With a humble real-life context, perhaps such self-referentiality could be tolerable, though hardly scintillating. But Mobius instead casts the theme in grand universal terms. It's about everyone's creative process: the Xibalba in all of us. The problem is, the show is so chaotically inchoate that we can't follow the proceedings, much less recognize ourselves in the allegorical brouhaha.

It isn't for want of effort or talent. Each element of Xibalba -- from the high-tech sculptural instruments by Oliver DiCicco to the astounding dada-esque costumes of Laura Hazlett -- exhibits flair and daring. They conjure a striking panoply of images and sounds: 10 dancers cavorting in dog masks, enormous gymnastic balls, a pregnant woman on stilts, a band of space-age musicians in sequined Nefertiti headdresses, a corn-husk installation, a mechanical pendulum of swinging eight-foot knives, and dozens of wall-sized paintings. There's also a cast of competent actors, and a cockney narrator named White Sparkstriker dressed like a Vegas lounge singer on fire.

But taken as a whole, the performance is just the sort of self-important nonsense that confirms normal people's worst suspicions about artistic narcissism. Scattered throughout the dance and music, actors make self-congratulatory allusions to the difficulty of the creative journey. With every incantation of the word "imagination" or philosophical morsel like "Creation is like that; you just keep trying to get it right," the staging seems a little less spectacular. In the final hour (a long one), all the giddy exertions of the energetic cast fail to lighten the portentous subtext.

Mobius Operandi's last show, Exit Vacaville, employed the troupe's voracious resourcefulness to better effect. Exit told a rather prosaic tale about a woman who dies in a car crash. But unlike Xibalba's recourse to the proscenium stage, Exit maintained the walk-through format, which better supported its non-linear approach to the story. Xibalba, by contrast, suffers from a rhythmic and emotional monotony. Once you have a static, seated audience, the performance needs to be more forceful about focusing the eye and the mind. Xibalba instead skirts all narrative elements and fixates on a theme at once too abstract and too ponderous for sustained interest.

Xibalba embodies all that is wonderful and frustrating about the San Francisco experimental theater scene. Amid a treasure trove of talent, sacrifice, and vision, a myopia reigns -- as if the primary job of an artist is to contemplate one's navel, imagining it as large and limitless as the globe.

-- Carol Lloyd

What Becomes a Legend Most?
"A Terpsichorean Celebration, Week One." Presented by the Mary Sano Studio of Duncan Dancing, 245 Fifth St. (at Folsom), through Nov. 23. Call 357-1817.

"We had vague notions that mankind, liberated from want and drudgery, would spend its energies writing poetry, painting pictures, exploring the stellar spaces, singing folk songs, dancing ... in the public square." The embittered recollections of a former hippie? No -- journalist Walter Lippmann, circa 1920, reflecting on the era of Isadora Duncan. Not only does history repeat itself, it often ages gracelessly. In this respect, modern dance is the modern art most like history. Originally renowned for its powerful beauty -- and fiercely proud of it -- modern dance as it ages seems so marred by affectation that it reminds you of some difficult, elderly relative you're tempted to disown.

Duncan, who entranced huge audiences for decades and is credited with pioneering modern dance, embodies modern dance's trouble by surviving beyond its era. The dozens of books and several schools of dance dedicated to studying her art and life attest to Duncan's genius. But as passed down by her disciples, the dancing itself, with all its high-flown gushiness and soulful pretension, hasn't done so well. On the occasion of the grand opening of the Mary Sano Studio of Duncan Dancing -- at Fifth Street and Folsom, the desolate solar plexus of San Francisco -- I found myself wondering why, among the many forms of modern art, modern dance ages the least well and why, among all the forms of dance, modern dance is the one with the liver spots.

With film or literature, we're often moved despite the work's age, not because of it. Chaplin, Keaton, and the early modernists Conrad and James detail their eras even as they stretch past them; the layered effect a viewer or reader feels -- the depicted world breathing beneath our present one -- is part of the pleasure. On the other hand, early modern painting and music -- Debussy, Matisse, Van Gogh -- are insistently vague in their relation to the world; they offer their audience a purely subjective experience. But early modern dance is neither/nor. It doesn't depict the details of its age, but it does retain distracting mannerisms; we can neither enjoy it objectively, as a portrait of its day, nor use it to burrow inside ourselves.

In the first week of the new Duncan studio's three-week "Terpsichorean Celebration," I found Mary Sano's contemporary incarnation of Duncanism, Syzygy, very lovely. But I also felt distant from it. "An autobiographical work inspired by Duncan," Syzygy loosely suggested incremental stages in a woman's dramatic life. Sano has Duncan's technique down. She moved in a steady flow, from arms and gaze stretched in yearning to Bacchic skips to a pained knot on the floor. Always motivated from her center, Sano's movement never felt arbitrary. But despite her compelling performance and a hauntingly alive original score -- Japanese flute (Hideo Sekino) and Taiko drums (Meri Mitsuyoshi) -- the movement was too tangled in history to wake the feelings it suggested. Whatever experience I might have had kept getting interrupted by soft-limbed leaps and skips and exalted poses in Greeky, flowy tunics that just shouted, "Isadorable!"

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