Monday, June 9, 2008

text tiles

Ghanian artist El Anatsui’s wall hanging, emperor's coat, landscape and metal quilt


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,,

summer in the city

For those who just moved to the area from Chicago, New York or other sites of blistering June-August heat, be forewarned: Summer in the Bay Area is a complex state of mind. Every day the weather swings from giddy freewheeling sunshine (Palo Alto, Orinda) to bone-numbing fog (El Cerrito, Berkeley, parts of Oakland and outer regions of San Francisco), gray plumes of frigid moisture stomping in with high drama and setting the teeth chattering.

This is no benign, balmy damp; we're talking fog that requires travelers to stuff their backpacks or trunks with extra clothes, down jackets included. While you may think the lovely Stern Grove or Ocean Beach look like estimable sites for a picnic, when the witching hour hits and the clouds roll in, early afternoon becomes indistinguishable from 7 o'clock, and what seemed bucolic looks suddenly like the cold and creepy setting of a Hitchcock pic.

So how does a presenter conduct an arts festival in a place that, instead of a steady climate, has a manic-depressive season with no appropriate name?

Answer: He skips Shakespeare in the Park, brings most of the art inside, and acts as if it's fall.

Andrew Wood, a rangy English arts presenter who launched the long-needed San Francisco International Arts Festival five years ago, situated it late in spring — right after the wave of graduations, at the tail end of the large presenting organizations' seasons, and before locals leave in search of real summer. His goal: to bring the world to the Bay Area and have the Bay Area see the rich arts in its midst.

"The city is a great incubator, and many young artists from all over the country come here to live and learn about their craft," said Wood. "But sometimes San Francisco is seen as being isolated from the world's major art centers. So, as artists mature, they feel they have to leave in order to fulfill their potential." In other words, don't blame it on the fog.

Wood is committed not only to keeping the artists here but offering them new laboratories in which to explore. "We are trying to create an international platform for local artists to present their work as well as to develop a model that promotes international relationships."

This year Wood has organized 40 international and local artists, closing with Afro-Cuban maestro Omar Sosa playing live in Yerba Buena Center gardens June 8, a Sunday event free to the public.

Between now and then Wood has lined up maverick dance collaborations, such as local company paige starling sorvillo's Blindsight in league with Los Angeles artist Lucy HG and Australian composer Susan Hawkins in a work called "thirty-seven isolated events" (through Saturday). The dancemakers' task is to explore the seam between the virtual and the real. Even if their goals read like a page out of a postmodern critical theory text, you don't need a philosophy degree to understand that the dance is gutsy and real.

Then, on Saturday and Sunday, Brazilian solo artist Cristina Moura presents the California premiere of "like an idiot." Here Moura plays on the univeral experience of being a fool and uses her eclectic Brazilian-European training to explore the experience we can all grasp.

In June, daring local movers Scott Wells, Kate Foley, Rachel Lincoln, Leslie Seiters, Leyya Tawil, Jose Navarrete and Debby Kajiyama are also given platforms to pursue multicultural conversations. The recurrent themes — themes that plague us all in an era of war, globalization and declining resources —— are about identity, place and what we can and cannot know.
Details: San Francisco International Arts Festival through June 8. Various dates and times. Venues include Dance Mission Theater, 3316 24th St. (at Mission Street); Shotwell Studios, 3252-A 19th St. at Shotwell Street; Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Forum, 701 Mission St.; and CounterPULSE, 1310 Mission St. at Ninth Street. $20. 800-838-3006,

REGINALD RAY SAVAGE'S work may seem to have little to do with the experiments the San Francisco International Arts Festival
artists imbibe. But in reality, Savage and his Savage Jazz Dance Company have been quietly, radically questioning the parameters of dance since he founded his company in Oakland 16 years ago. At the center of his inquiry is the identity of "high" art and jazz's place in concert performance.

Savage was trained at the Katherine Dunham Performing Arts Training Center in East St. Louis and by the ballerina Ruth Page in Chicago, and he has a well-deserved East Bay following. This month he presents "OakTown: DownTown."

Music is the lightning rod for Savage, whether it is live or taped, and music keeps the company pushing the boundaries of its jazz-inflected movement style. For "OakTown: DownTown," Broadway hoofer and guest artist Alex Sanchez dives into jazz-tango fusion in his untitled premiere. Savage challenges himself with the experimental sounds of Alarm Will Sound in his latest work "Blue Calx," while Savage Company stalwart Maia Siani has choreographed a new work "Between Us" to the lyrical soul vocals of Maxwell.

Details: Savage Jazz Dance Company: 8 p.m. today and Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday, Malonga Casquelord Center for the Arts, 1428 Alice St., Oakland, $10-15, 415-256-8499 or 866-558-4253,,

OAKLAND DANCE: The Fifth Oakland Dance Festival on June 21 and 22 has a lineup reminiscent of the first Bay Area dance festivals, one that fearlessly ranges across the dance spectrum agglomerating dance styles. On the opening night, June 20, it will creating mind-bending juxtapositions in rapid-fire succession when 12 companies fly across the stage in brief forays.
On tap are groups that range from mixed-abilities dancers, wacky movement theater performers, butoh dancers, East-West fusion artists to neoclassical ballet dancers (including guest appearances by San Francisco Ballet dancers Courtney Wright and Garrett Anderson).

Saturday's and Sunday's programs are more stately, with Company C Contemporary Ballet joining forces with ODC/Dance. But all in all, Oakland Dance Festival leaves the aesthetic and existential soul-searching for the other folks and engages in an old-fashioned variety show.

Details: Oakland Dance Festival, 8 p.m. June 20 and 21, 2 p.m. June 22, Malonga Casquelord Center for the Arts, 1428 Alice St., Oakland, $10 Friday, $20-$25 Saturday and Sunday, 925-708-0752.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

kung fu fusion

San Francisco's Lines Ballet has never been a stranger to cross-cultural collaboration. Long before mixing idioms was commonplace in the concert hall, company founder and artistic director Alonzo King began to inflect ballet with fractured, zigzagging shapes that held echoes of Asia, Indonesia and Africa.

Such cultural surfing could be an add-on or a gimmick, and in some hands it would. For King, however, recombining Western classical dance with non-Western forms is a fundamental aspect of his quest to find new ways of expressing what is shared across cultures and through time.

This week's reprise of "Long River High Sky," his 2007 collaboration with the masterful Shaolin Monks, demonstrates how potent cultural partnerships can be, and may be King's most riveting collaboration yet.

Performed through Sunday at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, the evening-long work teams nine exquisite Lines dancers with seven kung fu practicing monks from the Shaolin Temple USA in Fremont dressed in robes of two shades of saffron.

Though not always transparent in its aims and overlong at times, the two-part work is a stunning exploration of energy, intention and communication through the body. The monks make the ballet dancers appear like gods and goddesses; the dancers reveal the monks' extraordinary earthy power both as warriors and masters of the physical. Together they create what, at moments, becomes a dreamscape of sublime and glinting movers.

The night opened on the serpentine limbs of bare-chested Brett Conway flowing through brash fluorescent-lit space downstage as Shi Yanliang watched from his crossed-leg position on the stage floor. Then the two movers changed roles and the monk slashed and squatted and burst through the air with fighting limbs.

This pattern of observing, then being observed, of standing apart, then partnering, became the rhythmic structure of the night's many extraordinary exchanges. Two languages were being spoken. Sometimes their grammar and syntax overlapped, or their intent — to communicate, to clarify — were the same.

Breathtaking Corey Scott-Gilbert appeared to embody a bird during one eloquent solo, and when Shi Yanzhong partnered Laurel Keen, King created a beautiful moment of touching, awkward humanity that reverberated through the night.

reprinted with permission