By Joseph Geha
By Jonathan Kiefer
By Katie Tandy
By Mollie McWilliams
By Jennifer Baires
By Jonathan Curiel
By Sherilyn Connelly
The piece jumps from one odd activity to another, accompanied by music that evokes the slap-slap of windshield wipers and a subway train's rush. Dancers scuttle crablike on their backs, suspend arms overhead as if hanging from a Muni bar, and crawl into the negative spaces of one another's rubbled bodies. The concerted awkwardness of these sequences contradicts the dancers' lush beauty, which exposed bellies and barely veiled breasts accentuate. The contrast between their bodies and how they use them merges the ideas of isolation and of nubile sexuality into a single entity. Folds of Memory suggests that as a young woman wades through the minutes and years suddenly at hand, even her body -- that thing ostensibly closest to her -- doesn't save her from feeling anxiously alone. In fact, it's part of the feeling. Her body refuses to belong to her.
Tread's three solos -- nearly half the show -- confirm the choreographers' preoccupation with isolation. The solo seems like a natural form for exploring aloneness, but its apparent appropriateness is exactly what makes it unsuitable. When form (the solo) and content (solitude) come this close, they manage to diminish each other's effect. On the other hand, if you can get the solo's few elements to work for you, their power is magnified; a solo is like painting only in black. Chantal Lucier's Asa Nisi Masa (Anima: The Soul) does succeed in intensifying the space around her. Making her way in fluid swoops along a diagonal of light, Lucier turns space into a viscous presence. She is pitted against it, her thick liquid partner, in a combative duet. She falls into it, pulls away, gathers it to her, and scatters it outward. An interesting way to convey internal struggle if, in 1930, Martha Graham hadn't danced a violent Lamentation inside a tube of stretchy cloth. Despite the fact that Graham conquered the subject, subsequent generations continue to wear it increasingly thin.
Unlike Graham, Lucier mollifies personal struggle with bland prettiness. Kurland's ensemble work excepted, most of the show's seven pieces want to be pretty but leave us to supply the reasons why. The revamped Spice Girls in Carmen Carnes' Femme Fatality can't decide whether to enjoy the erotic power our culture lends them -- doing a Madonna or Mae West, in other words, mocking what they have by stretching its parameters -- or to reject their advantage head-on. This ambivalence might be interesting if Carnes works it. As it is, the dancers' cat-walking, leg-splaying, girly-skipping, ass-wiggling display is too mild to be subversive and so throws us back to the tired, pain-laced reasons we wouldn't want to enjoy it.
Like daytime talk shows, the avant-garde genre known as solo performance sometimes fetishizes the unique individual experience as the sine qua non of meaning. The rarer the individual, the more meaningful the performance. A one-woman show about a cross-dressing butch going through menopause sounds like that principle taken to a ludicrous extreme -- she's so weird, she must be artistic.
As a 53-year-old grandmother who passes for a thirtysomething man, Peggy Shaw does indeed possess an unusual perspective on aging, gender, and desire. But Menopausal Gentleman, her new semi-autobiographical show, bears no resemblance to the naked anecdotal confessionals of Spalding Gray or Josh Kornbluth. Rather, she's a stream-of-consciousness diva who recalls the (brief) era when "performance artist" wasn't just a punch line but an auspicious new field for intrepid innovators. Though her work springs from personal experience, she deftly filters it through the discerning sieve of her imagination. The result is a dense, magnificent landscape of words, images, and movement -- both integrated and original.
Shifting easily between poetic rhapsody and self-effacing satire, she draws us with an inexorable charisma into her intimate observations of hot flashes, death, and loneliness. In part this is an effect she achieves with sheer idiosyncratic skill. From her spasmodic lip-syncing to Screamin' Jay Hawkins' "I Put a Spell on You" to an elegant foot-and-hand dance illuminated by small lights in her sleeves and pant legs, her movements are stylized but never dancerly. Her voice can roar, whisper, howl -- and quip: "People think that in menopause, women get to be a lot like men: They grow beards and get dried out. I guess that's people's definition of a man: a hairy, dried-out woman."
Shaw is no Janey-come-lately to performance art. She's been in the New York lesbian experimental scene for 30 years, receiving two Obies for her work with a group called Split Britches. One of those shows, a collaboration with "NEA Four" Holly Hughes called Dress Suits to Hire (1987), introduced the genre of "dyke noir." When I saw the show in New York, it was the first time I'd encountered Shaw's dangerous aesthetic cocktail of hard-bitten one-liners and lush unfurling images. But since Hughes had received most of the press, I didn't remember Shaw's involvement. As Shaw took the stage in a pinstriped suit to launch into a monologue about sweating, insomnia, and the "tiger inside," her writerly voice was unmistakable. "I was born a gentleman," she seethed, her voice thrumming with hard-boiled rhythms. "So butch I don't have to talk about it. It speaks for itself. I sacrificed being a woman for youth. A woman passing as a man looks like a younger man. A man passing as a woman looks like an older woman. That's just the way it goes."
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