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Shut Up and Dance 

At Summerfest/dance, local companies just couldn't keep quiet

Wednesday, Aug 16 2000
You have to wonder whether dance theater auteur Joe Goode ever cringes at the epidemic of text-in-dance his success has set off in the Bay Area. Everywhere you turned during the ninth annual Summerfest/dance series, dancers just couldn't keep their mouths shut. Nearly a full third of the 31 pieces to appear in this year's festival featured dancers chatting, their banter frequently distracting from the many genuine moments of glory in the works of less verbose peers.

Only one program among six was dance-theater free -- that is, if you didn't count the dispensable recorded intro to Stephen Pelton's lovely the path of rocks, lit only once. If these Goode-influenced dance-theater works were less formula and more aesthetic philosophy, we might be able to christen them a movement. Instead, what we have is a full-blown infestation, and we should be grateful to Summerfest for bringing it to everyone's attention.

Now, whether text belongs in dance is not the issue, although it certainly wouldn't be difficult to build a case against it. Even Doris Humphrey, writing in the late '50s, balanced her arguments for experimentation with text by adding that "narration should be brief, should not overpower the movement. ... If words are going to be the point, they would be better off in a book or play." The fact is text-in-dance is hardly new and hardly innovative. And yet not a few contemporary choreographers -- Maguy Marin and Pina Bausch in Europe, the collective 33 Fainting Spells, among others, here in the States -- continue to turn out astonishing works of enduring significance in this territory.

Neither does it matter whether Goode's work, showered as of late in grants and awards, deserves the influence it obviously wields. He is a midcareer choreographer, not a proselytizer. And today's copycat choreographers take their cues not just from his basic framework, but his every creative tic, reflections of his personality and persona for which he couldn't possibly be held accountable. Thus in The Bounds of Discovery by Karl Schaffer and Erik Stern, two charismatic performers experienced enough to know better, we have an endless litany of free association, one of Goode's favored devices. (Note to dancers-turned-writers: Free association works best as a brainstorming method, not as a mode of composition in and of itself.) And in Shona Curley's Watermelon Sugar, we get the full Goode experience: props (in this case, of course, watermelons), a politically charged story of repressed homosexual attraction, and even those ubiquitous shoulder stands that form the core of Goode's movement vocabulary.

What does matter is that Goode spent more than a decade dancing in silence, learning the choreographic ropes with the revered Margaret Jenkins, a training step many of today's dance-theater hopefuls lack. And what also matters is that however much skill with words you judge Joe Goode to have, today's Bay Area dance-theater choreographers have less. So many performers presume that their own minimally digested experience will command rapt attention. The gracious Ann Woodhead, for instance, told us of her asthma in a speaking style reminiscent of Elizabeth Dole addressing the 1996 Republican Convention, then -- a good five minutes later -- got around to dancing a rather charming tango/modern/ soft-shoe solo. Carol Kueffer interrupted the beginning of an engaging ethnic dance-tinged solo with sentimental remembrances of her grandmother. And Randee Paufve -- having established herself as a choreographer to watch with her stylish solo in Suite Incomplete and her skillfully structured, emotion-laden trio Misgivings -- unleashed musings on her teenage attraction to Richard Nixon while victory-signing along to the tune of "The Impossible Dream."

The best among the "talkies," as we could call them, was Erika Shuch's The Beauty School, whose appealingly quirky performers took the time to sketch out a universalized story of sexuality and body image not predicated upon their personal existence. Not surprisingly, then, the choice works of this year's Summerfest crop tended to be the silent, even -- gasp! -- musical works. Lea Wolf bowled everyone over opening night with the premiere of her Nine Valentines. An explosive exploration of sexual longing and vulnerability, Nine Valentines is -- like most Bay Area dance works -- not especially "dancey," but it is refreshingly musical, fleshing out Carolyn O'Brien's original techno-influenced score with violent lifts and aggressive jumps. And, although a bit overlong, it sets up tension and keeps it building through visually inspired segments in which dancers balance on doll-sized red chairs or pass bright red flowers directly from one mouth to another in an orgiastic round robin.

Steve Hunter showed great promise with a revival of his 1998 Haphazard -- in which safety-suited men cavort with a stick of radioactive material -- and the premiere of Disorderly Conduct, in which ill-behaved orderlies torture their charge. Both works are unmistakably masculine, and both know when their conceits have been exhausted and keep things succinct. Oakland's Nuba Dance Theater revived a dance team-flavored but thoroughly electrifying work to music by Stevie Wonder, and Sonya Delwaide brought back her stunning 1996 duet Depart, danced with elegance and passion with Jadson Caldeira.

But most engrossing by far was Annie Rosenthal's There We Are, premiered at Theater Artaud earlier this year. It so happens the work is loaded with the spoken word, all of it recorded, since There We Are is about the dancer's inherent dislike of verbal communication. One by one in videotaped interviews, Rosenthal's immaculately trained performers speak awkwardly and with utmost reluctance about themselves, always revealing potent physical metaphors for their life issues that find their clearest expression in the live choreography. Their movement, as one of the dancers quotes Martha Graham as saying, never lies. The work made an ironic finish to this year's text onslaught, and a poignant lesson, too.

About The Author

Rachel Howard


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