writers on dancing


Burlesque Tonight

"The Adventures of Cunning and Guile"
Chris Black and Ken James
Cartoon Art Museum
655 Mission Street (at 3rd)
San Francisco, California
September 9, 2005

by Paul Parish
copyright ©2005 by Paul Parish

Chris Black and Ken James are, respectively, Cunning and Guile—unless I've got them backwards (it's anyway the same difference). They wear identical jeans and long-sleeved grey T-shirts (designed by Lark Pien), differentiated only by the initials "C" and "G" where otherwise a Superman logo might ride. At times they don sweatshirts that spell out their full names, and each carries a 1940's-style leather suitcase fitted with the sound and lighting effects their act is going to require. They top it off with Buster-Keatonish dead pans.

Black and James have separate modern-dance companies ("Potrzebie" and "Fellow Travellers," respectively). They've been performing together since 1992, usually in poker-faced comic material that's sometimes too clever by half. Their latest outing, "The Adventures of Cunning and Guile," is the outgrowth of a brilliant, exquisite number they showed at one of ODC's "House Specials" in 2001, just after the attacks on the World Trade Center (when we all needed to see something composed of lightning-fast, perfectly timed mayhem performed by people who looked like they might be Democrats).

ODC 's Verge Residency Program sponsors Black and James and is presenting "Cunning and Guile" off-site at SF's Cartoon Art Museum, where space is acutely limited and the maximum audience is forty people. The show runs for the next two weekends and is enormously worth seeing, even though on opening night it had not yet gelled, and Cunning was dancing much better than Guile.

If you are born to hang out with each other, and can finish each other's sentences, dance-wise, and are doomed to perform, well, there are still going to be conflicts, and they materialize in split-second eruptions of spite and malice and then continue in long slow burns, behind poker faces. All told, there were about six separate skits, though only one of them, unfortunately, really took off opening night. This last sketch, though, was absolutely delightful—it worked best because they had at last enough room to move, and could make use of the full depth of the space. When Guile could echo Cunning's moves at 30 feet's distance, then disappear behind a partition, suddenly, a fantastic and hilarious grace came into being. The riffs included the Marx Brothers' two-men-pretending-a-door-is-a-mirror routine, the old "I'm-trying-to-escape-sideways-by-hiding-behind-pillars-and-haven't-noticed-that-the-colonnade-has-run-out-but-am-clutching-at-thin-air" routine, some echoes of Wile E. Coyote, and culminated in Cunning's amazing appearance out of nowhere in our midst chewing on a carrot—which drew cheers and hoots and howls and roars of laughter.

Black and James have clearly noticed that old Hollywood cartoons and the great silent-movie comedies were full of dance sequences. If the old directors used cars, trucks, trains, wagons, trolleys full of cops, etc., instead of "dancers," nevertheless the timing is exact, the choreography's as tight in its way as "Swan Lakes", with the object of arranging collisions, explosions, nick-of-time rescues (as when the burning building toppled up on Buster Keaton, but the door-frame coincided with his person and he walked right out of it still deep in thought) in an ideally amusing order.

These old films were burlesques of classical music (mostly of opera buffa, primarily Rossini). To revive these effects as dances is not a new idea. David Parsons' "The Letter" did a thoroughly brilliant "skulking-in-the-Casbah" number on a Rossini overture. But it's a GOOD idea—it's a gold-mine of a tradition, mostly, unaccountably, neglected.

Cunning and Guile's first skit will give the idea. It resembles an early Mark Morris number, the "Tamil Duets," in structure: to wit, the duo demonstrate and rehearse several enchainements, which they then polish and assemble into a presentable routine. In last Friday's show, Black and James turned an old number of theirs into the evening's prologue, in which they held up story-cards that read "Cunning and Guile's failed screen test for Warner Bros."

The piece is set to a recording of a rehearsal of some silent-movie-ish music, and first we see the poker-faced man contort his face and body into a grimace, hold that, burst into some rhythmic movement, changing heights and angles, lunging finally into a pose standing on a bent leg with the the knee raised, looking horrified and down to the left. We then see HER march into the same corner he started from, do something a little more balletic, ending in a pose that looks a little like a dog on its hind legs. When they put the two together, some hilarious correspondences showed up, and the final tableau, with him looking down at her in shock and her looking up at him, panting, was priceless. (Maybe I've got it wrong, but hey, I've only seen it twice.)

When they first did this bit back in 2001 on a black Marly sprung floor and against a black backdrop at ODC Theater, it was perfection. At the Cartoon Art Museum, where the floors are very hard, the space cramped, the walls busily distracting you with 12-inch square framed cartoon cells, where someone else's head was always threatening to get in your way, and the dancers had to move us around to clear space for themselves, it was impossible to tune in; the dancers were not able to tune into each other for constantly having to deal with US—we were right in their faces—which may have, must have, been an interesting challenge for them, but it did not allow the interesting part to come through to us. If you arrive at such a show with a back ache, or a pain in the neck, the evening is going to be exhausting. You'll notice that James is not on his leg, you'll notice every time he has to hold his breath and gut it through some difficult move—and as the man, he had most of the heavy lifting, of which there was a considerable amount. When they'd loft themselves in low arcs across a museum bench lying in the middle of the space, her arcs were noticeably easier than his. His dead-pan too often looked like a mask that had been screwed on, while hers looked soft, sensitive, fascinating, melancholy, full of potential: in short, on opening night only she could maintain that atmosphere (wise-fool, holy-fool) that we know from Marcel Marceau and Buster Keaton which raises such shenanigans from gymnastics into art, which one hopes that after they've got the show up and running and self-oiling will be present in full the whole evening.

Volume 3, No. 33
September 12, 2005 - revised

copyright ©2005 Paul Parish



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last updated on September 12, 2005