger had fallen days earlier after being run down and killed by an overzealous driver. I sprang back onto the curb, horrified. Life, with a silent grimace, was imitating art.

Curtis finds that this interpenetration of life and art is part of his landscape as an artist, and themes that dominate his work often are reflected back to him subsequently in the world. "It's been amazing to watch the number of small falling events in the lives around me since making the piece," he says. "I have a feeling sometimes that the zeitgeist, or the collective unconscious, is bubbling up certain ideas through artists in a particular moment." Even in European festivals last season, he claims, artists used images that seemed to forewarn of Sept. 11.

He hit upon the theme of falling last year, but what began as a purely formal motif accumulated many idiomatic nuances as he and his four dancers performed movement exercises in preparation for the piece and wrote about the experience of falling. "The original theme of falling, for me, was a way of getting back to basics," he explains. "In so much of the work I've been a part of, falling is very, very central to the foundation of the dance. If you've studied dance you know that any movement actually requires a certain amount of falling."

There is an adage, Curtis recalls by way of illustration, that says, Walking is just falling and catching yourself over and over again. "Any kind of movement requires moving out of the center of your balance," he says. "To set your body in motion you have to fall. So there is that level of fall that non-dance people may not regard as falling but [that] dancers all know is. When you are running you are really falling very fast forward, and you're just letting your legs keep up with you."

Fallen is loosely constructed into a series of vignettes that investigate various aspects of the body as it yields to gravity. In one scene, a couple at a kitchen table, framed as though the subjects of a painting, play a menacing game in which they drop an egg into each other's hands. In another scene, all the dancers lie down on the floor and inhabit the silhouettes, lifting their heads and limbs like sky divers pressing through the air. Later, a couple take turns leaning out dangerously from each other's bodies, then rising and descending in each other's arms.

"Falling is such a ripe metaphor for so many things," Curtis explains. "It appears in so much literature and in so many myths, from the Garden of Eden to Icarus, and on. And in everyday speech we talk about falling asleep and falling in love. Our state as humans is referred to as a fallen state. Our collective mythos has framed our being here as a fall from a higher place."

Living in Germany seems to have brought a certain gravitas to Curtis' work, a greater appreciation of formal structure than could be seen in his earlier efforts. With the troupe Contraband, where Curtis made his mark in the mid-'80s, episodic structure was haphazard: One segment would present a drumming interlude, another some unrelated chanting, with a duet somewhere along the way intended as a sensuous celebration of the body, and little more. Fallen is episodic as well, but the string of moments is connected by the physical motif of bodies collapsing and recovering, then weighted with some of the melancholic irony that German choreographers bring to their work, which gives even vague choreographic associations a unifying personality. By narrowing his physical focus, Curtis has built himself a frame, and the picture we see is sharpened.

Despite the German influence, Curtis, who grew up in Chico, remains quintessentially Californian. Against a soundscape of dolorous cello in counterpoint with droning electric guitar, Fallen manages to make angst sweeter, more innocent, and even more desultory than the suffering evident in a Pina Bausch piece, or in the work of fellow German dance-maker Sasha Waltz. There are no fallen empires, fallen walls, or fallen heroes here. Just lovers and loners and workers who chose to die like birds with broken wings, the sun on their backs and catastrophe behind them.

About The Author

Ann Murphy


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