San Francisco Letter 16

Lizz Roman & Dancers
“Blue Floor Reflections”
September 28, 2006
Project Artaud Theater, San Francisco

Flyaway Productions
“The Live Billboard Project”
October 5, 2006
24th & Mission St., San Francisco

by Rita Felciano
Copyright 2006 by Rita Felciano

Maybe it’s the expense of performing at traditional venues, whose tech costs can be prohibitive, maybe it’s a desire to bring in other than sit-down, look-at the black box audiences, maybe it’s the choreographers’ feeling burdened by the history of dance on stage, but site-specific performances, once an oddity, have become part of the regular local fabric. I remember OnSite Dance Company a few years ago taking over a busy downtown intersection at Noon. A passerby asked her companion what was going on. Without missing a beat, she replied, “Oh nothing, it’s just a dance performance.”

Dancers, of course, have always taken to unconventional spaces, starting with Isadora Duncan on the steps of the Parthenon and Mary Wigman on the meadows of Monte della Verità. Locally, not too long ago, Joanna Haigood seemed an iconoclast for letting the most surprising settings—the rafters of the Exploratorium, (the local science museum), the façade of the Ferry Building’s, Theater Artaud’s past as a canning factory—inspire her wide ranging spatial explorations. This coming weekend Kim Epifano is bringing back the annual “Trolley Dances” for which audiences take a ride in an old streetcar to four different outdoor locations.

For dance observers site-specific work proposes the challenge of how to look at and comment on it. Space and time, the good old standbys, may have to be redefined, the relationship between site and work looked at, and expectations certainly will need adjustment.

Lizz Roman and Jo Kreiter recently had site specific performances in San Francisco. Each owes something of a debt to Haigood. Roman, most recently, has gone into specific spaces and changed the filter through which we see them; Kreiter, a former Haigood dance, has a project in mind and then finds or builds an environment for it.
Theater Artaud most often has been described as “cavernous.” Its exposed steel buttresses soar to a blackened roof, which sits on a web of crisscrossing supports. Huge, opaque windows frame the space on three sides; a catwalk runs along the fourth brick wall. An intricate net of steel pipes support the risers for some four hundred seats in the middle of the floor The place is stark, unwelcoming but has impressive power to it. When Haigood looked at it, she could sense the memories of the workers who spent their days in this former canning factory.
Roman saw the architecture and changed its implications. Instead of stark reality, Artaud became what felt like an underwater playground in which her ten dancers cavorted seriously but leisurely. Most of the time you looked up at them as they lounged on precarious supports and languidly reached for partners. Down a hallway against the windows, lit from the outside, two of them dreamily gave and took weight. Dancers leaned out from a tower to hoist up the person below or they dangled above a void before reaching the next beam. At one point all progressed along the catwalk. Their bodies became garlands, thrusting off the banister before swinging onto the next handhold. Spreading out they made their way to the theater’s stage area, each with an individual solo only to return to the lobby space now bathed in a pool of cool blue light.

The movement was quite clearly based on contact improv with much of it performed by couples or trios. It looked like Roman had given these experienced improvisers parameters in terms of atmosphere and timing. The rest was left individual choices with the expected results that some moments spoke more eloquently than others.
“Blue’s” trajectory traveled from the lobby to the stage and back again with the audience traipsing behind the guides. That aspect of installation work is always problematic since the people moving from here to there inevitably intrude into a dance’s atmosphere even if its episodically constructed.

In Lighting Designer/composer Clyde Sheets and composer/performer Alex Kelly Roman had excellent collaborators. Sheets, who also DJed, transformed steely skeletons into lacy organisms. Each section of the wide-ranging score, with Kelly live on cello, sounded a distinct character, adding much to the success of Roman’s vision.

Jo Kreiter creates aerial work with a socially conscious bent. She has commemorated dock workers in “Copra Dock Dances” on a giant rusty crane in the Bay; for “How to be a Citizen,” she built a ramp as a continuation of Market Street for a lovely dance commemorating San Francisco’s early labor movement. As a feminist Kreiter is also concerned with exploding stereotypical images of women. Her physically challenging aerial work showcases her female company’s upper body strength.

Both of these elements entered into the creation of Kreiter’s latest enterprise, “The Live Billboard Project,” performed on the side and the roof of a four story commercial building at the corner of 24th and Mission Street, one of the neighborhood’s busiest intersections and the home of Dance Mission Theater. Quite ironically, the work defeated Kreiter’s intentions.

Stenciled across Kreiter’s billboard was a provocative question. “Does Beauty Ravish You?” Of course, beauty overwhelms you. That’s what it’s supposed to do, isn’t?

But Kreiter was not talking about the beauty of a sunset, a baby or a work of art. Hers was a more insidious type of beauty, one that thrusts itself on women to become model thin, movie star perfect, one-size-fits all conformist. She hooked into an idea of  “ravishing” as old as mythology, one in which ravishing becomes rape. Male gods force themselves on helpless mortals. The powerful aristocrat, (Lovelace, Valmont) pursues the innocent virgin (Clarissa, Cecile) in “Clarissa” and “Les Liaisons Dangereuses”. In Kreiter’s eyes the evil-doers today are the fashion magazines with their voracious appetite for our cash.

The problem with “Billboard” was that it countermanded Kreiter’s intentions. The four women (Damara Ganly, Kreiter, Aimee Lam, Jessica Swanson) in fact looked ravishing in elegant burgundy pants and tops. color-coordinated to the billboard’s back ground. Their movements, framed as in a picture in the first part, flowed easily and prettily. The dancers rappelled, floated, pushed against or twirled inside their rectangles. They hoisted themselves up and they slid down. But thirty feet below you couldn’t tell the considerable amount of strength and daring these moves demanded. The dancers just about looked like disembodied images.

And how many of the casual passersby, who glanced up into the growing darkness, paid attention to—or could see—the additional very faint text that ran like murmuring protest voices across the building’s side. It continued the question: does beauty “disarm, own, compel, thwart, confound, exclude, embarrass, shame…”

The second act, set against an auctioneer’s rapid fire sales pitch, came closest to realizing Kreiter’s intentions. Tethered on a steel cable, which provided both protection and resistance, Lam’s windblown solo projected a sense of desperation and wildness. Ready to fling herself into the void, whipping herself into a frenzy, fiercely pulling against the restraint (a male rigger as it happened), she finally collapsed in exhaustion but not before letting her long black hair decorously drape over the roof’s edge. The audience cheered.

The lyrical “café section” (Ganley and Swanson) started with a stereotype of its own: women sitting around, apparently with nothing to do. As the table and the two chairs cantilevered out from the wall, the dance offered an unusual bird’s eye view of a floating duet which included a lot of cuddling and offering and rendering of support. The dancers floated horizontally, “sat” in the air, curled up into twirling balls, and embraced. But again, distance reduced any sense of keen physicality.  “Ueber cool” commented the woman next to me at the end. “Tepid” would have been my response.


Volume 4, No. 37
October 16, 2006

copyright ©2006 Leigh Witchel



©2006 DanceView