Stephen Pelton Dance Theater
Dance Mission
San Francisco, CA
May 5, 2006

By Ann Murphy
copyright ©2006, Ann Murphy

In a town where dance was launched by characters like Lola Montez, who is said to have traipsed down Market Street with a bear on a leash and danced her own “Spider Dance” for California gold miners, choreographer Stephen Pelton is a pretty tame guy. He builds dances with discernible phrases. He likes beautiful music. He reads Virginia Woolf and then tries to uncover the dance in her prose, or turns to Odetta who sings Bob Dylan songs with such sumptuousness that she can endow rebellion with operatic grace. In a place where dance has a long history of expressing sociological upheaval, Pelton has stuck to dance as dance, quietly carving out work that dares to be elegant and unflashy, even when it has a message to impart.

He still does.

Last weekend, the lyrical dancemaker who now spends half his time in England, was back in town with two dances that probed war, innocence and loss. Although the two works were tonally quite different, they both had roots in the 60s — one through its echoes of the youth and anti-war movement, the other through links to the text and dance experiments of Judson Theater.

“If Tomorrow Wasn’t Such A Long Time...” from 2005 opened the program at Dance Mission. This bittersweet piece was an homage both to Bob Dylan and to the great singer Odetta, who brings to Dylan’s songs all the melancholy beauty and rich tonalities of her glorious contralto. While it is widely known that Dylan galvanized an entire generation to challenge the status quo, fewer may know that Odetta invested folksongs with the lyric power of gospel music and made important vocal links between black and white culture.

Wearing costumes reminiscent of the 60s — flared pants, paisley, tassle belts and tie dye — the seven dancers moved with a sensual, tidal rhythm whether singly, in pairs, or in larger line formations that fanned across the space or morphed into triangles. Even when the movement was angular, the dancers cut softly through space, their shoulders or limbs acting as prows, their bodies dropping to the floor tenderly, then rising to begin again with a vast good heartedness reminscent of early Ailey style. Former ODC dancer Monique Strauss led the way, radiant and quietly powerful, leaning into the air or effortlessly extending her arms and legs in an embodiment of youthful openness and sensuality. She was soon joined by Christy Funsch, Juliann Rhodes, Ami Student, Erin Mei-Ling Stuart, Jody Pettle, and Nol Simonse. Each dancer managed to invest space with a soft, etheric quality, even when dancing out anger, as Mei-Ling Stuart did in a muscular, anti-war solo. The dreamy pulse rose out of the complex base line of the music, and Odetta’s voice poured warmly over the movement.

With characteristic understatement, Pelton made Odetta-singing-Dylan newly relevant in an era of vast uncertainty, fear and war, as though calling on us to remember that the Vietnam era was a time not only of conflict but of dreaming (and the dreamers were instrumental in ending a war). There was added pungency for us locally--Odetta’s love affair with folksinging began in a San Francisco coffee house, while the counterculture flowered in the Bay Area.

"This Tuesday" is Pelton’s latest piece of dance theater, created in collaboration with local playwright Brian Thorstenson. It was a lighthearted and not quite digested glimpse at our fumbling relationship to death and the spirit world and how we cope with loss, with music ranging from Brian Eno to Nina Simone. "It was Tuesday. Just Tuesday. This particular Tuesday," a dramatic and aptly wry Sally Clawson began. A tale begins to take shape of a dead friend (Kevin Clarke) and the trio (Sally Clawson, Cristy Funsch, and Nol Simonse) who are left behind, as disoriented as objects thrown up by a tornado. Clawson’s character battles her reticence for New Agey mourning rituals and lets herself go to the park on a Tuesday, as she and her friend used to, talking out loud to him as she goes. For Funsch, porousness is the problem; she is haunted by the friend’s ghost and finds herself caught between worlds, a situation that brings about existential vertigo that makes her literally lose her balance. For Simonse, a comically compulsive need to masturbate has desperately overtaken him.

The characters, especially Clawson’s, were fairly well drawn by Thorstenson, who has created a recognizable, fragmented cast. But as dance theater "This Tuesday" felt unfinished. Movement was at times lusciously Hawaiian or square dance-ish but too often came across as mere punctuation for the text. I kept waiting to know who these characters were from what their bodies could tell me — Clawson’s suspension of disbelief, Funsch’s porousness, and Simonse’s hunger. But, with the exception of Simonse, who came closest to embodying his anxiety, the dancers seemed engaged in decorating the story. And none of them, save for Clawson who is an actress as well as a dancer, seemed wholly comfortable with the theatrical demands. But Pelton nevertheless managed to make “This Tuesday” capture the fact that, while we all suffer and struggle with life and death, each person's experience is wryly, even wackily, unique.

Volume 4, No. 19
May 15, 2006

copyright ©2006 Ann Murphy



©2006 DanceView