First-rate flights of random fancy

  • by Paul Parish
  • Tuesday November 15, 2011
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Lots going on in SoMa at the Novellus Theater, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. This past weekend, SF Performances presented the Bay Area debut of the very hot Random Dance, of London. This coming weekend, something completely different, the 35th anniversary performances of the lesbian community's staunchest advocate, the radical feminist dance collective Dance Brigade, are free to the public, first come, first seated.

If you haven't heard of Random Dance, you might still have seen some choreography by their artistic director Wayne McGregor, the wonderfully weird dance the singer does in Radiohead's video Lotus Flower (13 million hits on YouTube), or the dance sequences he made for Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. Or the closing images in Frederick Wiseman's documentary La Danse.

McGregor is the rock-star of dance right now. La Danse shows him rehearsing a ballet for the oldest ballet company in the world, founded by Louis XIV, the Paris Opera Ballet. He's set his dances on the Bolshoi, on our own SF Ballet, and has been made resident choreographer of the Royal Ballet. Not bad for a young man from the North of England whose first job was Dance Coordinator for the Redbridge City Council.

His early inspirations, he's said, were his computer and John Travolta, and we saw aspects of both in the enormously enjoyable, gorgeous ballet Entity, which made up the whole program last Friday night. Much has been made in the press of his use of high tech: computerized projections (in the mode of Merce Cunningham) and computer-made music. Also of his work with cognitive scientists who are studying his dancers for insight into the mind-body connection. He has held a position at Cambridge in the Psych Dept. Like the early modernist poets and painters, he wants to forestall cliche. His work looks surreal, wonderfully strange, post-apocalyptic, like Devo taken to a new level.

In my one viewing of Entity, I saw as much sci-fi as I did science. First of all, this cadre of dancers is gorgeous beyond belief. They look like mutant superhero-dancers, double-jointed in the shoulders and hips, cushy of thigh, as if a mad scientist took some ostrich genes and put them in human DNA, and got people who can go through the most drastic changes of balance and direction, make it flow and recover, and strut out of it like Garbo. Then wardrobe dressed them in tank-tops and hot-pants. Half-way through, they take off the wife-beaters (though the women's breasts are covered in black bras).

Dance Brigade founder Krissy Keefer. (Photo: Rapt Productions)

Their world is a high-tech, unfriendly place, and the movements are not genteel, but the sounds and the moves are not unfamiliar. The flamboyant spinal rolls, rib isolations, thrilling little jerks into new positions, often evoke the free-form rock-and-roll (the Watusi, Swim, Hustle) that devolved into club thrash-dancing. His dancers vogue when they're not dancing. They stand in sexy contrapposti with their butts stuck out, they throw their hips like DWTS pros, and flare their arms out and back like Travolta. The Random dancers walk like birds, with sway-back knees. The bird-moves are fabulous, especially the pigeon-toed poses �" no runway model looks better than this.

No wonder they're popular �" they look like us only better, like club dancers at the end of the night when they pull out all the stops and throw in 360s and 720s, and multiple pirouettes and entrechats when the music suggests it. They have excellent classical training and hit beautiful turned-out positions. Indeed, there were several classical pas de deux; I saw passages that looked very Petipa.

Who knows how random the choreography is. Entity certainly has no story. The personalities are strong, but the society seems loosely structured. It could be an image of the late capitalist world, where we're all basically alone and nobody belongs anywhere. These people may know each other, but much of what they know seems to come from dancing with each other. As at a club, if you see someone whose dancing you like, you might offer to dance with him without knowing more than that.

The moods seemed to me to change according to the DJ's ability to throw things into the mix. The intensity mounts as the volume goes up. The sound is mostly electronica, but there's a honeyed dance for four women on the floor, with music for cellos. There's one bit with a "world beat" that does not sound like a drum-machine loop, and at the end comes the best part. There was a little stretch that seemed to be guys playing Twister.

What I'm certain of is that it held my attention the whole time. These dancers own the movement and belong in McGregor's choreography better than any of the ballet companies do, where the women look weedy. This is a man's company. Like a flock of flamingos, it's the men who catch your eye and keep it: the dark guy with the wasp-waisted, large-thighed build of a Minoan bull-dancer; the blond guy with the abs of Hercules; the tall brunet with arms like a stork. The women were fluid, powerful, and capable of poignancy, but only two passages made an impression: a strong solo with a trembling foot, and the last floating lifts in a duet where the woman's limbs revealed inner currents, like a scarf floating in the wind. May they come again!

Dance Brigade in Resistance (1984). (Photo: Jim Orjala)

Celebrate Brigade

Now for something completely different: This coming weekend at the Novellus Theater is party time for the Dance Brigade, the feminist dance troupe who have been giving aid and comfort to lesbians, gays and free-thinkers for 35 years now. They're celebrating their big anniversary by inviting the world to their shows free of charge.

Krissy Keefer, the troupe's surviving founder, has been subversive in many ways. She ran for Congress against Nancy Pelosi. She sued the SF Ballet School over women's body-type restrictions. As an artist, she helped create populist theater pieces designed to stir you up to act politically. She co-created the world's first Gay and Lesbian Dance Festival. She co-created the first "alternative Nutcracker," a satire of Reagan-era greed that involved many in the dance community. [Full disclosure: I had a small role in it.] Meantime, year-round she ran dance studios (Brady Street, Dance Mission) doubling as theaters, which gave young choreographers a place to develop and show their work inexpensively.

This weekend you can see excerpts from the old rep (including the great dance Endangered, which shocked me when I first saw it, how successfully it dramatized the loss of ecodiversity and political freedom.) When it was new, we hadn't even heard of global warming. I wonder how it will look today.

Congratulations to Dance Brigade, and thank you for standing up for us.