If you’re ever within earshot when a member of Fog Beast yells out, “Hey, kids, let’s put on a show!” – fasten your seatbelt. Because a performance by this underground San Francisco dance-theater duo is guaranteed to be a wild night.
Co-founded by dancers-auteurs-ringmasters Melecio Estrella and Andrew Ward in 2012, Fog Beast quickly gained a reputation for thoughtful postmodern dance as well as raucous revelry. Estrella and Ward reject the very notion of genre – whether it’s singing original rock anthems, stage-diving or lyrical choreography, if it feels right, then it’s fair game. Fortunately, they have the clarity of vision and the disciplined intelligence to make mashups that are as compelling as they are completely unpredictable.
No one could be blamed for expecting their newest work, CHANGE, to be a dance performance – Estrella and Ward are both veterans of Joe Goode Performance Group, the acrobatic Scott Wells & Dancers and aerial troupe Bandaloop. But when it comes to Fog Beast, expectations are a fool’s pursuit. Friday night’s world premiere of CHANGE, presented in an upstairs studio at Shawl-Anderson Dance Center in Berkeley, California, was a 50-minute odyssey in postmodern musical theater, brilliantly staged and fabulously absurd, if a tetch flawed. As a matter of full disclosure, I study dance at Shawl-Anderson, but I have never met the artists involved in CHANGE.
The title refers to climate change, which is expected to wreak havoc on the California coast within the lifetime of these young artists. Through CHANGE, they both express their worries about an uncertain future and plead for help in averting disaster. They’re joined in this mission by three frequent collaborators: multi-instrumentalist Ben Juodvalkis, who has composed music for BalletX, ODC and Lines Ballet among many others; and dancers Caroline Alexander and Kristen Greco. Dr. Andrew Jones, the deputy director of the Climate Readiness Institute, contributed scientific data to the dialog and to slides about sea-level and temperature projections that open the show.
The five performers enter dressed in white lab coats and play a rock song about rain – they play drums, bass, guitar and keyboards as well as dance, act and sing – and then Ward steps aside to give a lecture on the dire predictions for California’s climate. It’s all rather, um, dry, until Hurricane Fog Beast makes landfall.
Ward becomes a maniacal weatherman, gesturing with drumsticks and wondering how long our water will last. Even though you think you’re watching closely, the ensemble transforms into a Jefferson Airplane LSD party, with acid-rock guitars layered over lyrics about freshwater resources, soil management and equal distribution of economic resources. Animated meteorological imagery flashes across the walls and ceilings like a liquid light show.
Juodvalkis is as game as they come, and in the following scenes he joins them in floor work, partnering and upper-body whirls that recall kelp and waves and wind. Eventually he appears in a hunting vest and khaki pants, then takes a seat on a plastic cooler that emerges out of nowhere – in Heather Basarab’s ingenious staging, mundane objects come to the fore, take on imaginary lives and then disappear.
As he reminisces about hunting ducks that no longer migrate to a long-dry lakebed, the dancers shimmy out of their coats and reveal new identities as Adventure Scouts, eager to listen and learn. Resigned to life in a desiccated new world, Juodvalkis makes the best of what’s left by pounding out magical percussion on his Thermos, his cooler and a half-full – or is it half-empty? – Mason jar during a Scout dirge about waiting for water to return.
The tone gets even gloomier during Greco’s solo as a dying shorebird, with delicate wings and a touching vulnerability in her eyes. Thank goodness for Alexander’s chirpy do-gooder Scout, though, who saves the day with water and snacks and bursts into a pop tune about Noah’s ark and policy change. A natural comedienne with a helium voice, Alexander could be the avant-garde’s answer to Kristen Chenoweth. By the show’s tipping point, you’re so broken by sorrow and buoyed by show tunes that you just about cry when the bird and the hunter make peace with one another.
As CHANGE concludes, with a rousing musical laundry list of things to do – get LED bulbs! eat a low-carbon diet! work together! – it starts to feel like a grade-school assembly, with catchy melodies that turn life lessons into earworms. Okay, so it would have to be Bob Fosse “Bye Bye Life” Elementary. Nonetheless, that message can be made more poetic, and I suppose necessarily less emphatic, without reducing the show to Climate Change: The Musical! But…hey, kids! That just might be Fog Beast’s Broadway debut.
Special mention goes to the Shawl-Anderson Youth Ensemble for their prelude in the off-lobby studio. These dedicated teenage dancers showed polished performance skills in a postmodern evocation of weather and water in tropical climes. They get bonus points for staying focused and in character with the audience two feet away.
Fog Beast’s CHANGE continues through 22 November.