women’s work

In confirmation of the axiom “feminism is not an aesthetic,” new dances by Jo Kreiter and Christy Funsch share a focus on the female voice and yet have entirely different aesthetics.

The morning I was to see Jo Kreiter’s Multiple Mary and Invisible Jane, the sky made a gesture of rain.  I woke up worrying about the safety of Kreiter’s dancers (would the rain make their rigging slippery? etc).  Kreiter’s form—aerial dance—has a unique ability to make its audience feel empathy for its performers.

Multiple Mary and Invisible Jane brings our attention to the plight of homeless women on the streets of San Francisco.  Watching it prone in an empty downtown parking lot was to be reminded of the disorientation inherent to the homeless experience.  In Kreiter’s latest work, her content is especially suited to her form:  fear and vulnerability, two emotional hallmarks of homelessness, are tangible in the raw experience of dancing, suspended and often upside down, hundreds of feet off the ground.

When Trisha Brown first made “Man Walking Down Side of Building” in 1970, the sight of a figure using the vertical plane as a stage was a shock. A shift in orientation to gravity re-framed the pedestrian act of walking with implications for the entire dance field (how many ways can we see dance differently?).  But whereas Brown favors pure movement–movement without connotations–Kreiter re-frames dance on the vertical with an explicit social justice angle:  aerial dance as a metaphor for women balancing power and powerlessness.

This is what Arlene Croce would have called “victim art,” and yet, unlike Croce, I don’t believe the subject matter precludes critical analysis. Nor, in Kreiter’s case, does it preclude artistic excellence.  Kreiter expertly composes her vertical canvas, juxtaposing the familiar tempos of gravity-bound gesture with the slower cinematic pace of middair shifts in weight.

Multiple Mary and Invisible Jane  raises interesting questions about the performance of effort. When dancer Becca Dean chases two suitcases of belongings up and down the wall as the voices of homeless women list objects that they have chosen to leave behind or take with them, Dean makes her movement look effortful. The soundtrack repeats “Hard. Hard. Hard to leave your stuff.”  Likewise, as reporter Rose Aguilar described after the show, homeless women work hard to keep their homeless status invisible. On many levels, this is a dance about making the invisible visible. Hence, Dean’s performance of effort.  And yet throughout the rest of the dance, when the dancers are undoubtedly working hard, the effect is one of grace, not effort.  In Kreiter’s work, both difficulty and its performance become modes of resistance. What would Kreiter’s work look like if it laid bare dancer effort as source material itself?

In the post-show discussion, the first question from the audience was whether the dancers were afraid of heights.  Yes, they all said, but it becomes normal.  And, the dancers continued, fear is healthy because it keeps them alert and, by extension, safe.  Feminist art remains necessary as long as that statement applies to all women. Which, unfortunately, it does.

Whereas Kreiter’s work engages me through its visceral stakes, Christy Funsch’s work pulls me in through its nuance and ambiguity. Funsch opened her show This is the Girl at Dance Mission Theater with the statement, “I am nothing.” I was reminded of Jeanette Winterson, who writes that “A woman is not allowed to call herself the centre of the world.” In an email exchange, Funsch told me that the dance’s opening  statement was “an invitation to disarm and receive.” This is the Girl spilled forth from that place of humility and vulnerability into a shimmering world thick with the modest vocabulary of gesture, transition and stillness.

As I experienced it, the apex of the dance occurs when three clumps of bodies cohered on the floor.  In each clump of bodies, only one figure sits upright, looking into the distance stage right.  The seated figures remain there for many moments, alert but peaceful.  After awhile, two dancers (Chad Dawson and Nol Simonse) leave the group, walk to separate walls, face away from the audience, and begin inaudible conversations with someone we cannot see. Then they return to the group.  The moment reveals the power of digression as a choreographic method. When Dawson and Simonse return to the rest of the group, the three clumps of bodies rearrange themselves. New seated figures then emerge to look into the distance for another long moment.

Funsch has a gift for distilling poetry from the mundane. In her hands, gesture has heft. Stillness has weight. Transitions became images unto themselves. After one section of the dance, the entire cast (a quintet of marvelous dancers, a chorus of young girls, and a group of teenage Taiko drummers) enters the space to lie prone for one, long moment. Then the group disperses and an entirely new idea emerges in the space. In this, as in so many other moments, Funsch gives her audiences permission “to inhabit mental meandering and half-finished thoughts” (James Wood, writing about the author James Kelman).  Rather than imposing meaning, Funsch’s porous dances give her audience’s imagination space to breathe.  She invites us to fall into the gaps between fragments of her (and our) content. As she told me, “I’m trying to set up trust in a mutual (performer and audience) place of unknowing.”

Funsch’s craft lies in the simultaneous vulnerability and coherence of her work in the absence of narrative. She weaves multiple textures to achieve not only the riches of juxtaposition, but also emotional impact. The personal rubs against the abstract. Natural and virtuosic movements occupy the same body. The boldness of Taiko and electric guitar share the space with the awkward beauty of girls. Young voices provide the music for aging bodies. This is what it means to claim your own life, to accept the entire spectrum of experience.

At the end of This is the Girl, Funsch and Nol Simonse, who function as the dance’s Greek chorus, enter a duet of rhapsodically fast gesture. Peiling Kao wanders in and inserts herself into their duet as witness. Behind them, young girls look away from the audience out of the open windows of the theater.  There is no theatrical masking of the window frames.  The lights slowly dim. We look out, along with the dancers, into the ordinary night.

This post marks the first time I’ve written about the work of colleagues.  This shift comes in response to the news that treasured critic Rita Felciano is leaving the S.F. Bay Guardian. Now more than ever, we need more writing about dance.  I’d love to see all of us writing more about the art in our midst. I invite others to write about my own work as well. In the age of Facebook, we should do more than “like” each other.