writers on dancing



"Touched: Evidence of Being Human"
Jess Curtis/Gravity
San Francisco International Arts Festival
The Forum, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts,
San Francisco
Friday, June 3, 2005

by Paul Parish
copyright ©2005 by Paul Parish

My bullshit alarm went off first thing. And it did not get better.

Jess Curtis's recent show at the Yerba Buena Forum was the first disappointing concert I've seen him in ever—which means, for a good fifteen years. Since his show here last year (which went on to win prizes at the Edinburgh Festival) was fascinating, most of the audience were expecting the world premiere of "Touched: Evidence of Being Human" to be one of the peaks of this year's San Francisco International Arts Festival. Unfortunately, the six-dancer piece never got much going, and often sank into banality and low-grade sadism. Nothing very exciting—but I began looking for the door when the guy in the beard started attaching clothespins to the loose skin of his neck and emerged from a little velvet-roped corral with them standing out horizontally, like a minor Elizabethan court official with a ruff underlining his beard.

It was all benumbed—as if Curtis et al. had let Derrida and the other theorists (who are footnoted in the program notes) dictate what he should think "touch" must entail. A dreary voice-over read out to us definitions of "bruise" and other related "concepts" from some online encyclopedia (which might have been funny, but God knows it wasn't). With all respect to Derrida, perhaps Curtis should look in his heart and show us how touch operates in him. It's something we all share —and that we share with cats, rats, ants, and maybe amoebas—and the way into the material is not by reading authorities on the subject. A dancer of his gifts probably knows more than Derrida did about the matter.

Jess Curtis first appeared in San Francisco back in the late 80's, as a brilliant star in the "rowdy" release-inspired group Contraband, which was directed by the richly-conflicted Nikolai-alumna Sarah Shelton Mann. Mann came from red-neck roots in Georgia, but she had also spent part of her childhood in the home of the great anthropologist Franz Boas, and her work seemed to be reviving the impulses of the first modern dancers, to reach into the deep ur-resources of dance in our animal natures. Her fusion of contact improv, shamanistic studies, the earthier aspects of New-Age spirituality, her willingness to accept and value the contributions of her students, and her desire to speak for her audience led to some profoundly exciting work—the most thrilling of which was performed for free at dusk in the ruins of a burnt-out cheap hotel, a haunted place in San Francisco's Mission District that had been gone to the dogs for over a decade—"Religare" was simultaneously a funeral for the resident winos who had died in the flophouse fire and a ritual of exorcising negative energy that had haunted that place. It felt like the birth of tragedy.

As Mann's researches took her into Indian mysticism, her work got more and more ascetic, and when the men of Contraband broke off, Curtis remained one of the most exciting and imaginative performers around. No-one who saw it will ever forget the weird lunar beauty of "Ice/Car/Cage," in which he and two others danced over, under, around, and through the doors, windows, and hatch-back of a beat-up old car, which was moving in a large fixed circle at about 4 miles an hour, like an exhausted elephant, in a bleak parking lot in the Mission. It was absolutely transfixing

A few moments in "Touched" had some of this energy: in a voice-over, Curtis spoke of visiting his ex-wife, and sort of flirting with her daughter while talking to the child's father, at the end of which the five-year-old came up from behind and put her hand in his. That was unfortunately, one of the only moments which struck me as honest. That and a briefly glorious phrase when the bearded guy (now in cherry colored shorts) walked on his hands with a sweeping stride.

Curtis came out of a trend in modern dance that re-opened investigation into the sources of movement, that revalued "low" arts, irrationalism, and neo-tribalism. They became frankly Apocalyptic as the millennium approached, and when the year 2000 came to hand it seemed a natural transition had occurred when the three Contraband men threw in their lots with French cirque-nouveau artists. For one thing, they weren't kids any more, and it would be nice to be making a living. For another, they'd get some respect from outside the counter-culture, and besides, they were as big in San Francisco as they could get.

Curtis has spent much of the last several years collaborating with circus-artists in Berlin. Last year's was highly inventive. Maybe I missed the point of this year's. but it all seemed very German, and very old to me, those "let's see how badly we can bore them before they revolt" things Forsythe did long long ago.

Mostly, I found myself being NOT invited to touch, nor imagine touching, nor give myself to kinesthetic identification with dancers moving in remarkable ways, but mostly to ogle a Nordic god as he stripped down to his boxers. He had a female counterpart, who had got out of a remarkably well-cut grey suit (she was able to do some hand-stands in it), but her looks were not stellar like the boy's (who was one in a million). He was beautifully shaped and had large but very soft muscles, the texture of pot de crème—but also a tender and weak lower back, which when it came time for him to dance around a bit turned out to leave his shoulders unconnected to his hips. I really did not want to see him pinch himself with clothespins, but if I remember right, he did. A section of Greco-Roman wrestling had possibilities, but went nowhere.

In all there were six performers who moved, and another who sat at the back and did things with microphones and a keyboard. Curtis hung back and let the other performers do most, which was noble but maybe a mistake.

Photo:  Artists of GRAVITY · photo by Mario Röhrle

Volume 3, No. 22
June 6, 2005

copyright ©2005 Paul Parish



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last updated on June 6, 2005