In our turbulent, distressing, disturbing time, when resistance and protest seem to have little mitigating effect on politics, many of us are clinging to art as the future of the rebellion. Artists who speak forcefully offer a clarion ray of hope, or at least solidarity, in this dark and darkening period.
In XO: eXquisite Orientation, Bay Area choreographer Randee Paufve channels the fears and frustrations that distress many of us. Invoking witches, queens, warriors and the firepower of the sun, she has distilled anxious zeitgeist into postmodern dance-theater, a pagan middle finger jammed in the face of the sanctimonious powers that be. Raw, powerful and crackling with energy, the hour-long work is Paufve’s best work in recent memory. The two-weekend run opened at the Joe Goode Annex on 15 September.
Like any well-bred Trojan horse, XO presents itself as an intriguing pretty thing. Branches and feathers hang from the ceiling of the black-box space in an installation by award-winning designer Laura Elder. Layered skirts and deconstructed tunics by Rogelio Lopez drape the dancers in a spectrum of jewel hues, lace, brocade and leatherette.
And then there are the dancers, lovely in technique but ready and willing to downplay it in favor of expressing raw emotion. Paufve and Nol Simonse, Lopez with Andrew Merrell, and Crystaldawn Bell, Anna Greenberg, Juliana Monin, Karla Quintero, Nadhi Thekkek and Mechelle Tunstall danced barefoot in 15 short pieces, staged as interwoven tableaux with sound design by Cliff Caruthers. The effect was hypnotic. XO draws you under its surface, and before you realize it, you are caught in its undercurrent, absorbing its message.
The dancers genuflected to Bell, a Queen whose long-legged stride and searing gaze embodied womanly leadership that faces down fear with courageous intention—if anyone is going to fix this mess, it may have to be a woman. As the Sun, Thekkek performed a Bharatanatyam-inflected solo, grounded yet luminous. Her lovely hand and arm gestures echoed through the entire work, particularly a series of duets by Paufve and Simonse, who represented friable humanity struggling through the muck of the messy world.
Monin seemed softer and more vulnerable as the Mother figure, seeking rather than answering in floor work, inverted poses and soft turns. Tunstall, Merrell and Lopez evoked warriors, princes and lovers, roles we all must assume if we are to redirect our destiny.
Quintero’s petit-allegro dancing as the Moon was effervescent, but Paufve could have defined the character’s motivation more clearly beyond the celestial counterpart to the Sun. Paufve also could have dispensed with the spoken-word component of her third duet with Simonse; the dialog is a holdover from a workshop iteration of the piece, and it snaps you out of your reverie by tethering the ineffable to the literal.
No such temporal limits could undermine the power of the Witch, who lands smack-dab in the center of the work. Greenberg was mesmerizing, enchanting, alluring, glamorous, all those witchy things, in an incantatory solo enhanced by tiers of blood-red fabric swirling around her as she segued through deep pliés, leaps and far-reaching gestures. There are technical methods to her movement—gorgeous flexibility, superb control, the delicate precision of her fingers as they flutter with bliss before closing into wrathful fists. But it’s her freedom of body and spirit that get you where you live, and exquisitely realize the vision of XO.