Dancers gathered at the Electric Lodge in Venice last week for the sixth annual LA Improv Dance Festival, studying improvisation in its various forms with greats from around the world. And over the weekend, in (h) improv: Collaboration Performance, those virtuosos celebrated the vitality and immediacy of improvisation in performance. With an (almost) all-male cast performing works often rooted in contact improvisation or structured as movement scores, the show also implicitly celebrates the many men who have pioneered and continue to develop improvisatory techniques. A woman sitting by me thought to bring two five-year-old boys, and their audible presence in shrieks of laughter and sudden realizations highlighted the occasion’s significance. In the grand tradition of the Grand Union and Judson Dance Theatre – often-improvisatory performance groups of the 60s and 70s – many of the acts slid from dance to theatre to vaudeville to … who knows where. I caught the final Sunday show, and therefore regretfully missed The Platt Brothers of America’s Got Talent fame, but even without their antics the show was more fun than anything I’ve seen in a long time.
We start in a sun washed downstairs studio with WHOOSH, a tribute to the late Merce Cunningham, by the much-acclaimed, LA-based Rudy Perez Performance Ensemble. A former member of Judson Dance Theatre and a prolific choreographer still, at 80, Mr. Perez is a local treasure and an essential part of the festival. That said, I’m slightly embarrassed to admit that this, my first chance to see his work live, was a little disappointing. In WHOOSH, six dancers walk, run and stand still; they put on and take off clothes; they make small, sharp gestures; and they stare straight through us and each other all the while. It’s a minimalist, postmodern performance style that needs the most intriguing steps or arresting timings or the humanity of humor to reach an audience, and this performance of WHOOSH didn’t have quite enough of these things to reach me. (Perhaps live musical performance by Steve Moshier’s Liquid Skin Ensemble at the October premiere infused the dance with very different energy.) But I smile when I picture Jamie Benson smirking from center stage, turning in a faun-like parallel profile to press hips forward and slide hands over his torso, and Cunningham’s silly, quirky stunts in works like Antic Meet come immediately to mind.
“On.” Lights come up suddenly to reveal a shirtless, shoeless Charlie Morrissey, standing by a chair, a pink shirt, brown shoes, and a box. Eyebrows rise and lips reach into a round, effortful “Off.” We giggle in the dark as the simplicity and literality of the work’s title (ON off) becomes clear. “On.” He’s still standing next to the chair, but the shoes have moved toward us and we’ve caught them mid-stride. “Off.” We can’t help but chuckle some more as we wait in blackout. “On.” The shoes look a little sheepish when we discover them in first position. Then it’s Morrissey looking sheepish, in the shoes, in first position. He plays teasingly with our expectations and responses – next foiling illusion by calling the lights “on” to catch himself in the act of repositioning the box, or tapping and sliding around in the shoes in both light and darkness. Because he starts so small, the full-bodied, tripping, bumbling tumbles and odd suspensions that wash across the space halfway through are an unexpected delight. And when he joins us in the audience, watching to see what these mischievous objects will do next, it’s a supremely satisfying end.
MEN. ALL men. SEVEN of them. I don’t remember the last time I saw seven men command a stage together, and I get the feeling Scott Wells’ dancers know the striking effect they have in Call of the Wild. With swaggering but endearing showmanship, they assert their manliness (or boyishness) by squatting into grunting, sumo-style displays of strength and … falling apart in sniveling tantrums. They hurl themselves into flying, free-falling collisions and launch into running dives over and into each other only to beg “pardon” and insist, “oh no, please, you first” a moment later. They offer encouragement and guidance to a rolling, sliding, pivoting duet, and they feed the fire of a wrestling duel. Embodying a complicated masculinity with open commitment and gusto – often through the dynamic and nuanced practice of contact improvisation – they win us all over. One dancer shared in post-performance discussion that he first met Wells, and dance, in a contact improv class, and Call of the Wild captures much of the awkwardness, hilarity and revelation that must have accompanied those first encounters. It’s a joyful piece, and as for the closing strip-down to tighty whities and beaming smiles … well, I guess that joke never gets old.
But thank goodness Stefan Fabry and Mitra Martin restore some order, restraint and maturity with Dos Muertos, a duet that brings partner-based, improvisatory Argentine tango to the stage. As they clutch close – hands pressed against smalls of backs, eyes dropped – we feel their world shrink. Costuming and positioning draw our eyes to her, bare back rippling and pearly slip swishing over swiveling hips, the balls of her white heels skimming the floor in soft, steady steps as Fabry and Martin move toward us. A pause, and she circles her left foot patiently, pawing cat-like and waiting to catch the scent of the dance. A felt decision, and they fall out into space again. Recorded conversation repeatedly halts the music’s pulse and breaks the couple’s physical connection, leading them into isolated contemplation or failed attempts at reunion. After the show, we learn that the recorded dialogue grew from frustrations encountered in the creation of Dos Muertos – in modifying the tango for presentation to an audience. Transitions in and out of these interruptions seem forced in performance, but the subtleties of the pair’s dancing and the complexities of their investigation make the work fresh and alive even as I write.
Eyes rolled back in shadowy sockets, jaw clenched, chest bulging behind black spandex, Magus the Extraordinary utters a mighty, guttural, shrieking groan. Glaring down at the lifeless form before him, the marvelous Magus (Jones Welsh) extends rippling fingers over the shrouded body, and it begins to rise. The sorcerer’s eyes grow wide, his mighty hands draw the figure to sitting, and as shroud slips away, his not-so-trusty-one-man-band-sidekick (Will Salmon) blinks blankly in bright stage light. “HaHAA!” As the sleepy Salmon – in too-small red jumpsuit, cockeyed fez, and instruments hanging and clanging around his neck – stumbles up from his slumber, our illustrious illusionist flashes a toothy grin and a swing of his inky cape. A crease appears between his dark brows as the cape catches his elbow, but he beams reassuringly at us, hands on hips and pelvis thrust forward, and the cape makes it around on the second go. With a furrowed forehead and sharp nod toward his ruby-suited friend, Magus indicates that it’s time to get control of those swinging cymbals and rattling tambourines. The music-maker obliges with a rousing jig on his recorder, and Magus prances blithely, until the recorder somehow falls and rolls behind the curtain and we lose the player to its pursuit. Magus Extraordinary is an outrageous sideshow, a brilliant partnership, a merry mix of truly impressive feats and impressively coordinated missteps. It’s an absurdly, hilariously good time.
And after that, what could follow? THE END.