Christy Funsch makes dances on her own terms. The San Francisco postmodernist pursues concepts of interest, sometimes abstruse ones, through the medium of movement, and presents the outcomes when they are ready. She is not one to sugar-coat ideas so they go down easier with audiences, which makes her candy-colored new work, Le grand spectacle de l’effort et de l’artifice, marvelously ironic.
Funsch Dance Experience premiered the hour-long dance on Friday, November 4, at ODC Theater, perhaps an irony in itself: Funsch usually performs in small spaces, galleries and sites, where her audience seeks her out; this is her headlining debut in the theater, a destination for high-profile independent dance with seating for 150 and superlative lighting, sound and production values.
If Funsch’s choice of venue suggests an ambition to be seen, she still brooks no compromise in Le grand spectacle (the name translates to “The big show of effort and artifice”). The work reflects Funsch at her razor-sharp best: rigorous and searingly self-discilplined in design, grounded and emotionally present in performance.
Funsch and frequent collaborator Nol Simonse were already dancing as the audience filed into the black-box space, festooned with purple and green bunting. Dressed in red plaid pajamas, Funsch and Simonse traversed the floor in a routine of synchronous and separate lunches, arm swings, wiggling bourrées and theatrical whispers. In an examination of who gets to lift whom in gendered choreography, the tiny Funsch lifted and carried her towering partner in assorted positions. Despite their difference in scale, they harmonized effortlessly in weightedness, balance and emphasis of gesture.
They repeated their phrases in different orientations, alternately facing the audience, the brick walls or the gold-draped upstage table, where Yvette Niccolls and Desiree Rogers sat like judges evaluating the dancers. Ctrl-Z played a droning electronic sound score while Delayne Medoff improvised the vibrant lighting, and every so often Funsch and Simonse directed their gaze outward, with arms outstretched as though they’d just stuck a landing. When art happening meets postapocalyptic cheerleading tryout, you know you’re in for something worth watching.
Their duet gave way to two longer sections danced by Arletta Anderson, Chinchin Hsu, Courtney Moreno and Karla Quintero. They shimmied and shook, jiggle walked and hopped, rolled and crawled on the floor. The movements seem simple, maybe too simple to merit contemplation, except that here they are done with purpose. What is artifice? What is manipulation?
In a wonderful solo of whoosh-whoosh undulations and frenzied gestures, set to fizzy beeps and tones, Anderson looked like she was chasing a firefly. Le grand spectacle abounds with such charms, and it’s impossible not to succumb, even as Funsch asks us to distance ourselves and examine them. When Quintero meanders downstage, gesturing like a spokesmodel with her hands and eyes, we’re taken in. We are human, after all.
Thumbing her nose at gloomy self-importance, Funsch dressed the dancers in a riot of rainbow stripes, hot pink, lime green, checks and ditzy prints that looked salvaged from the lost-and-found bin at a ladies’ golf club. So however serious Le grand spectacle got, or meant to get, it seemed as buoyant and refreshing as an Italian soda.
Beneath the façade, the dancing is technically hardcore. Moreno balances on one leg center stage, dipping forward and sideways with her arms and working leg in myriad positions; elsewhere, Hsu hops awkwardly over Anderson with one leg stretched to the side, clownish but controlled. The sound reached unforgiving levels of volume and vibration at times; more than once, a dancer stomped to the sound board and turned it down or off, with a knowing glance to the chuckling viewers. If the ideas seemed complete before the quartet sections ended, there is no doubt that Funsch and the dancers were actively engaged in their own thought process from beginning to end. Again – their ideas, their terms.
Funsch plunked down Daniel Nagrin’s 1965 solo Path into the middle of the show. Performed in silence, the work consists of a circular sequence – step, step, chassé to deep second plié, pas de bourrée, pas de bourrée – that slowly propels the dancer in a straight line across the floor. Because precision isn’t challenging enough, the dancer dons work gloves and carries a 10-foot (3m) plank. Funsch, who studied with Nagrin at the Arizona State University, had to pass a series of auditions to earn his estate’s approval to perform Path. She was mesmerizing in bare, technical steps we are not used to seeing her do. The board never wobbled or wavered, nor did her laser focus as she traversed the floor like Philippe Petit on a conceptual tightrope.