writers on dancing


They’re the Fragments of the Day, and They’re Happening

“House Special 3” Workshop
ODC Theater
San Francisco, California
August 21, 2004

By Christopher Correa
copyright © 2004 by Christopher Correa
published August 30, 2004

It seemed almost fitting that the “House Special 3” workshop premiered on the opening weekend of the latest cinematic exercise in exorcism. The performances Saturday night at ODC Theater permitted several opportunities to witness a girl possessed, some quite reminiscent of a young Linda Blair in that original 1973 fright fest. Under the supervision of workshop director Rob Bailis, though, the most recent victims of some supernatural puppet-mastery made it look like a downright giddy experience. ODC brought four works—truncated or unfinished—to our attention, a couple of which offered a medium’s acuity into the phantasmagoric ambit of interpretive dance.

Rachael Lincoln emerged as a fresh, literate young director (her staging hardly qualified as simply choreography). “sorry about the accident” unfolded like an elliptical playlet, but managed to tell, however briefly, at least half a dozen stories before attempting to resolve itself full-circle. Ms. Lincoln exhibited a mastery of dramatic timing, put to striking use over the course of the piece, which she had described beforehand as a cross section of the “physical experiences that you can’t fake and have to feel your way through.” This was a misleading preface, primarily because some of the scenes she put together often dealt with the intangible.

“sorry about the accident” began with a David Mamet-esque pair hunched over a card table. Lighted overhead by a hanging bar lamp, Melanie Elms and Jessica Swanson faced off, motionless at first, and established a ferocious dynamic as mahjongg rivals (and later, as competitors in a drinking contest). They suggested cats in confrontation; the tension shifted from their unblinking glower to the raised arch in their shoulders. The synergy between the two was in turns flirtatious and threatening.

Ms. Elms then leaned back in her chair and convulsed wildly, giving her demons voice (she later referred to it as “just a tic”). The eruptions of their game-play left mahjongg tiles scattered across the stage like teeth after a street rumble. And this was before either had taken a swill from the strategically placed bottle of Jack Daniels taking up the remaining table space. Once the hooch was popped open and both imbibed, the resulting stage business—wobbly spins and flip-flopping—was obvious but admittedly amusing, and a welcome break from the showdown. It worked mainly because Ms. Lincoln and her dancers knew how to best utilize energy in its most alluring state: potential. Like in a good suspense movie, it was the quiet moments that built the most tension.

“sorry about the accident” ascended to an altogether strange and whimsical place, thanks to a dizzyingly funny performance by Faye Driscoll. She offered the most surprising and loaded moment of the evening: she whipped and churned her body upstage and down, deliberate but cautious, like she was wrestling with her own inner torment. She slowly heaved her chest and arms out to release a window-rattling scream that Janet Leigh would have envied. “Just kidding,” Ms. Driscoll quickly tossed off with droll girlishness.

A listless pas de deux followed. Both dancers motioned with their hands up and over their faces, implying that they meant to rip off the superficial masks of love-at-first-sight. Infinitely more interesting was the trio of women who glided onstage holding lanterns that “shed light” on the lovers. They pirouetted and whispered around, and being the primary sources of illumination, they resembled inquisitive fireflies on a midsummer night. The simple beauty wiped the audience out.

Ms. Lincoln’s work could have (and arguably should have) ended there. But a freighted finale that brought every character and situation together as an ensemble—akin to the Act One closing of “Les Miserables”—was splashy but slapdash. A traffic jam ensued; there wasn’t enough connection between the cast of dancers and story elements to tie things together the way the piece strained to do.

Next, the little known dance theater’s director Leslie Seiters conceived the most uniform segment of the evening’s performances. “the way to disappear” was so consistent as to be predictable—and eventually, monotonous. Three white button-down shirts dangled from the rafters, and the dancers wove around and beneath them, affecting the concept of shedding their clothes to reveal themselves in their naked, most vulnerable state. A yellow ball was brought in and skillfully juggled (rolled back and forth with precision, really) downstage. It was all very earnest, and cleanly carried out. The choreography—which featured an abundance of waist bends and scarecrow poses—was crisp and tailored, but had the personality of the over-starched shirts suspended above the stage. Ms. Seiters should integrate her sense of humor into this work. If left as is, “the way to disappear” may give an object lesson on how to do just that.

The final pieces of “House Special 3” came from the ambitious choreographer Lisa Townsend, whose previous effort for ODC Theater, “that i am not you,” got tangled in its own ideas. Her current projects, while not entirely clear of mind, are far more absorbing. First came “virile streak,” based on the life of the Marquis de Sade. In its current state, the dance is a curious misstep that, with nips and tucks—the first being the excising of the source material—could find stable footing.

A few ruminations on the infamously censured playwright have come tantalizingly close to approximating his intellectual erotica. “Quills,” the 2000 film starring a deliciously profane Geoffrey Rush, and Peters Weiss and Brook’s play “Marat/Sade,” notably. William Forsythe’s work with Ballett Frankfurt shrewdly merged the vocabularies of Sade’s decadent prose and modern dance. The fundamental flaw that pervaded this performance was that it lacked the licentious glee, the debauched playfulness of the man who inspired it. Glaringly absent were the writer’s sexuality-soaked histrionics. Thus far, this “virile streak” is dry as a bone.

With that said, the talented Ms. Townsend (perhaps inadvertently) envisioned something utterly fascinating. What she came up with, it turned out, was a dance noir. She took nervous, staccato steps, clutched at her legs, pounded the floor and let her body hang on the impending creepiness. (The smart, dissonant music, played on vibraphone, was by Piro Patton.) She looked like a commandeered marionette up there, and had she cited “Double Indemnity” as her basis, we’d have been more than convinced. Only once did “virile streak” hint at Sade’s tone: for the seductive finish, Ms. Townsend bent over and grabbed the train of her skirt with her teeth and pulled it over her head.

Her second work-in-progress was titled “can i want it?” Ms. Townsend and her squad of dancers took turns sliding and rolling around, evoking the primal postures of an entire jungle fauna. Hands pawed at the floor with aboriginal stubbornness, girls loped lithely across the stage. This piece still has a ways to go before it finds itself: a fully developed personality remains elusive. But Ms. Townsend presented two vastly different schools of thought, linked by a common carnal nature, with dexterity and grace. Both showed considerable promise as diagrams from which extraordinary possibilities may be drawn.

“House Special 3” was a workout for the mind and body. There will be much to look forward to when these choreographers have finished the artistic invasion and dispossessed these works, so that they might take on a life of their own. The workshop, spotty at some times, spooky at others, gave the rare chance for us to see dance in its purest—and, one could say most exciting—form: its development. As Stephen Sondheim wrote, “It’s the fragment, not the day / It’s the pebble, not the stream / It’s the ripple, not the sea / Not the building, but the beam / That is happening.”

First:  Rachel Lincoln. Photo by John Brecher
Second;  Lisa Townsend

A note from the choreographer:

Perhaps I was unclear in my opening remarks which preceded the solo. "Virile Streak" concerns itself with the inner conflicts and dark interior of the Marquise de Sade. The wife of the Marquis. - Lisa Townsend

Originally published:
Volume 2, No. 33
August 30, 2004

Copyright ©2004 by Christopher Correa


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last updated on August 23, 2004