Striking blows for the revolution

  • by Paul Parish
  • Monday June 18, 2012
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A good-sized tree hung upside down over the stage, over a skeletal mock-up of a house, as the audience walked into Joe Goode's latest show, When We Fall Apart, which opened last weekend at Z Space and will run through this Sunday. For some time not much happened as this cavernous space filled up (it is an old factory in the Potrero, part of the Project Artaud complex). Light, bright sparkling sounds filled the air, and the occasional sentence fragment flashed on a large Plexiglas screen, sometimes with the letters reversed (which made it easier for the small crowd sitting on the other side of the stage, facing the rest of us, to read the "Dear Joe, I'm wondering what you're thinking" sorts of lines that flickered by). Things gradually picked up, and over the next 90 minutes, a succession of disappointments and disasters befell the participants in the spectacle, culminating in the collapse of the house around Goode, who was fortunately situated in the path of the open skylight, and emerged miraculously unscathed.

It's tempting to see this brilliant new piece of dance theater as Goode's meditation on the promise and the likely reality of Gay Marriage. Goode is not only openly gay; he has put gay issues at the front of his dance-theater pieces over the whole course of his career �" as an angry young man, he made 29 Effeminate Gestures  (1987); in the 90s, he made very moving work about seeing his friends die of AIDS (and the duty placed on the survivors to bear witness); then, about the plight of the homeless runaways of Polk Gulch (Convenience Boy, 1993); about the gay support communities of San Francisco (Deeply There: Stories of a Neighborhood, 1997) �" that's just to name some highlights.

Let us rejoice in his work, and in the praise he has won for it (SF's Isadora Duncan Awards, New York's Bessy �" very big deals in the dance world). He has helped put SF's gay culture on the map. Goode stands with Mark Morris and Bill T. Jones in the front rank of the world's gay dancemakers. With 29 Effeminate Gestures, his pageant of campy poses ("any one of which," as the B.A.R .'s dance critic Keith White said at the time, "could have gotten a brick thrown through your window where I came from") struck a blow for the revolution. It was a considered blow. He developed his series of gestures like a musician's tone row, with rigor and remarkable ingenuity, into a series of variations that have a monumental structure. It was built to last.

Goode is now modeling for us how to become an elder artist-statesman. A few years back, he made a piece celebrating Harry Hay, founder of both the Mattachine Society and the Radical Faeries. In this latest piece, Goode as always is commenting on current events (the collapse of the economy and the housing market), but also, more deeply, he's venturing to imagine himself getting old.

Felipe Barrueto-Cabello (front), Jessica Swanson (back right), Alexander Zendzian (back left) in choreographer Joe Goode's When We Fall Apart. (Photo: RJ Muna)

When We Fall Apart is built as a wry examination of the stories his friends have told him of how what they expected and hoped for in life collapsed. There are maybe a dozen narratives, which are handled in a fascinatingly fluid way that probably derives from musical comedy, where any character could burst into song or dance at any moment, and even the scenery can fly away. I often feel Goode to be in debt to Jerome Robbins, especially Peter Pan, and to The Fantasticks.

This is a complex multimedia piece interested in a new synesthesia, with crack timing coordinating the video, sets, and music (brilliantly realized as quasi-Foley-art sound collages, with everyday sounds synthesized in with the orchestral effects). The dancers themselves also speak and sing, with astonishingly haunting purity of tone (especially Melecio Esrella and Damara Ganley). The dancers move the narratives forward, sometimes in dialogue ("I'm a pile of rubble lately every time you call, so don't call at all") that may well morph into a full-scale song, with stanzas and chorus.

The primary exposition of the stories comes in monologues spoken by Goode himself into a videocamera, which projects his face onto that Plexiglas screen. The camera is mounted on a writing table in the center of the house; for each, he dons a ridiculous wig, to read letters saying, e.g., "I'd pictured a big house upstate, children, but left with an amazingly handsome boy, went to Tassajara. Now I'm too old for surfers." There are some stories of younger people, but most seem to be of those who came of age in the fantasy-afflicted 70s, and have been rudely overturned by reality.

The most affecting image, to me, came late in the proceedings, when Goode re-entered the scene after a large dance, pushing the wheeled-writing table as if it were a stroke-victim's walker, with the camera picking up his ravaged face and projecting it many times life-sized on the screen.

A piece like this depends on ace work by the collaborators, all of whom were fantastic: set design by architect Cass Calder Smith. Lighting and video design by Jim French. Costumes by Wendy Sparks. Goode's very accomplished dancers are Felipe Barrueto-Cabello, Melecio Estrella, Damara Vita Ganley, Jessica Swanson, Andrew Ward, Patricia West, and Alexander Zendzian. Sound engineer: Greg Kuhn. Live, original music by Ben Joudvalkis.