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Ever since Contraband stormed the Bay Area dance scene in the mid-'80s, the grass-roots community has been throwing over traditional arts-organization hierarchies for collectives, partnerships, group rituals, and dance jams. At times, it has seemed that anyone could contribute to the process. No training? So improvise. Dance was mysticism, dance was politics, dance was therapy, or dance was personal liberation. What dance often wasn'twas articulate, innovative movement designed to communicate shared meanings to the public. Now that is changing.
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With the coming-of-age of a group of local women choreographers, the anarchic and often self-indulgent rituals that once dominated many of the small local studios have begun to evolve into organized programs of discrete dances created collaboratively by the artists but shaped and directed by a single choreographer. Frequently the dancers take aspects of feminist process, such as group discussions about the body or violence, and use them as the conceptual foundation for dances. To find the right movement, they improvise around the themes and offer input as a group, finally subjecting the democratically generated material to the vision of the project director. As a consequence, there is a common, recognizable vocabulary shared by many dancers here, but it is shaped by each choreographer in her own way.
Kathleen Hermesdorf is one of the most compelling among this group, an artist who manages to be a diva in a democratic world, balancing the siren song of her big stage presence with the feminist, non-hierarchical ethos of the scene. After 10 years here, she has left behind her earlier companies, in which her own name dominated (Hermesdorf & Wells Dance Company and Sister Hermes Dance Machine), to form a loose assembly of dancer/choreographers called Motion Lab. This weekend, she and longtime music collaborator Albert Mathias present six new Motion Lab dances at ODC Theater in "Bodies of Evidence."
While the title sounds forensic or scientific, Hermesdorf intends to suggest that the body provides evidence of what has happened in our lives. As Hermesdorf explains it, "the body is ultimate wisdom." In her view, dancers take what the body knows and use movement to illuminate personal and collective experience. But she also wants to suggest that the dancers she has chosen to work with in this project -- Marintha Tewksbury, Joe Krieter, Sue Roginski, Dominique Zeltzman, Sri Louise, and Patricia Jiron -- have been around for years and are themselves evidence of an enduring dance community.
On a cold day in early December, I found plenty of evidence that the dance scene not only has endured but continues to evolve. Hermesdorf and Tewksbury were nearing the end of a thrashing, wistful duet called Please release me. They had gotten off their chairs near the brick wall at the back of the ODC Theater, risen from the floor, which was littered with white flower petals, lifted the hat veils from their faces, and carefully removed their high heels. They performed different movements simultaneously, like two soliloquists speaking at once, and they danced in magnetic unison, like mirror images. Tewksbury was polished, supple but taut. Hermesdorf was awkwardly beautiful.
Where 10 years ago Hermesdorf was a gorgeous egoist parlaying a punk-princess style on stage, she's now a complex personality with a charismatic presence, dancing with seamless companionship with another powerful mover. Rather than dilute her effect, the collaborative process seems only to have deepened it. "Her intelligence is like mercury," says Margaret Jenkins, who teamed up with Hermesdorf in her own company. When Hermesdorf moves, Jenkins adds, she dances "like liquid -- constant and dense."
Hermesdorf was "a jazz queen" when she first began performing as a teenager in the suburbs of Chicago, a region where jazz dance has historically predominated. When she came west with choreographer and collaborator Scott Wells, she brought ballroom dance, contact improvisation, and various sports motifs into her choreography. She had been the lead dancer in school musicals, and a certain theatricality continues to set her apart. Today she's wide open to all sorts of influences, from tango to chi gong, and these burble up through her dances the way hats, canes, and balls materialize in a clown's routine.
"I've really been influenced by martial arts. I can't help it: I'm a Crouching Tiger fan. I watch ice-skating in the Olympics and I want to be an ice-skater. A lot of it is dreaming, like pretending I'm a gymnast, pretending I'm an actor, pretending I'm Joan of Arc," she says.
The warrior girl from Orléans is an apt model. Hermesdorf has a lanky frame punctuated by big hands and even bigger feet, and with her spiky platinum hair and long limbs, she is part Guerrilla Girl, part troublemaking Athena. As she curls up on a metal chair at the back of the stage, she is graceful but gawky, her limbs sticking out all over the place. When she launches into a fall, she looks trained, yet technically unfinished. That feral impulse and raw beauty together seem to open a door to creative abandon, where female power and sexuality are visible in all their unobjectifiable glory.
If there is an unspoken project at work among women modern dancers in the Bay Area, it is the exploration of this power. "Bodies of Evidence" investigates it in dances that explore the inner and outer edges of the body, redefining the question that shaped early modern dance: What does it mean to be female, a female body expressing itself onstage?
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