writers on dancing

The DanceView Times, San Francisco Bay Area edition

Small Awakenings

grace and Folk
The Joe Goode Performance Group
Yerba Buena Center for the Arts
Sunday, June 13, 2004

by Ann Murphy
Copyright ©2004 by Ann Murphy
published June 16, 2004

Joe Goode’s humor, as anyone who has seen his dance theater knows, is plainspoken and almost sleepy. Thanks to its sly and sometimes biting slant, it is humor that captures the ridiculous triteness of the everyday in a series of character snapshots captioned with wry lines like: "I’ve never been a high-maintenance person," or "I’m having my high desert breakdown." To turn it into theater Goode intersplices or links his images with incantatory singing and contact improv style dancing. These days Goode uses spatial volume and shape far more knowingly than when he began 18 years ago.

It’s an approach that works more than you would think, and it makes us wonder: how can the corniest aspects of daily life touch us the way he has them touch us? He takes cliches that have all the substance of cotton candy—a yearning for love, a need for order, a craving for home—and with an outsider’s eye sculpts them into something that adds up. At his best, Goode makes theater that shows our surfaces while targeting our souls, like sit-coms with a bead on redemption. At his worst, the works bog down in unconsciousness and undigested thought. Yet even then, the work never stops pawing the mundane in search of understanding and depth. Even his artistic confusion is like our lives, and we eagerly identify.

These days, a lot of Goode's litheness is gone and he has taken on the gravitas of middle age, from the thickening of the jaw line to new density to the soul. As his body has contricted, as he rises off the floor a little more laboriously now, a certain sagacity and hope have replaced the sometimes nihilistic cynicism that has girded his humor over the years. The Catholic boy in him seems to have found his way to a rather Buddhist belief in the unseen without giving up his wit, his deep skepticism, or his doubt. He also seems to have made a greater peace with women. Nothing has signaled this like the new grace, his latest work, a small and quiet look at moments of clarity and undemonstrative magic, which ended its two week run Sunday at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.

The first thing striking about grace is the beautiful red rectangle that delimits the performance space and the silvery chairs that collect, disperse, and finally float above the stage, designed by Jack Carpenter with Goode and reminiscent of a 15 year old work, Remembering the Pool at the Best Western. The second striking note is its watery, sweet use of song and sound, by composer Mikel Rouse, who has sampled John Cage’s beautifully austere experiments in prepared piano from the 50’s and interjected and overlaid them with acoustic guitar. Goode’s own voice has entered an unlikely phase of beauty, conjuring up Willie Nelson crossed with Bob Wills but with much more Virginia than Texas twang in the mix. The third striking element is the presence in the piece of Rouse himself. It is the first time I can remember Goode sharing the stage with an artist of equal billing. That in itself is an act of humility and grace.

There’s not much story to grace. In fact it is a loosely allied series of existential fragments about small awakenings notable for their insignificant sweetness in a vast sea of cynicism and despair. A guy, Goode, sings that he has no hope today, that his sorrow is stale, that love is blind, that Bleeker Street where he is standing is the bleakest street he has ever seen, except there is a crack in the sidewalk and something lovely may grow out of it. What is grace? A moment of clarity, an opening, he tells us.

Elizabeth Burritt, impersonator of female harridans par excellence, is the shrill hysteric who worries that the baseboards are dirty, that there are crumbs on the floor—in other words, that life, and her partner (Marc Morozumi) are endlessly disappointing. She stridently demands not only that Morozumi squeeze all the water out of the sponge (at which all the anal retentives in the audience laughed in identification, while their partners chortled in despair), but she also demands particular kinds of attention from her lover while he pretend sthat his obedient actions are real. Burritt is just another face of despair, and when she looks out the window she sees elegant Rachael Lincoln moving with Zen slowness. Burritt writhes with contempt until her fury dissolves and she confesses her worry that "If I walked like her wouldn’t it hurt? Wouldn’t I cry? Wouldn’t I turn into dirt, or sand, or just die?" A mere glance out the window has opened up what Goode calls in the program notes "a more enticing and miraculous place…a moment of sudden beauty, wisdom or strength…." While grace teeters toward sentimentality, so, one might say, does the surface of everyday life. It is when grace and tragedy intervene that we are plunged into those deep unsentimental places.

In other vignette, Marit Brook-Kothlow, a slightly goofy impassioned young woman, dares to love a musician because she believes she is protected from his seeing her as he is too involved with his playing to possibly notice. But he does see her and they fall in love.

Fall in love? A man and woman falling sweetly in love in a JGPG tale? Well, grace defies even Goode’s own cliches of what constitutes cliches. It augurs well for the future.

The reprise of Folk, set in the high desert near the Mojave Desert, mostly around the Wagon Wheel restaurant, was an apt pairing with grace—we can even sense how grace arose from the earlier piece and follows as the second part of a triology—and the decision to perform it second in the program was wise. It is a stronger ensemble piece and might have drowned the Zen-like economy of grace had it opened the program. Folk looked tighter than it did during its premiere. Goode, as the effete artist all in green, was more fey, more funny, more self-mocking, and Burritt seemed to draw the siren out of her character to compliment the amazon. Morozumi as Snakeboy seemed more grounded, less symbolic, and, as with everything Goode does, the more evocative of the real, the further his reach into the zones beyond our surfaces.

Photo:  Joe Goode Performance Group in grace.

Originally published:
Volume 2, Number 22
June 16, 2004
Copyright ©2004 by Ann Murphy




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