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Wednesday, Apr 9 1997
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-- Julie Chase

Double Take
Take Me to the Tenderloin, Now! Pearl Ubungen Dancers and Musicians. Continuing at Theater Artaud, 450 Florida, April 10-13. Call 621-7797. An accompanying photo exhibit by Ken Miller is up at S.F. Camerawork, 115 Natoma, through May 3. Call 764-1001.

Assumption messes with perception, say dancers Dong Nguyen and Ra Sek midway through Take Me to the Tenderloin, Now! "Just because you're wearing sneakers doesn't mean you're going to sneak up on someone," Nguyen says in an onstage exchange with Sek in this multimedia performance piece. "Just because you're wearing tennis shoes doesn't mean you're going to play tennis." True. And just because the subject of a theatrical piece seems clear doesn't mean you won't come out with more questions than you came in with.

That specific subject is life in the Tenderloin, where choreographer Pearl Ubungen runs a company of dancers and musicians and teaches free dance classes and workshops for at-risk kids. Where most people see drugs and crime, Ubungen said in a recent phone interview, she sees a vibrant immigrant community; to the kids who live there, the Tenderloin isn't the end of the world: It's home. Ubungen and photographer Ken Miller, her collaborator on the previous Bamboo Women, spent the last three years interviewing and photographing locals for an exhibit, now showing at S.F. Camerawork, and the performance, where the photos are projected behind the dancers.

If Ubungen is to make good on her artistic mission, creating work that's relevant to the people in the community, and then getting those people into the theater ("I'm comping in as many people from the Tenderloin as possible," she said), the first question is: How much relevance are people willing to see? An early preview performance produced protests from community activists about photos of kids imitating gang signs; the pair eventually withdrew 150 pictures and reshot new ones.

Still, the piece gets what punch it has from Miller's stark, eloquent black-and-white photo montage and the choreographic moments that crackle with kinetic energy: "Refugee Song," the opening tug of war for three dancers set against a dizzying video projection of waves; Nguyen and Sek's deft break-dancing; Ubungen's own vigorous solo; the closing line of dancers who advance downstage in a confident, hip-swaying shuffle stomp, and frame their faces with their hands as they corkscrew into the floor.

These moments are unfortunately infrequent. Francis Wong's original jazz-based score -- company musicians parked in an onstage corner weave it around Hmong, African, and Cambodian songs and rap samples -- is jarring, and the piece has a ragged feeling overall. Ubungen's use of very young dancers in addition to her company is nice for the kids, if not for audience members, who may feel at times like they're watching a recital. The opening night crowd was enthusiastic nonetheless, and at its best, Take Me is a moving, breathing excerpt of neighborhood life. But uneven pacing and some heavy-handed metaphors prevent it from taking off. Which leaves the viewers with another hard question: How much do good intentions count for?

-- Heather Wisner

The Bare-Assed Truth
Carnal Garage. By Tim Miller. Starring Miller and Alistair McCartney. Presented by the Dancers' Group as part of the Edge Festival at ODC Performance Gallery, 3153 17th St., March 28.

Two men, buck naked, do bicep-curls at the edge of the stage as the audience streams in. In the background film footage of naked men swimming in blue water pulses to a vocal disco dirge. The stage is awash in male flesh -- an evocation of male sexuality that is at once spiritual and sweetly mundane. After having audience members rub suntan lotion onto their backs, the two naked men hold up cardboard signs detailing their identities. Alistair McCartney is an Australian, 25-year-old, 158-pound, working-class, Catholic, homesick nomad. Tim Miller is an American, 38-year-old, 180-pound, middle-class, Protestant, neo-existential queen. Both are HIV-negative; both are alternately bottoms and tops.

Already this may be more than you want to know.
Indeed, this show is not for the faint of asshole, so to speak. As in past shows, Los Angeles performance artist Miller gives a, um, blow-by-blow account of his life via monologue, dance, film, and music; it's a genre that might be called "interdisciplinary auto-erotography." In early work, Miller took truth-telling to hilarious extremes -- announcing the real names, addresses, and phone numbers of his ex-lovers as they appeared in his stories -- and in 1990, he earned notoriety as one of "the NEA four" de-funded by Congress. Since then the performance scene has become glutted with confessional monologues detailing transgressive sexuality. The problem is that the form is inherently limited, almost always hinging on solipsistic self-revelation. But in Carnal Garage, Miller has unearthed a new, potentially richer form: the confessional duologue.

The men begin to trade snatches of poetry, coming together in a kiss so elaborate as to be acrobatic. Purring rhythms of electric guitar build as the two men narrate the story of their love affair. With their nimble bodies and the creative use of hot candle wax, a pair of jumper cables, and sand, the two men create an elegant S/M frisson. The older, more experienced Miller relies on simple, direct storytelling and self-deprecatory humor, where McCartney exhibits a youthful enthusiasm for poetic concepts like "memory" and "the body."

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