Monday, June 9, 2008


Joe Goode's themes haven't changed much since he began making dance theater in the Bay Area 22 years ago. He still trucks in such peculiarly American gender stereotypes as the cowboy and the cheerleader, and from his vantage point as a gay man he excavates the messy and often heartbreaking truths behind those icons. But what has changed is Goode's approach, which is at once more tender and compassionate than when he set out, as well as more elegantly rendered.

The two-week run opened Friday at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts with Goode and group roiling the edges of the Yerba Buena Center lobby crowd. As the ticket takers ushered me in, I saw the choreographer strolling languidly through the lobby. He wore the fanciest cowboy shirt of the dancers, a black one with long white tassels streaming from each sleeve, and a cowboy hat pressed snugly on his head. He would have been at home as King of the Pendleton Round-Up.

The rest of the men (Felipe Barrueto-Cabello, Melecio Estrella, Mark Stuver, Andrew Ward and Alexander Zendzian) were dressed in varied cowboy garb while the women (Jessica Swanson and Patricia West) were in saloon-girl regalia. They were all toting guns, yelling "pow," or "gotcha" and taking aim at the concertgoers, breaking the boundaries not only of the proscenium-arched stage but of the theater itself. It was a scenario that reminded me of clever barkers outside a Broadway theater, bringing a bit of show to the streetsto lure in the passersby. It had little theatrical clout of its own, but it said, "follow me" with humor and follow we did.

This was how Goode launched his reprise of the 1996 installation, the "Maverick Strain," his wry distillation of the 1961 movie "The Misfits," which starred Marilyn Monroe, Clark Gable and Montgomery Clift. Like a good architectural structure, the cowboy scenario provided the choreographer a skeleton on which to hang wry observations about and inversions of iconic gender roles that run through the American bloodstream like a virus.

The world premiere "Wonderboy" had a radically different tone that was at once more formal and far more intimate, thanks to the magic of puppeteer Basil Twist, a third-generation puppeteer and native San Franciscan whose puppets are renowned for their uncanny lifelikeness and delicacy.

Accompanied by singer/violinist Carla Kihlstedt and pianist/drummer Matthias Bossi, "Wonderboy" was rendered as a series of small awakenings expressed through a beautifully expressive "boy" in a window. Looking out upon the world, he feels too much, sees too much and, through lovely touches of Asian theatrical influences, recounts his experience with poignant urgency.

Like Bunraku practitioners, two dancers held the Wonderboy in his spot in a mobile window frame (set engineered by Dan Sweeney) between billowing curtains, while another dancer stood downstage and uttered the puppet's thoughts, the speaker's voice electronically manipulated to sound childlike.

Between these, dancers engaged in dance vignettes, from a beautifully tender male-male series of lifts to a comically awful solo enactment of near date rape. A quiet river of life seemed to pass, and out of it an epiphany surfaced for the young, fragile observer: from so much aching feeling comes a profound experience of life's suchness.

By contrast, "Maverick Strain," which unfurled as a series of conversational snapshots, was far from "Wonderboy's" earnest poetic terrain, choosing to wrap itself around ironic cliches, ironic feeling tones and ironic subtexts.

Wry aphorisms about men and women amassed sweetly, like a well-arrayed pile of shotgun casings ("A woman's got to be strong; it's all she's got when she stops being pretty.").

Although it held no surprises for Goode veterans, it was rendered with the endearing and comic appeal of an old gun holster on the hips of a Mae West impersonator.

WHAT: Joe Goode Performance Group: "Wonderboy" and "Maverick Strain"
WHERE: Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Theater, Third and Howard streets, S.F.
WHEN: 8 p.m. June 13 and 14, 7 p.m. June 15
COST: $25-$40
CONTACT: 415-978-2787,,

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