Moving companies

  • by Jim Provenzano
  • Tuesday May 20, 2008
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Two local dance companies known for innovative work will share a bill at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts this weekend as part of the San Francisco International Arts Festival. Dandelion Dance Theatre performs Artistic Director Eric Kuper's Oust (Part 1) in collaboration with Spanish Compa�'a Y. Oakland-based Axis Dance Company performs a commissioned work by local choreographer Joe Goode, the beauty that was mine, through the middle, without stopping, its Bay Area premiere.

Kuper's company just completed a two-week run at CellSpace, where a more experimental version of Oust previewed. The dance is the first of a trilogy of meditations on Buddhist theories of three essential characteristics of all phenomena: Anicca, Anatta and Dukkha (impermanence, non-self and unreliability). How does he translate abstract concepts to a physical dance?

"I'm really interested in challenging dance and how it comes together with theatre and music," said Kuper, who merges movement for on-stage musicians, encouraged one of his dancers to develop a song based on his lyrics, and shifted the audience direction for some shows. Handheld lighting and gender-blurring costume design also play a part in helping shape elements of the piece.

Dandelion and Kuper have gained a reputation in recent years for expressive dance-theatre works performed by accomplished dancers who don't fit stereotypes of dancers' looks. Some are stocky or older, while others are lithe. The inclusion of nudity in some works expands the slight controversy. But for Kuper, it's all part of his exploration of "the body, mortality, how we age and look at our vulnerability.

"I'm always interested in gender-fuck, which is probably coming through in the costumes," he said of a lengthy men's section performed in dresses. "It challenges my expectations of what we think men are going to do together."

Differently abled

For Axis Dance Company, challenges are part of the process.

"When you work in a physically integrated genre as we do, the partnering possibilities are expanded," said Axis Artistic Director Judith Smith, who leads the company, which includes differently-abled performers. "Some dancers may use a powered wheelchair or a crutch, so the vocabulary is expanded because of the different ways we all move. Some dance with and without prosthetics."

About 15 other choreographers have set works on Axis, including Stephen Petronio and Bill T. Jones. This year marks the company's 20th anniversary.

Goode's "quirky sense of humor" has been a bonus, said Smith. "He's got a dry wit, which we appreciate. We have a warped sense of humor that goes with the territory. We love working with Joe."

What's it like for a choreographer to set a work on a somewhat different group of performers? Goode talked briefly between touch-up rehearsals for his 2007 work and development sessions for his own company's upcoming June performances, also at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.

"Axis is a wonderful mix of athletic and theatrical talent," said Goode. "For me, that's where I reside. The complication of the metal apparatus is challenging and exciting. There are things you can do with a wheelchair that you can't do with a flesh limb."

For Goode, collaboration is a mainstay of his work, but even more so with Axis. "The dancers certainly have a lot of ideas, because they work with that all the time."

Goode's warm-hearted theatrical style shines in his use of some new talents, like Rodney Bell, a Maori dancer who also sings and plays the harmonica.

Although he admits that his first work with Axis left him befuddled about even the warm-up process, this time he incorporated group warm-ups that unified the corps, by putting dancers in chairs alongside dancers in wheelchairs.

"There is some level of intimidation, because there are unknowns," said Smith. "Getting to know what can develop for each of us; that's what really excites people. The possibilities can become endless."

The collaborative development process was inspirational, but ultimately, Goode said, the finished work has to be for the audience. "I'm an entertainer," he said. "The exchange with moving an audience has to pay off."

Dandelion Dance Theatre & Axis Dance Company perform May 23 at 7 p.m., May 24 at 4 p.m., Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Forum, 701 Mission St. $16.