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Mind Games 

Fellow Travelers Performance Group wants to crawl around inside your head

Wednesday, Oct 17 2001
The setting makes me laugh: Curving walls of unseemly brown, plastered with blobs that resemble spitballs, breasts, or bundles of male organs, sprout short ribbons, like those given to 10-year-olds in gym class. But here the ribbons are multicolored, green and orange ones adorning the wall alongside the award colors of blue, red, and gold. In fact, these cavelike surfaces are climbing walls and the blobs handholds on which would-be mountaineers belay and scramble. The ribbons are markers that delineate climbing paths between holds, color-coded for difficulty.

The site is Berkeley IronWorks, the venue for Fellow Travelers Performance Group's latest evening of irreverent dance-theater, "Mapping the Mind." Directors Cynthia Adams and Ken James claim to have landed at IronWorks out of practicality -- James works there, and the pair, when not scaling the faces of Yosemite, climb its walls together. The site may seem convenient, but these artists, who in the past have made balloon-smacking appear ingenious, are unlikely to accept mere convenience -- at least not without a keen sense of irony. Adams and James are flypaper to irony.

James, a dancer, climber, and long-distance runner, makes jokes about reading Dante's Inferno for laughs and learning German by reading Wittgenstein in the original -- all with an offhand, self-effacing ease. (He's "worthless for conversational German," James notes.) Poker-faced, he announces, "I'm really not that fond of dance," and I don't doubt him for a second, since he says it with the philosophical detachment of fact. Despite his dispassion, his dream, he says, is to make "something that is so wrapped together that you have an epiphany sitting in the theater."

Adams shares James' flat humor and dry, easy way with understatement, but she is no straight man to James' clown. The married couple engage in "parallel play" (like children who play alongside each other without speaking), creating individual dances, taking on the role of comic, or playing foil to the dance. Adams, the more formally trained of the pair, has dance degrees from UCLA and NYU. In school, film played an important role in her choreography, and it continues to crop up significantly in her newer pieces. She also worked at the experimental Performance Garage in New York and danced in Berlin. Both have concentrated their time and energy along the more radical edges of the dance scene, in the U.S. and abroad.

James began messing around with movement at Oberlin College, working to loosen up a body stiffened by running and biking. He did contact improvisation -- the free-form interplay of bodies in improvised duets or groups that arose out of '60s experimentation -- and got involved in performance art in Cleveland. "We'd put a concert together in an abandoned warehouse," James said one recent Saturday afternoon at IronWorks, as children scrambled up the holds and noise reverberated off the walls. "Bands would come and set up that we didn't even know." That wild, experimental sense of play, unhindered by rules, freed the participants to explore whatever interested them. The events drew audiences despite their obscurity.

That rulelessness, which initially defined dance for James and which is behind Adams' ability to find inspiration in almost anything, is on evidence this weekend in Berkeley and next weekend at ODC Theater. "Mapping the Mind" is a vaudevillelike array of dances with ironically portentous names that sound like the titles of soap operas, among them A Life Worth Living, Project Earth: Our Violent Nature, The Boat, and Guardian Angel.

In Adams' riotous Project Earth, she intones an abridged version of David Brower's environmental manifesto, "Third Planet Operating Instructions," as she is floated through space by two dancers like a gravity-free astronaut. Her voice is as cool as liquid nitrogen and startlingly neutral, which serves to dramatize Brower's message ("This planet has been delivered wholly assembled and in perfect working condition ..."). Video images of black and red paint being poured over her, accompanied by visuals of water, fire, and the effects of wind, appear on a screen behind the action. No harangue by environmentalists could have delivered the quiet wallop of Adams' ironic passion.

The video element of Project Earth highlights the role images have in Adams' work and their ability to spur entire dances. One idea arose at a party, where a couple planted their faces into either side of a balloon. The odd, surrealistic sight was so erotic, Adams says, that it led her to explore the use of balloons in dance. Similarly, a film noir image of two folks in trench coats under a ghostly streetlight crops up in Project Earth. While eroticism and mystery often infuse her imagery, Adams is not content to stop there; she subverts the images by attaching a Beckettian silliness to them. For example, when Adams balances a balloon on the end of her nose or when the dancers "play" a balloon like a musical instrument, the prop can be either a bridge to intimacy or a link to childish amusement.

James adds a similarly surreal humor to his works. His A Life Worth Living includes spoofs on task dance, in which dancers carry out activities on command (as when James shouts, "Smile!" and the performers break into ridiculous grins). These satires, nevertheless, are still apt little task dances, in that the jokes on wrestling, baseball, and cell phones simultaneously are and are not the activities they seem to be. At one point in the piece, James appears swathed in plastic wrap; dancer Jenny McAllister slowly slides down his leg as the roll unfurls above her. Like so many images that Fellow Travelers creates, this one looks simple, but is, in fact, complexity distilled. Who is that woman slipping down that man's leg, and why is he being shrink-wrapped to "Ridi, Pagliacci"? With an expressionist's facility for juxtapositions, James creates an effect that is passionate and sensuous, yet as offhand as its maker. The cumulative vision is of a familiar world in which the mask of the banal has been pulled away to reveal a zone of strange, ridiculous puzzlement.

"Most of my work takes place inside the mind," James says, "so it is trying to chart the terrain inside you." For a couple that likes to climb hard places, what turf could be more challenging to explore than the unseemly gray walls of the brain?

About The Author

Ann Murphy


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