On Saturday November 14th 2009, after years of endurance, I fell off the wagon and intentionally attended an independent performance art dance production – Fingerbird. As I and a couple friends trudged down Howard street looking for ‘the red door’ as instructed on the studio’s website, I consoled myself by reminiscing on how much I loved my friends. Enough to bear through this, I hoped. Fingerbird was put together by Laura Arrington Dance – a tiny company that is the lifework of a good friend of mine. Arrington is a fantastic dancer, and I was sure most of her dancers were. But as this was a big show for Arrington – and she had allowed her dancers choreographic freedom – I was worried about keeping up a professional face with those that weren’t.
The red door of The Garage – an independent performance art space in San Francisco - was crowded when we reached it. The space was literally an old garage converted into a studio. On each side of the room was a wooden bleacher. The sort of which I hadn’t seen since middle school. As if to amplify the rickety nature of the bleachers, we all had to sit on folding chairs atop them. And just incase that proved too comforting, the walls of the space were painted black and the director/ticketmaster/usher/technician/information-booth was as unpleasant as anyone in that role could possibly be. Welcome to Oscar*-the-Grouch’s garbage can. Enjoy the show.
As the lights went down, and the first act, Practice, began, a male dancer with a furry cartoon-ish animal mask entered the stage. I pulled out my flask, took a gulp and passed it to my friends. After five minutes of thrashing around and throwing himself across the stage, I was beginning to think that something might actually be wrong with him. A lady sitting on an aisle chair got up and walked out. “Brava!” I thought. As I sat envying this brave woman, a dozen other people walked on-stage and stood in a semi-circle around the dancer.
“One!” Our now unmasked dancer yelled. Immediately, the first person in the semi-circle walked up to him and without hesitation, slapped him so hard, the entire audience gasped. “Oh no!” I thought, “The brave lady was going to miss the best part!” On “Seven!” I was grinning. By “Ten!” I was on the edge of my seat. At “Twelve!” I was on my feet with the rest of the audience. Bravo!
Stalking off the stage after his abusers, our dancer passed Elizabeth Tenuto as she entered stage. I’d never seen Tenuto dance, but had heard she was wonderful. I was not disappointed. Tenuto’s piece, Dokuen, began with her sitting on a crate on stage, singing a lonesome tune. She was soon joined by another dancer who played the role of a choreographer. As the story unwound, we learned that Tenuto’s character was a novice dancer who hoped to join a production being choreographed by this lady. The ‘choreographer’ led the novice through all sorts of dance motions as she quickly narrated their supposed enormous metaphysical implications. Doing a fantastic job of gracefully un-dancing, Tenuto imitated the choreographer. Unable to fully explain herself to the novice, the choreographer opens the crate and plugs in a projection reel.
“Can you see it?” She asked the novice.
Looking back at the wall in a detached forlorn gaze, the choreographer mumbled something to herself. In a final attempt, she put the novice in the large crate, closed the lid and exited stage. In the absolute silence of the minutes that passed I realized how completely captivated I was by the performance. Meekly, the novice called out the crate, “Hello?” Getting bolder, “Hello?” She peeked out the crate, and searched for the choreographer. Finally, she stepped out, walked over to the projection reel and pushed a button. Immediately, a black and white home video of a family at a picnic began to play on the wall. It was accompanied by the same lonesome song sang by Tenuto at the beginning of the piece. Slowly, the novice began to rehearse the choreographer’s dance.
This, is the space where words fail and dance melts in with time. Where the choreographer had first instructed individual steps, Tenuto’s body just moved. At the end of it, several audience members were in tears, including myself. It was just so unexpected, serious and beautiful.
At the third act, Mostly David, the audience was given nametags, and I worried that I would lose interest as nothing could surpass Dokuen. I was wrong. Mostly David was another duet. Two dancers, Arrington and Tenuto, began the piece in matching sweat suits and beards. Calling each other by their alter egos, Theodore and Artur, they started out in perfect synchronicity and slowly faded into a crashing, arguing, and comic skit. Eventually wearing each other out, Theodore and Artur decided to figure things out. To do this, one sat on the other’s lap with ‘his’ hands behind his back. Based on cues given by the other’s hands, the sitter was then forced to speak for him in a puppeteer fashion. This animated performance grew to a feverish pitch, as the audience was gradually involved in the dialogue by their nametags. By the end of the performance, we were yelling out guesses to cues given by the puppeteer’s hands.
By the last act, I was ready. What followed was a cacophonous display of movements that I would have to describe as a hunch-backing, hip-gyrating, waist-twisting imbroglio. This was not helped by the fact that the three women in the piece performed in lingerie that would’ve made Britney Spears blush. Although the choreography was great, it was impossible to stop staring at the immaculate ascent of the lace underwear of one of the dancers into her yawning abyss every time she raised her leg; which was a lot! The narrative was complex to say the least, and involved lace, lamps, mirrors, birds, groveling, and French-ness. At one point, several R. Kelly songs screeched out the speakers as the women groveled towards the audience breathlessly whispering sweet-nothings in English, French and Spanish. Mid-grovel, the circuit shorted and everything went black. So began the best part of the evening.
“Shut up, you fucking college kids!” Came ringing in sharply through the walls. An incensed resident of the building, reaching his limit was yelling through the walls at the performance. Had the music not stopped, we probably would never have heard him. As Oscar scampered about trying to get the power back on, the audience erupted into laughter and the groveling women, impressively remained perfectly still in mid-grovel. What discipline! In a few minutes, Oscar had the lights back on, and the next R. Kelly song was cued. Immediately, the women began a backward grovel while screaming obscenities at the audience. Perhaps it was that their arms were sore. Perhaps I was exhilarated at having made it through to the end. But, I truly began to believe them. As their screaming intensified, the neighbor’s yelling rose in unison. Reaching the end of their performance, the women gave it one last sharp cry, Oscar turned up the volume, and the rest of the dancers ran unto the stage and began dancing. Completely frustrated, the neighbor began to pound on his floor and the audience stumped and cheered in response.
Back on Howard street, I thought about my relapse into love with performance art dance performances. When done right, it truly can be a metaphor for youth. Beginning with the Practice of annoying boys, and learning to move and be moved in Dokuen. I also learned that when trying to stay in love in Mostly David, and free yourself in Fingerbird, it’s always good to have friends around and a grouch on your side. In all, it was a night well spent.
* Not his real name