Off the beaten path

Randee Paufve Dance
Shawl-Anderson Dance Center
Berkeley, CA
May 1, 2006

by Ann Murphy
copyright ©2006, Ann Murphy

Although the distance from the East Bay to San Francisco is a mere 8 miles, the geographical divide seems vast when it comes to dance. Ever since Welland Lathrop and Anna Halprin worked in the Haight and Yvonne Rainer experimented with movement as an adjunct to theater in North Beach, San Francisco has been the real locus of dance here. Now with San Francisco Ballet’s solid success, a new ODC Commons, maverick dance offered by Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, and a host of well-appointed grassroots studio/performance spaces south of Market, San Francisco dance has the kind of maturity and infrastructure it has been clamoring after for more than 20 years.

No such luck for the East Bay. Oakland Ballet is defunct, Mills College is still searching for a fresh raison d’etre, and Cal Performances is regularly lashed by the bottom line, making the original mission of the UC-sponsored performing arts — to educate — a quaint echo of a flush and distant past. Options in the East Bay have consequently been of the home-brewed variety: local studios doubling as performance venues that offer occasional shows to small cadres of dancers and friends. Even when these performances hit the radar they often get dismissed as fledgling efforts, somehow of a different species than the performances at ODC or Dance Mission. In fact they’re a similar breed, though with smaller audiences and less publicity. You’d think the digs and the attendant scene make the artist.

Digs can help; we’ve all been to performances where the performance space defines a work. But what’s more exciting is when work can transform the digs, as Randee Paufve’s “The Big Squeeze” did for two weekends ending last Sunday at the Shawl-Anderson Studio in Berkeley. More than forty years ago, May O’Donnell protégés Frank Shawl and Victor Anderson occupied a typical two-storey Berkeley house a mile from the university where they set up shop teaching class, running a company, sponsoring master classes with touring dancers from New York, and bringing warmth and high
standards to the once sleepy university town. Over the years the studio has nurtured young dancers in modern, ballet and jazz and in the last decade and a half become a testing ground for burgeoning choreographers.

Randee Paufve is among this band, teaching regular classes at the studio and deriving non-profit sponsorship for her company through the aegis of the dance center. But with the “Big Squeeze” she demonstrated that the center can be more than a neighborhood dance spot with direct ties to mid-century modern dance; it can spawn and showcase contemporary dance in ways few expected.

Like most modern dance choreographers, Paufve is an idiosyncratic choreographer, creating a vocabulary suited to her own body. But Paufve stands out from the herd by mixing dance idioms with eclectic facility, combining the instinctual intensity of contact improv and release technique with highly crafted movement, and raw, even barely digested motion with well-wrought arcs and phrases. In concrete terms she corrals an array of disembodied gestures and hair-curling falls worthy of Elizabeth Streb, then tames them through elegant transitions, complex partnering and varied textures and rhythms. Subtexts of longing, frustration, beauty and hunger spill out, giving expression to our animality as well as our humanity.

A crowd of about 50 gathered in the studio lobby, and soon it was instructed to enter Studio Four downstairs and spread out standing along the walls. Veteran Bay Area dance Diane McKallip and Frank Shawl, dressed in flowing white shirts and pants, almost somberly entered the illumined space, positioned themselves at center, and began an elegy for two on intimacy and separation called “Dissolve.” McKallip, a long-time member of the Nancy Karp + Dancers and a frequent guest performer, moved with an economy and elegance that was not only more easily appreciated in the small space but seems to have reached a exquisite pitch as her hair has gone to grey. Frank Shawl met McKallip on equal terms, approaching and departing with an air of resigned nobility and even a touch of bewildered loss. This was a haunted couple who drew near then impassively pulled apart (in sllence or to a score by Chas Smith and David Mahler), who tenderly held one another but performed each gesture with ghostly resolve to break their bond.

Seven dances followed, most of them with lights up, and as we moved through the house’s spaces, we were plunged into an intensely female and vividly private world that ranged from the primitive to the poetic and from acrobatic manuevers to almost iconic modern dance, replete with garland patterns and gravity-bound plies. Stephanie Ballas and Paufve followed the first pair with a duet called “Ghost” that was as athletic and aggressive as the initial duet was coolly Cunningham and melancholic. A third pair of dancers in a surreal segment simply called “Duet” took us into the lobby, where Rebecca Johnson and Shaunna Vella threw themselves on and off the vinyl upholstered bench seat, their heads bedecked in kids’ furry animal costumes like outsized toddlers in a disturbing fever dream. Upstairs the mood slipped off into cool, Hellenic solitude as Stephanie Ballas moved around a still center, performing fractured movements and complex gestural language with a sensual beauty that endowed the phrases with a combination of female dignity and mysterious depth. Paufve herself followed Ballas. Set to a sound collage by Jacques Poulin-Denis her solo, called “Cold,” made her shudder, shake and undulate with such emphatic release of energy and daredevil abandon that it was the spiritual equivalent of a junkie’s withdrawl. An element of the solos’ power came from Paufve’s inversion of the traditional spatial relationship between performer and viewer: we occupied a third of the space; she, like Ballas, used 2/3rds. The effect was to define us as visitors to a spectacle rather than as potentates hungry to be entertained.

When we next moved over to the large upstairs studio we sat in more conventional formation for the last three segments, which began with ”Burn” (danced with regal sophistication and intelligent complexity by Katie Faulkner, Johnson, Marlena Oden and Vella), moved on to “Cleave,” a tough, marathon piece danced with Olympian zeal by Lisa Bush and Paufve, and ended in a final solo “Nightmarcher,” performed by the long-limbed, elfin-faced Oden. The studio was divided more evenly than in the others and the performing space felt wide and shallow like a stage. But, with all the mirrors exposed and windows uncovered and the dancers so near, the effect stripped the experience of the conventional detachment between the viewer and the performer and made the dancers’ physical effort and physical grace a deeper part of the experience. Breaths heaved. Each fall rattled our seats. The dancers moved fearlessly beneath our visible gaze. This was dance that grappled with intimacy and relation in movement then recreated some of the issues in the very use of the performing space.

Although I found elements of Paufve’s work too hermetically primitive at times, her brave and ingenious engangement of the audience matched her brave and ingenious movement choices. The result was at once richly physical and esoteric and dreamy, closer to the quiet experience of reading poetry than of publically observing performance. Space matters, but in the East Bay it turns out that small studios, not to mention cemeteries, churches and bars, can be more interesting venues than a well-appointed box theater.

Volume 4, No. 18
May 8, 2006

copyright ©2006 Ann Murphy



©2006 DanceView