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What the Body Does 

Choreographer Joe Goode's first play

Wednesday, Jan 1 2003
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For nearly two decades, the endlessly imaginative Joe Goode has used his sharp intuition to blur the lines between dance and drama. He and his high-energy ensemble of Bay Area-based move-makers -- aka Joe Goode Performance Group -- perform in a signature style of dance theater, which combines spoken word and modern dance with powerful themes and smart comic undertones. JGPG's repertoire has included pieces like Hapless, a sad, dreamy meditation on love and isolation; Undertaking Harry, a work about heroes; and, most recently, What the Body Knows, an investigation into the body's innate intelligence. While Goode is an artist on many levels, his primary gesture has always been dance. Now, he's pushing the envelope a wee bit further: He has written a play.

Commissioned by the Magic Theatre, Body Familiar explores themes similar to those of Goode's last work, focusing on the intellect we humans hold inside our anatomy. But unlike the earlier piece, Body Familiar also contains a deep sense of character and a semblance of narrative, both of which Goode has shied away from in the past. The play centers around a handful of upper-class Manhattanites trapped in a summer home together. Leonard is a visual artist who uses animal skins and bones to create creepy installations; the hopeless socialite Kitty is Leonard's friend and patron; her rich husband Bull is a nasty alcoholic still haunted (literally) by his last wife; and Bull's sister Katherine broods endlessly over her oppressive childhood. The cast includes local actors in addition to three of Goode's dancers, creating a ripe environment for discovery.

"This is a really new adventure for us," says Elizabeth Burritt, who's been a dancer in JGPG for 18 years. "A lot of the company's work is vignette-based, and sometimes the characters don't get forced through the whole. There was one piece we did called Deeply There, which was a real narrative about a man dying of AIDS, and that was the closest thing to a full story that we've ever done." Burritt, a compelling performer who welcomes the chance to learn a new kind of stagecraft, says there's still a lot of Goode-ian surrealism in Body Familiar, along with a poetic sense that permeates the dramatic structure.

Among other things, time constraints have added challenges to the project. The company typically takes six to nine months to create a new piece, says Burritt, and Body Familiar had to be completed in only six weeks, like most local theater. "On some level, it's good, because it's forcing the instinct to work," she says, then laughs. "But you don't have a lot of time to fix it if it doesn't work." Burritt doesn't look worried, though -- and why should she? If Goode's past artistic record is any indication, the show will be fabulous.

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Karen Macklin

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