The pleasures of consistently watching homegrown dance are partly due to the opportunity of observing an artist’s trajectory of growth whether derived from a deepening interpretation of a particular role or the evolution of a choreographer’s response to thematic and formal questions. Over the years Joe Goode, whose Joe Goode Performance Group will celebrate its twentieth anniversary next year, has offered more than his share of this particularized kind of satisfaction.
Besides having learned to combine language and movement in a way which today superbly serve his formal and expressive needs, Goode has also been able to hang on to a core of dancers who by now are almost extensions of himself. Elizabeth Burritt has been with Goode since 1986, Marit Brook-Kothlow since 1990 and Felipe Barrueto-Cabello, the silent one—he talks very little—since 1996. The current ensemble is completed by Benjamin Levy and Rachael Lincoln and this year’s new comer Melecio Estrella who comes with an extensive background in contact improvisation. Having kept the ensemble small, has enabled Goode to work intensively with a stable group of artists. It probably has also helped with touring without which few companies can survive today.
“Hometown” is the last piece in a trilogy, started in 2003 with “Folk," in which a disillusioned artist encounters an artist to be, and continued in 2004 with “grace” which examined this lofty concept in the everyday. In retrospect, “Folk” with its reliance on narrative and characterization seems more connected to the work of the last few years while “grace” and the new “Hometown” look like the beginning of a new way—for Goode—of dance theater making, one in which language functions more like spark plugs that set off explosions of richly billowing movement than as a primary carrier of meaning. Verbally his lost souls—Burritt as the hyperventilating housewife, in particular—are more economically drawn. He seems to rely on fewer words to make us see his characters, and he appears more willing to trust movement’s ability to convey ideas. It will be fascinating to watch where this redress of balance will take this gifted artist and thinker.
Yet Goode’s thematic concerns—the search for meaning in the commonplace, for community in a world out of joint, a place for society’s outcasts—have not changed. As always, he finds it “in the body” because, as he once said, “that’s all that we have.”
“Hometown’s” bedraggled citizens—a whining, sentimental Burritt, with a dully resistant Barrueto-Cabello in tow—long for the comforts of home. For Burritt it means a house with a picket fence. As if on demand, tiny ones slide out of the wings while the video projections present a different reality: drab row houses that dovetail to the point of swallowing each other up.
The strung-out hooker—Brook-Kothlow, in a fright wig and a micro mini skirt, carries her home with her, a series of plastic bags in which she periodically rummages, wiggling butt exposed to the audience. In some ways, Brook-Kothlow is the least original character, yet the mix of pathos and humor which she brings to her interpretation makes it work.
And then there are the two snarling street kids, Lincoln and Estrella, contemptuous of the other three. Their identical, head-bobbing, mechanical gestures, clearly identify them as searchers too for some kind of home. If you have ever observed homeless youth, one of the most remarkable things about them is how alike they behave, talk and dress. They, maybe more than anyone else, need a sense of hominess to survive. And, however fragile, they create it for themselves.
Stripping himself bare to his chest in “Hometown’s” most obvious assertion of Goode’s central contention of the home within oneself, Estrella reveals his impressive pectoral muscles as the “cage” that protects his soft core. It’s one of those images that are factually true but also work as a statement for a metaphor truth. Still the passage left behind a sense of unease; the writing certainly could have been more subtle. The unease returned at the end, when Burritt takes off this time with Estrella in tow, his ankle chained to a tiny little house. While a visually striking image, it looked like he had indeed enslaved himself. Was Goode suggesting this inevitability in the search’s outcome? Or was he just looking for a whimsical audience-pleasing finale?
The beautiful and style-appropriate videos were created by four teenagers from TILT (Teaching Intermedia Literacy Tool) which aims to make young people media savvy. Beth Custer’s sophisticated score, played live by her five member Beth Custer Ensemble, started and ended on a whimsical quasi music box note; the raw starkness of its interior parts excellently supported Goode’s complex vision. Sets by Goode and Dan Sweeney, costumes by Wendy Sparks and lighting by David K.H.Elliot were good as well.
Last year’s “grace”, which opened the double bill, vastly benefited from Mikel Rouse’s glorious score which built on and manipulated material gathered from a CDROM which he had created from John Cage’s pieces for prepared piano. His laconic, quiet presence on stage—often with his back to the audience—added a much welcome note of mystery to this gloriously physical work.
Like few other pieces in recent memory, “grace” abounds in voluptuous, large movement patterns that fill the space with splattered limbs and buoyant lifts, duets in which partners slip out of each others holds only to sneak in again, and convoluted accumulations whose density at one point makes Burritt exclaim to the audience, “this is not working.”
Yet the work opens on a note of quiet despair, with Goode walking the appropriately chosen Bleeker Street. As he tells us in his inimitable twang, he has been abandoned by a recent love, “Peter, my archangel” and lives in a world still at war. His fellow mourning dancers, bent over, heads drooping form the narrow alley through which he walks, hoping for something to grow from the cracks in the sidewalk. “I am on my own,” he chants, “there is a hole in my world.
As in others of his pieces “grace”—the lower case spelling probably stands for the modesty of Goode’s aspirations for insight—devolves in discrete vignettes that throw different perspectives on the subject at hand.
For Levy comfort comes from Brook-Kothlow’s body from whose shoulder he inhales the deep gulps of air, sweat and physical closeness that sustain him. The sense of desperation—like an animal’s need to nurse-- with which the dancer again and again returns to this body-filling gesture is among “Hometown’s” most striking images.”
Later on Brook-Kothlow returns, magnetically pulled towards the guitar-strumming but seemingly indifferent Rouse. Approaching him from one end of a diagonally facing each other set of chairs, she is positively ravenous in her slithering towards him on this obstacle course. And yet the music gets them together. Holding hands, softly singing to each other, they walk into the dark.
At the other end of the spectrum, Burritt, infuriated by the dust on the window sill, the dishes in the sink and an unresponsive lover—finds her moment of grace in watching a languid Lincoln stroll down the street. Maybe if she walked like her, was thin like her, young like her, she plaintively intones, as she imitates Lincoln’s casual ease. It’s an empty moment of grace—as anyone who ever attempted a diet—can attest. But still it’s better, Goode seems to tell us, than not to have had that tiny moment of hope at all.
Photo on front page by photo by RJ Muna.