Saturday, June 04, 2011


On Wednesday I got to see Invocation, the first part of the new dance Bare Bones Crow, which was created and performed by my relative Vangie King. (I'm not totally sure what the proper term is for our relation. She's my father's cousin; does that make us first cousins once removed?) She's been dancing for most of her life, but this was the first chance I'd had to see her, and it was a great experience.

On an earlier visit with Vangie when my parents were in town, she had described the idea behind this new piece. It evokes a creature who is buried far underground; the creature awakes, and the dance shows its journey. Vangie collaborated with a sound designer to create the aural landscape for the dance.

Vangie's dance was included in the "raw & uncut" showcase at The Garage, a cool performance space in SOMA. The Garage sponsors a resident workshop program that allows artists to spend time developing new creations, and many of the dances in this showcase were from residents at various stages of their program.

The Garage reminded me a lot of some of the smaller venues in Chicago where I've seen Pat perform. Really intimate, very immediate, usually with one person who's clearly running all aspects of the venue. Here, people gave donations for their entrance ($10-$20 sliding scale; I'd pre-paid on Brown Paper Tickets, but will probably do it in person the next time I come), received programs (simple and effective folded sheets of paper), and could choose from various beverages to purchase. The manager let us all know the window of time when the restroom was open - since it's on the opposite side of the stage as the seating, it isn't exactly accessible during performances. Folks mingled or lingered for a while, then we headed in and started the show.

The first piece, "No Self," primarily featured a single dancer; another woman prowled around at intervals and provided live lighting support, and a man played a fairly subdued string instrument for live music. The woman, wearing a very long dress, was standing on a pedestal hidden under her dress, giving the illusion of enormous height. The piece began with her coming to life, and slowly coming to understand and control her body. (The moment when she first smiles was both hilarious and disturbing.) Intellectually, I knew that I was watching a person standing on a pedestal, but throughout the performance it felt like I was watching a single, tall, increasingly graceful body. Eventually she came down and moved around the stage. As with the other dances, there was fairly minimal speech, but what little is there seems shocking. The words towards the end go something like, "You want to live forever? I wish to die!" The piece was intriguing and seemed to end on a somewhat bittersweet note.

Next up came Vangie's piece. She performs as the creature - I presume the Bare Bones Crow of the title - who abruptly awakens in an enclosed space deep underground. The creature is curious, frightened, exploring its surroundings and trying to understand what's happening. The creature also seems quite powerful, but perhaps not aware of it. Vangie's colleague Brenda had designed the sound for the piece and "performed" it live via her Macbook. Some of this was ambient noise and music, but there were also amazing sound effects that really magnified Vangie's movements: crackling rocks, spooky-sounding drippy slime, hurried footsteps, and more. (Unfortunately, the audio system got a bit wonky and it was sometimes hard to separate the sound from the hissing speakers. I'm ignorant enough about modern dance that I couldn't tell if it was a technical problem or a sign of avant-garde composition!) Vangie's movements were amazing to watch - often stately, deliberate, and powerfully focused. She, too, only occasionally spoke, and her few words captured the stress of the creature.

After a first attempt at a piece that was aborted due to the increasingly feisty speakers, we took an early intermission, followed by a piece by two male dancers. One was a native American Indian (who started off wearing extremely bright red high heels) with a larger build, another looked like a regular white guy with a slighter build. This dance seemed to be more purely about movement; or at least, it didn't seem to be telling a story as explicitly as the first two had. It was also quite funny, although I wasn't sure until fairly late on whether it was OK to laugh.

"Maintain Class" also had flashes of humor. This dance featured two incredibly attractive young women, who start the dance reading newspapers in chairs. The dance moves through a sequence of phases, each set to its own song (including some really excellent electronic pieces) or silence. Sometimes the women seem to be cooperating; other times competing; at one point they writhe in pain on the ground, at another they seem to be playing a cruel version of the trust exercise, at others they dance with one another. I think the emotional center of the piece comes when the two very slowly rotate in smooth 360-degree pivots, with each turn showing a new face to the audience.

After an earlier aborted attempt, the second shot at "Worn on the Bottom" had better cooperation from the music. Combining trends from the first two and two previous performances, this one was both disturbing and funny. The dancer maintained strong eye contact with the audience throughout her performance. Dressed in a pure white girlish dress, she starts out flipping through the pages of a large book, and begins to dance along to the music she hears. Some of the movements become increasingly sexual, which feels incongruous and disturbing as the dance continues. Her moves repeat and evolve throughout the dance, giving you ample opportunity to reflect on them. (I'm just now realizing, incidentally, that print is a HORRIBLE medium for describing a dance. It would be better if I had more of a dance vocabulary; I apologize for the hash I'm making of all this.) There was one particular sequence of gestures she made which fascinated me for reasons I still don't understand: starting with both arms raised just above her head, she pauses for a moment, then moves her right arm through a swift set of even horizontal steps away from her left arm; at the end, she moves her right hand up and forward, toward the audience, twisting just a tiny bit, as if she were reaching for something far away or turning a key in a lock. Like I said, I don't know why that movement resonated with me, but it's still haunting me days later.

The evening ended with "*cari's tiny circus*", which was accurately billed as four "almost serious dances." The first term that comes to mind to describe this one is "prop dancing," though that doesn't begin to do justice to it. Each of the four dances had some physical object or set of objects on stage. For the first one, she came out in a deliberately gaudy and poofy ballerina dress, and plopped herself down in, um, a bucket. And then she danced in the bucket. It was pretty unreal, incredibly talented, and highly amusing. Another dance took place entirely on a stool, where she somehow managed to maintain her balance while dancing on the top, on the side rungs, swung out sideways, etc. My favorite one featured a variety of pots and pans spread across the stage: she somehow managed to dance through a skillet, dutch oven, stockpot, etc., without ever touching the floor. It was a lot of fun, and the performance felt like a celebration at the pure joy and fun of controlling a talented body.

So, my first introduction to San Francisco dance was a great one. It was a lot of fun to see Vangie perform, and also fun to see it in this context, where I could try and pick up a rudimentary education about what else is going on in modern dance. I know I'll never be an expert at this particular art form, but I like what I've seen so far.

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