A Wonderful, Wacky Swan Song
When Scott Wells appeared on the scene years ago, he was dancing with Kathleen Hermesdorf, wacky diva to Mr. Wells’ ironic straight man. There had been a paucity of humor in the dance scene in the preceding years, except for the lovely silliness that emerged from New York-trained Helen Dannenberg, who concocted deadpan vignettes with her impeccable offhand technique around such objects as an ironing board, or the wisecracking intelligence of Brenda Way and Kimi Okada, who could lean toward wit with Tharpish ease. Then came Mr. Wells and Ms. Hermesdorf, who put the tang back in tango and upended gender roles with an inventive freshness that made mincemeat of stereotypes while indirectly puncturing the pomposities of gender academics through sheer comic pluck.
When the dancing pair went their separate ways, it soon became clear that Mr. Wells had the corner on movement jokes and playful irony, while Ms. Hermesdorf veered closer to madcap drama queen. I haven’t followed Mr. Wells' career as closely as I would have liked, but his swan song to the 848 Community Space, (which soon moves digs to Mission Street, gathering into a South of Market (SOMA) mass of performance venues) was an experience for me in releasing the pause button and effortlessly picking up where I left off. Mr. Wells’ body has aged since I last saw him dance, and his lack of movement range a half dozen years ago has taken on the stiffness that soon overtakes even technically honed bodies, especially ones that smash against hard surfaces as much as his does. His dancers have changed, and he has expanded his artistic vocabulary to include his own accomplished guitar playing in the service of humor. But his movement concerns and his unflagging capacity for comedy are still very much in tact.
He called the concert "happy ending #4"—his sweet wit right up front in the idea that endings are neither singular nor final—even endings have endings in Mr. Wells’ world. The title also plays on the idea of a painter’s series—e.g. Cloud Cover #1,#2 , #3, etc. in which no single painting captures the essence of the subject—only the accumulation of interpretations comes close. Such ironic braininess is deeply embedded in the flesh of Mr. Wells’ work. He doesn’t clobber us with intellectual conceits, although sometimes I wish he would hit us a little harder.
The evening opened with "@848." And yes indeed we were at 848: huddled masses sweating together in the tiny black box space up a steep flight of San Francisco railroad flat stairs where the smell of perspiration and vetiver mingled and the dancers lurched inches from that part of the audience seated down front on pillows. This was the night’s tightest, funniest and most polished piece and had the audience howling with delight (especially one deafeningly vocal woman behind me). The kids responded vociferously to mysterious knocks on the door, ohhed and ahhed as dancers splatted against walls, dripped to the floor or tossed themselves headlong into the waist of a partner and then rolled away like pill bugs. This was a joyously madcap, comically dangerous and deliciously silly dance and the children knew it in their bones. It was also a love story—about the space Keith Hennessey and others founded and the community that has evolved from it—and like most love stories, it had a place for tawdriness, betrayal, humiliation and our animal essence as well as intimacy, the uncanny synchronization between separate beings, and the glory of the sensual.
The ceiling was planted with fake yellow, red and purple flowers, and the dance began when a woman, hoisted upside down on the shoulders of a man, tiptoed through this field in what seemed an inverted allusion to Pina Bausch’s "Carnations." In that same vein, the three women and men of "@848" were in formal wear, a conceit that was constantly and ironically undermined by the dancers’ fierce athleticism and doggy ways. Then, after a knock at the door, lovely classically trained Nicole Dessoye, who has taken to contact improv like a duck to water, in her blue chiffon cocktail dress entered the space, and, a la Lucille Ball or Carole Lombard, slapped herself against the wallboard with hilarious melodrama that blurred the distinction between the heroine about to be ravished and the starlet in love. Variations on that entrance filled the piece.
The ensemble soon assembled: three women, three men, in shifting formations, hurling themselves like pinballs against the walls and each other, performing shoulder stands on bodies then hurtling off into the atmosphere or slipping out one of two doors only to comically reappear in another entryway. With the synchronicity of acrobats and circus clowns the women hoisted the men, the men plowed into the women’s crotches, the men crawled after the women, and the group engaged in silly but effective parodies of classical dance and mating rituals, both hetero and homosexual, including the junior high school dance line-up with the girls’ clutch on one side, the boys’ nervously on the other. Mr. Wells, whose underpinnings draw as much from sports and team activity as from dance, knows how to send bodies through space with split second precision, and the sense both of daring and release that he is able to achieve is great. His musical choices were also funny. Bach, Chopin, Brahms and Stimmhorn were used to comment on not merely decorate the action.
But it wasn’t all seamless. Hearing the men hit the floor caused plenty of repeated gasps and one wondered how long before one of these guys broke a foot or shredded a shoulder. Melecio Estrella and Jesse Howell are all far less technically proficient than the women and rely more on brute strength to get them through the demanding sequences. Nor can they deliver the same stunning combination of hurtle into capitulation to gravity that Dessoye, Gitta Sivander and Rachel Lincoln, filling in for injured Frieda Kipar, could, and in such tight quarters this brought an unwanted tension to the work that it could have done without. I also hoped Mr. Wells would lead us to a deeper place, but like many humorists, his tendency is to keep the laughter going even at the expense of depth.
This was most keenly apparent in the rest of the evening’s program, which read more like endearing movement or thematic studies than like complete works. "On the Rebound," "the guitar lesson" and "Your Move" involved the nature of men’s play, and each piece focused on and was mediated by objects, whether balls, an electric guitar, or chess pieces. The last work, "Blue Moon" was less a dance than a coda that said goodbye to 848 by recapitulating bits of the night’s work as a young woman got up from the audience and sang a woefully flat rendition of Roger and Hart’s "Blue Moon."
"On the Rebound" with Mr. Howell, Andrew Wass and Mr. Wells (and ultimately Jesse Olsen) first involved basketballs and how the men could balance on them. Then came a surfeit of balls reminiscent of something called the Ball Room in Emeryville, where toddlers wade in rubber spheres and are allowed to pelt each other. The idea here was similar. Despite clever cross tossing, brilliantly synchronized catch, and funny fake juggling, what I was hoping for but didn’t see was allusion to being on the rebound romantically—maybe that was what the voyeuristic opening image from the kitchen beyond the performance space was supposed to suggest—three shirtless, shiftless guys trying to make do as roommates. Or perhaps the idea was that guys sublimate their feelings in a childlike bond with balls. Either way, Mr. Wells didn’t push the idea far enough to make the piece more than a light amusement.
"Your Move," which came directly after intermission, was more complex, in part because there is more to a chess piece than to a rubber ball, and the rules of chess are fixed while playing catch is freeform. Mr. Wass and Mr. Wells were a well-matched comedy team, and they captured a child-like disregard for the social meaning of objects in their wacky, take-no-prisoners version of a chess match. But once again, it would have given this gloss depth had Mr. Wells pushed his conceits to more mysterious levels.
"the guitar lesson," which came third on the program, had all the earmarks of a throw away line: Musician and performer Jesse Olsen creeps up on musician and performer Wells, imitates his body language and finally tries to play along. Remember Harpo trying to get into the act with Chico? It was something like that. The two men ended lying on the ground, Mr. Wells still playing the blues with Mr. Olsen accompanying on harmonica. In anyone else’s hands this would have evaporated into self-conscious silliness. These two managed to give us an unsentimental, even absurdist look at human mimicry and the strange combination of intimacy and detachment between the teacher and the taught. While the dance didn’t amount to much more than a visual one-liner, Mr. Wells’ imagination, intelligence and the sweetness of his irony make anything he does add up to something a whole lot larger than the sum of its parts.
2, No. 47