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The Man Who Came to Dinner 

Wednesday, Jun 2 1999
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If you drive across the Golden Gate Bridge, take the first right for the Marin Headlands, and stop briefly to admire the extraordinary view of our fair little city, you'll probably be filled with a warm, fuzzy feeling about living in San Francisco.

Yippee.
But if you proceed beyond the ordinary tourist limits, continuing past the scenic vista pull-offs and the Pacific Ocean views, along the windy narrow road that leads deeper and deeper into the pristine rolling hills that are the historic Marin Headlands, you'll see the lighthouse, the military barracks, and eventually come upon the little-known village that is the Headlands Center for the Arts.

That's exactly what I had to do, at least if I wanted to set myself up with a free dinner with one of San Francisco's most prominent independent dance companies: the Joe Goode Performance Group.

Joe and his dancers had taken up temporary residency at the Center for the Arts in order to hone their latest creation, Gender Heroes -- Part I, which will premiere Thursday, June 3, in a four-day run at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.

I located the large barrackslike building in which the group was housed during its retreat. Joe was in the kitchen, along with company members Vong Phrommala, Liz Burritt, and Jennifer Wright Cook. Joe and I took a seat at the old kitchen table as Vong graciously poured us each a glass of red wine. Meanwhile, a loaf of pre-garlic-ed bread was readied for the oven.

Joe explained that the center is available for artists of all kinds to apply for free residencies. That's right: free. Although their group stayed only a week, many artists work for several months, sharing housing, meals, studio space, and artistic energy. It's a sort of Walden Pond for those who want peace and quiet without having to venture more than 15 minutes from a major urban center.

I wondered briefly about the application process. How does one communicate the subtle artistic textures and discipline required to execute the perfect solitary act of grubbing a weekly meal?

Ah, fuck it -- I'll just keep writing at the coffee shop.
My official skills as "food-related columnist" were called into service as I self-appointed myself arbitrator in an intense culinary debate -- to add oil to the boiling pasta water, or not? Vong said yes. Liz said no, insisting, "I've heard from more Italian men: no oil in the water."

As I myself am only one-quarter Italian -- and that's a recessive quarter -- I had to just make it up. "No oil in the water," I decided confidently. "A little oil after draining." They bought it, and we all moved on. In the dining room next door I met my final host for the evening, Marit Brook-Kothlow, as she set the large oak table. (Felipe Barrueto was the only missing member of the group.)

"We don't have any napkins," Marit lamented.
"You didn't bring any with you, did you?" Vong asked me.
"Actually ... I have a roll of paper towels in my car, if you want them," I offered.

They all thought I was kidding. I wasn't.
On my return from the car, we all took our places and Joe said, "You know, even though we're not far from the city, we really don't leave here. So last night when we realized we were missing a few things we joked, 'Hey, let's call that guy who's coming for dinner.' "

"I just sensed your need for paper products," I replied.
Liz served up enormous plates of angel-hair pasta and an interesting tomato-based sauce.

"What is this, sausage?" I asked.
"No."
I tasted it.
"Is it meat?" I asked.
"No."

I tried to guess what the main ingredient in these non-meatballs was. Mushrooms? Seitan? Tofu?

Ding! "Tofu, carrots, onion, garlic, fennel seeds, bread crumbs, egg, oregano, basil, red pepper," recited Liz. "You grind it all up. It takes eight hours."

"Eight hours!" I exclaimed. "Can't you just throw it all in the Cuisinart and push Meatball?"

Even Joe, who told us he wasn't a big fan of tofu, was duly impressed.
As we ate, the group let me in on a little-known artistic secret: Boggle. Each night of the retreat they played Boggle.

"I beat him badly last night," said Joe, referring to Vong.
"Did not," Vong retorted.
"I showed him what a real champion is," joked Joe.

After a remedial lesson in Boggle (I'd never played) the conversation turned to more serious discussions on dance and art.

Joe told me a little about the Gender Heroes piece the group was working on, which includes a segment based on three dairy-farming sisters in Vermont. "They're actually pretty famous," he explained, "If you want to meet them, as many people do, you have to follow them around while they work, because they never stop. They walk all hunched over from the work, carrying 70-pound buckets in each hand. And it's difficult to tell whether they're male or female. So we were talking about that idea -- that agrarian society created a kind of necessity. You didn't have to decide what you were going to do or what you were going to be. If you were born into a family with no sons, on land that was so precious, you just did that.

"So what we did, as we often do, is we start out with material that we think is interesting and then we try and find out why."

Joe went on to explain how working with the three female company members on this particular piece led to discussions about women's roles in today's society. "Most of us feel this urban angst about our functions," he observed. "So much of humanity and culture and family that used to be built into society, no longer is.

"I think to a great degree that's what the company has been," he added. "To create this community of people. Contact. People that you care about, that care about you, and are interested in a shared life. It's a little artificial, though."

"Because you're paying us?" joked Liz.
With that the conversation shifted to talk about what sets one artist apart from another. What constitutes greatness? And what, really, is the goal of art?

"I had a friend who taught at UCLA, and he used to say, 'Well, the genius of so and so,' " said Joe. "And I'd think, you know that's a great vertical term, 'genius.' I mean, when you assume that great art is the purview of geniuses then what does that say about the rest of us? There are all kinds of art being made every day on every level. I mean, there are people who ... make ..."

"Magic tofu foodballs," finished Liz.
"Yes, magic tofu foodballs," affirmed Joe.
Another example was presented for us as Vong emerged from the kitchen with a large baking dish filled with ...

"What kind of fucking pie is that?" someone asked. I think it was me.
"It's sweet potato pie," said Vong as we all surveyed the vast bright-orange terrain.

"Cool."
A second pie was covered in white sticky goo.
"That's the marshmallow option," explained Vong.

As we dug into pie with our forks, the marshmallow refused to let go, stretching one to two feet, kind of like mozzarella cheese.

I asked Joe for a brief summary of his life in dance.
The company groaned jokingly at my suggestion. "I said brief," I said in an attempt to reassure them.

Joe told us about seeing his 4-year-old sister Molly in a dance recital back in Virginia. He was 8. "It was called The Firefly. And because she was the tallest, with long blond hair, she had been chosen to be the star. So she got to hold this long wand, and wear wings, and when the lights went out, she hit the battery pack and lit up. I thought that was the coolest thing. And that's what I wanted to do."

The rest is, of course, history -- from New York to San Francisco to his own globe-trotting company. Or, as Joe summed it up in jest, "That was my trip to genius."

"Nice to meet you."

By Barry Levine

Want to host The Man Who Came to Dinner? E-mail SFDinner@aol.com and tell us what's cookin'.

About The Author

Barry Levine

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