It can be fascinating to see how two artists, starting with the same media, create completely unique works. In its opening weekend, ODC’s sixth annual Walking Distance Dance Festival juxtaposed FACT/SF and the Foundry, two San Francisco entities that wove choreography, film, travel and sound into two divergent hour-long performances.
ODC hosts the pre-summer festival of avant-garde dance making at its extensive facilities: After FACT/SF performed in Studio B of the Dance Commons, the audience walked down the street to the black-box ODC Theater to see the Foundry. The double bill repeated twice over two nights, and big kudos go to these super-fit performers for making it through. (The second weekend brings Monique Jenkinson/Fauxnique and Maurya Kerr’s Tinypistol; a third double bill of Joanna Haigood’s Zaccho Dance Theatre and artists from the Black Choreographers Festival takes place at the nearby Joe Goode Annex.)
FACT/SF’s Charles Slender-White and Liane Burns created Platform over a year’s immersion in Holly Herndon’s electronic-music album of the same name, emerging with a dazzling piece of physical prowess, internal focus and intellectual rigor. The audience sat in the round in a makeshift square chamber, walled in by white plastic squares hanging in rows from the ceiling. In the 30-by-30-foot space, Slender-White and Burns twinned in micro gestures and maxed-out lunges, arm swings, deliberate walking steps and inversions on the floor.
Their precise unison was a sight in itself, but it was also meticulously timed to video projected onto the walls. Filmed in a dozen indoor and outdoor locations, the footage showed the duo dancing in parks, on rocky cliffs, on bridges, in a church. The video disappeared intermittently, and when it returned the dancers were still on perfect cue.
Slender-White is usually Burns’ director; she has danced for FACT/SF for five years. To create Platform, they had to come to new terms as creative equals. They also had to puzzle out how to equalize movement, rhythm and momentum on very different physiques and centers of gravity. Same-size translucent tunics, designed by Jenkinson and Keriann Englund, highlight their differences: his musculature fills out the bodice, while her slight frame is exposed as the fabric drifts off her shoulders.
They made the demanding choreography look physically effortless, but you’re left with a residual mental exhaustion; their intense focus is catching. Platform is a brain drain of the most satisfying kind, and one you’d like to process and recover from – but you have to marshal your proprioception and walk to the next theater.
The Foundry’s artistic director, Alex Ketley, works in film as well as dance, and Deep South combines documentary footage of a trip he and dancer Miguel Gutierrez recorded on an extensive exploration of states from Texas to Tennessee; it is the final work in a trilogy on the theme. Ketley and Gutierrez performed contemporary dance on the spot in various locations around the region, including living rooms and street corners, and some of the choreography in Deep South echoes what is shown on two freestanding movie screens.
According to publicity materials, one of their aims was to “question what dance means in rural areas, removed from traditional centers of presentation.” Judging from the interviews presented during the performance, people in the rural South are generally very happy with the dance the see and do. Interracial marriage, the challenges of pluralism and cultural conservatism also come up in poker-faced spoken-word travelogues recited by the dancers; trained actors might have better conveyed an emotional point of view on the text. If Deep South is meant as a referendum on Ketley and Gutierrez’ hypothesis, it is an oblique one.
The dancing, on the other hand, was exquisite to watch. Manuelito Biag, Katie Faulkner, Robyn Gerbaz, Natalie Grant, Maurya Kerr, David Maurice, Katie Meyers and Aline Wachsmuth are each superb in their own way, from Kerr’s slender precision to Gerbaz’ whip-cracking isolations and Natalie Grant’s gorgeously turned-out fourth-position lunges, with echoes of Batsheva.
Ketley composed their solos, duets and ensembles to maneuver upstage and down, left and right, through a bleak environment jury-rigged from suspended ropes, an installation of wheat stalks and a table that doubled as a partner for the works’ most dynamic sections, unfettered by the sluggish musical score. At times you can feel the heat and humidity of the South through the combination of Ketley’s evocative staging and video footage. So if the editorial position of Deep South was murky, its visceral impact was clear and present.