As we entered the theater, two performers were lying center stage, bricks were strewn in a line across the back wall and traffic/construction/street sounds pervaded the air. The house lights dimmed and the score roared with a rumbling, low bass tremolo. Like waking from a dream, they peeled themselves off the ground, taking a tactile inventory of their arms, legs and faces. Once standing, they slowly traversed the space, their bodies adjusting to this new state of being. Reactions were wide-ranging. Clenched hands and shaking arms suggested struggle. Balance was tested as one foot was lifted off the ground, then the other, over and over again. Hands washed the space like windshield-wipers, mirroring the scapula’s movement on the back. Fingers articulated with an exploratory spirit.
These were the opening moments of the beauty and ruin of friends, of bodies, an evening-length world premiere that ran last weekend at San Francisco’s Dance Mission Theater. Choreographed by Nol Simonse, in collaboration with Christy Funsch, and performed by the incomparable pair, a myriad of ideas and themes were at play during the sixty-minute work. But one concept was particularly striking: time. In the compositional structure, in the choreography, in the connection between Simonse and Funsch, time was everywhere. And it was a multi-faceted portrait of time, replete with wit, insight and genuine vulnerability.
First was a celebration of time shared, of time spent together in conversation and in community. Simonse and Funsch have enjoyed a lengthy creative partnership spanning close to two decades, which they have coined as their “seventeen-year dance marriage.” the beauty and ruin of friends, of bodies certainly reflected this deep and enduring connection, and all the things one finds in any long-term relationship: support, frustration, care and discovery.
Early in the dance, Simonse approached Funsch, and tried to appropriate her pulsing, breath-based motion. She stopped, touched him ever so gently and he crumbled dramatically to the floor. He got up and made another attempt. Eventually, a percussive clapping sequence was what evolved out of the scene, Simonse and Funsch each contributing an independent rhythmic line that when combined, created a lush pattern. The message: a successful partnership is not about two becoming one, it is about how maintaining individuality can birth the most profound consonance.
Numerous duets unfolded during beauty and ruin, and they were peppered with texts statements like, “we can do anything as long as we stay together” and “this is so much fun, I’m having a really good time.” While eclectic in movement, intention and mood, each of these duets revealed intense spatial clarity and awareness. Whether in partnering or unison, moving towards each other or moving away, in stillness or in motion, Simonse and Funsch were totally in sync.
A solo by Funsch brought ‘time past’ to the table. Motifs of remembering recurred throughout the mesmerizing sequence: the hand resting on the forehead, a gaze upward. But it wasn’t like Funsch was recalling stories or events, instead it felt as if she was sharing a physical remembrance – charting her body’s journey with movement and choreography over time. Moments of expanse were expressed through long, stretchy arabesques; precariousness and uncertainty through relevé. One specific posture really drove this latter point home: while remaining in parallel relevé, Funsch folded forward over her legs and extended her arms in a diving stance. Teetering on the brink, yet fighting to hold on.
Mid-way through beauty and ruin Simonse offered a very literal expression of time. He and Funsch each brought a pile of clothing and placed them in two pools of light. Like a clock, they walked systematically and deliberately around the pile, stopping to take off and put on different clothing and accessories, the various ensembles suggesting distinct points in their personal history. In the end, Funsch settled on a hot pink dress and Simonse morphed into a new character, one that could easily fit into Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. With this transformation came yet another perspective on time, a transcending of worlds – time in a parallel dimension where mythical beings and humans co-exist.
As Simonse and Funsch turned their attention to the bricks at the back of the stage, the present moment in time took over. With the bricks they began building and assembling a structure, together creating something new, in real-time. Though quickly beauty and ruin pivoted and the bricks took on new meaning. After dismantling the structured they had just created, Simonse placed bricks on and around Funsch, perhaps speaking to the weight of time. In due course, Funsch would break away from the bricks and dance free from constraint.
As the program closed, there was a final thought on time – time to come. After an emotive solo from Simonse that, with its turned out fifth positions and tendus to the front, felt almost like a reverénce, he donned a different costume and embodied a new character. As the lights fell, he walked upstage left on the precipice of an unexplored path. The end of this work, but clearly not the end of the story.