writers on dancing

Things Happen

ODC Theatre, San Francisco
July 18, 2003

reviewed by Paul Parish

Things happen. I got waylaid by a suicide on the way to ODC theater for last weekend's installment of Summerfest. He didn't speak to me, I didn't even see him—I just heard the smack of a body hitting the front of the train I was about to get on, felt my heart sink, and couldn’t bear to look to see what had happened. It was clear from the sound.

I was standing all the way forward; the train stopped about ten feet back from me, and the large Saturday-night-in-the-City crowd waiting to board had the reactions you might expect…….. "oh my God! Oh my God!' kind of topped the list, followed by "He just ran right by me and tossed himself at it……." Mixed with "Well, can we get on anyway?' and the driver's deadly voice saying, "Honey, this train isn't going anywhere till the ambulance gets here," and the PR voice coming over the loudspeakers announcing a "medical emergency" asking people to clear the platform.

What could you do? I was by myself, useless, suddenly a lot more alone, not just a guy without a date on a Saturday night. I hadn't SEEN anything, though there'd been a kind of sparkle over my right shoulder, like a flurry of leaves or something, the sound had been unmistakable…. The best I could do was to counsel people to avoid the scene, and figure out if there was any other way to get to the show. And there was …. the Fremont line would be blocked for hours, but I'd have had to transfer anyway; I could get there from Rockridge.

They'd heard at the box office and held the curtain for us. But nothing nearly so dramatic happened on the stage.

It was not a bad show at all—two events were able to hold my attention, and many dissociated images keep coming back. The sweetest of all was Brian Fisher making a pair of soaring pas de chats look like Valentine hearts floating in mid-air. He was dancing the dream-lover in a faintly parodic version of the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet, choreographed by Rebecca Salzer, to Prokofieff's music (canned of course, and taken at a particularly schmaltzy tempo).

Fisher is a prodigiously gifted dancer. Strong and beautifully made, he has a ton of moxie, not to mention more turnout and flexibility than many female dancers. After success in musicals (he was in La Cage aux Folles on Broadway), he turned to concert dancing and has been a star of ODC/SF for a decade in an idiom that valorizes a pedestrian attitude and has no immediate use for matinee idols. But he moonlights a lot; in this year's Summerfest, he holds the record for dancing in the most choreographers' entries.

They called it back-stage "Romie-old and Juli-atric," and it was endearingly funny, though the tone was uncertain. That music is so big, and so familiar. The stage was bare—a couple of hands brought out a ladder, placed it up left, and a not-so-very-young girl (Dana Lawton) in a frumpy nightgown climbed up it and began to mime plaintively, with clumped hands and a dejected slump in the rib-cage. The piece would have been more fun for us if she'd played it a la Carol Burnett —but then, maybe you have to BE Carol Burnett, or have the ambition to supplant her, to pull that off. As it was, they didn't really pull anything off; he did a lot of grand allegro, she came down from the ladder and was persuaded to lift her legs a little, and turn a bit—she turns beautifully. About the best you could say is they each had good moments. There was a long, long kiss at the end that was kind of embarrassing, and made me wonder if it was maybe not supposed to be a parody.

The aim to please was also out front in Upstream and Concubine, both by Oakland Ballet's Michael Lowe, danced by Moving Arts Collective to traditional music of Mongolia and China. Lowe, who grew up in Oakland's Chinatown, was one of Ronn Guidi's most-relied-upon dancers; he played Anton Dolin's role, the acrobat, when they reconstructed Nijinska's Le Train Bleu, he was a very moving Albrecht in Giselle, and everything in between. And it turns out, he can make dances. For Bamboo, a fusion of Chinese acrobatics, folk-dance and martial arts with ballet, he won last year's Isadora Duncan Award for choreography. The slight pieces he showed at Summerfest were no more than charming, but they were never less than that, either.

The strongest piece on the show, both in certainty of purpose and in edge of execution, was Kimiko Guthrie's There. Ms. Guthrie's shows are always heavily attended by other dancers; she's probably on everybody's short list of whose work is most interesting.

Hard-edged, arresting, clear, There is nevertheless hard to describe. Ms Guthrie has caught that moment when you were first spooked by an image of yourself as suddenly old: like seeing your father's face in the mirror when you shave, seeing his bone-structure around your own eyes, so you realize that you're not as free as you thought. You shudder—you WILL get old, and there are underlying patterns in life you can't escape from.

And she's made it reverberate: the whole scene wobbles on that shock of recognition, repeated over and over with variations. Two chairs, two men: Eric Kupers (Ms. Guthrie's ex-husband,who looks to be around 30), and Frank Shawl, who was a star in May O'Donnell's company in New York 40 years ago and now heads the main modern-dance studio in the East Bay. Confront and recoil, confront and recoil. There's a chorus of two women, Erin Gottwald and Debbie Kajiyama (who're astonishingly effective in presenting the frantic emotions that don't come into the men's faces/postures) and Ms. Guthrie herself, who narrates from her own script (she's skilled, both as a diseuse and as a writer).

Both Guthrie-Kuperses were members of the Margaret Jenkins Dance Company until recently; each excels at that contact-improv derived kind of partnering where someone suddenly hurls himself across the stage and is arrested in mid-air upside down across your shoulders and slowly wheeled around in this preposterously extended position. They have made the most theatrically successful USE of this technique I've seen from a Bay Area group, in shaping danced stories that center around very awkward intimacies. Ms Guthrie is bi-racial (half Japanese-, half Scottish-American) and she has made the conflicts of her heritage the theme of some of her work (at least one piece, set in a World-War-II Japanese-American internment camp, featured her father, who's a skilled actor).

There were two other pieces on the program: a lovely study in release technique by Megan Nicely, who moves like spaghetti floating in a slowly simmering bath. (She was joined in the duet by Audrey Cooper.) Rounding out the show was an amusing set of skits performed to great old dance tunes (an Oriental Fox-trot, a blues song, and I think a tango) by members of the Huckabay McAllister group (Ann Berman, Rebecca Graham, Phil Halbert, and Sean McMahon). Ms. Berman's got a million-dollar smile. She preened deliciously as a "Chicago"-style murderess, posing for photos with her kill. I could wish that this very popular group would work more sinuously with the actual dance rhythms of the music they choose (which is always great stuff, and begs to be DANCED to; they use it as an aural décor, which may be their decision, but it has the probably unintended effect of dwarfing their efforts, at least for me; the music carries me away, and I just periodically check in to see what they're up to.)

just found this in the paper.....

Man jumps into BART's path, lives

copyright Paul Parish 2003

Top: Upstream by Michael Lowe performed by Barbara Giusti and Devon LaRussa (photo by Scott Belding)
Bottom:  Huckabay McAllister dancers Phil Halbert & Ann Berman. Photo by Andy Mogg





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page last updated: July 19, 2003