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Wednesday, Apr 1 1998
Liking Lumpiness
The Aesthetics of Awkwardness. Choreography by Bill Shannon. Performed by Shannon and members of Axis Dance Company. At Yerba Buena Center for the Arts' Forum, 701 Mission (at Third Street), March 17. Call 978-2787.

Awkwardness and the mundane have graced modern dance since the '60s, when the pedestrian made its gawky debut. Using the movement of non-dancers (if not the non-dancers themselves), '60s experimentalists created pieces as lumpy and charmingly inept as daily life. Though modern dance today accepts the values of plain old prettiness and seamlessness, it likes lumpiness too.

The Aesthetics of Awkwardness features disabled dancer and choreographer Bill Shannon, who uses crutches and skateboards in his work, in collaboration with Oakland's Axis Dance Company, many of whose members are disabled. Together, they stretch even the expansive definition of modern dance. Shannon's solo piece, "Regarding the Fall," and an unnamed trio for himself, Nicole Richter, and Judith Smith depict the experience many people have with limitation -- but they're not just depicting it. Moving on crutches and in wheelchairs, the dancers convert a common feeling of hapless awkwardness into flesh, a state of being.

"Regarding the Fall" begins with Shannon on crutches, struggling to open one of the glass doors of the center. (The show was held in the center's forum, the wheelchair-accessible lecture hall.) His silvery suit and the enormous Army-green helmet covering his face transform the buffed dancer into an astronaut-emulating geek. A metal leg brace slung over his shoulder bangs against his back, and his legs wind like vines around his crutches' lower rungs. Shannon hobbles slowly to center stage, grunting with effort, and crashes to the floor. The room blacks out.

When the lights come up, he is helmet-free and removing his jacket. The back of his T-shirt reads "Faker," a moniker that soon explains itself as he skims along, on crutches and legs, as smooth as a hockey player. After a couple of laps around the room, Shannon returns to center, where he uses his crutches as a base for hip-hop jigs and gymnastic swings.

"Regarding the Fall," moving from awkwardness to elegance -- from a "handicapped" person's presumed limitations to a surprising range of motion and expression --- seems to be heading for a soaring climax. But in fact, Shannon's vision is darker than that: In the end, his movement carries the shadow of pre-Fallen difficulties. He turns away from us and limps offstagein semidarkness.

Is Shannon tired as he leaves or is he just performing "tired"? Has he made an artistic choice or is he dogged by physical necessity? As audience members, we get to choose how we think about disabled dancers and what they can and cannot do, but the dancers' choices with regard to their bodies are limited. The Aesthetics of Awkwardness escapes the sense of tragedy that tends to accompany physical disability: It calls attention not just to the dancers' reflexes but to the audience's. At one point in the trio, for example, Shannon moves over to Richter -- flopped forward from her waist, like a rag doll -- to help her up. But he stumbles as he reaches for her. She works to help him up, and falls down. Their struggle -- crutches, legs, and arms moving in a futile frenzy -- becomes a tango, where dancing and intimacy and entanglement and immobilizing someone with good intentions slide together into one.

-- Apollinaire Scherr

Floggin' Funny
Wm. Floggin' Buckley. Written and performed by John Mendelssohn. At Teatro v. Wade, 50 Oak (at Van Ness), through April 25. Call 972-8027.

In what may be the city's smallest theater space, on the second floor of a grand old building near Market Street with copper ornamentation and marble steps, a man who used to be a critic for Rolling Stone and a sometime musician in his own right is giving a monologue about his brief and painful experience working for Larry Flynt. It's called, for no clear reason, Wm. Floggin' Buckley. The title derives from an offhand comment by one of the characters, a British editor named Rupert. "I didn't say we needed William Floggin' Buckley, did I?" he screams at one point; but since it's Rupert's habit to use the word "flogging" every time he means "fucking," the monologue could just as comfortably be called "Jesus Floggin' Christ." It really, profoundly doesn't matter -- especially not to the author -- and this sense of abdication flaws what's otherwise a very funny show.

Back in the day, John Mendelssohn pissed off readers at Rolling Stone by twitting Led Zeppelin and touting the Kinks. The show is about one of his later journalistic stints. He starts with a withering skit about a job interview and then segues into a coolly delivered story about one item on his resume. "Hammond Palmer Publishing" is the thin fictional cover for Larry Flynt Publications, and what sounds at first like a digression from the interview turns into a well-controlled stream of narration and acted-out characters. It's fluent, fast, roundabout, and disgusting. Mendelssohn casually notes the lack of "women with open labia" in the waiting room of Hammond Palmer and says the offices are about as "erotic as a savings and loan. ... These were the same people you'd see at your bank or, a couple of years later, at a Whitney Houston concert." But that's just his first impression. He goes on to describe a staff of people who wouldn't be out of place on the cover of Dylan's The Basement Tapes. Rupert is a flaming asshole of a boss; Sylvia is the oversexed Southern sister of the owner's wife; and then there's the wheelchair-bound Mr. Palmer himself (Larry Flynt), with "little piggy eyes" and pink skin. Mendelssohn throws himself into all these characters, and if the story is hard to follow it never lacks crazed energy or color.

But it ends abruptly. When the irate father of a 15-year-old model locks himself with two hostages in an office at HPP, and gets arrested by cops who don't even seem interested in the idea that a 15-year-old girl might have been posing for Larry Flynt, you start to believe the story is going somewhere; but the narrative trickles out and never rounds back to the job interview. This makes the whole thing feel as arbitrary as the title. Apparently Mendelssohn has done a version of this show before; two years ago it was called I, Caramba, after his written autobiography. Why "Buckley" and not "Caramba"? Why anything? Well, it's funny, at least, even if it feels like the author gave up on his story four-fifths of the way through.


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