“The swirling winds, the fire, and the saved…” Michael Palmer
A Mars-red sun stares at San Franciscans from a sky full of soot. Just miles away from the city another culture is going up in flames. The apocalyptic grey sky is palpable; a snow of ash is falling from the sky on street life in the Tenderloin. A fire-red 1920s neon sign adds another layer to this Blade-Runner-like aesthetic, as does the doomsday drag of the homeless and junkies. At a corner theater, “Blade Runner 2049” is showing, but on the street that future has arrived… Apropos, “Skies Calling Skies is Falling” –Margaret Jenkins’ world premier—opens under these ominous skies and times. Jenkins’ world is spatial, almost empty except for her flock of dancers. It is a grey and grainy landscape, danced in part at an industrial granary in the city where it was filmed by two menacing drones–witnessing and recording from the sky. The company is clad in billowy white shirts, white leggings, and clumsy black boots, looking like a flock of seagulls from the sky and, whirling dervishes from ground level. Across this forlorn landscape they dance, dragging one another or twirling their mates through this bleak post-apocalyptic land, or standing silently in formations like birds of hope waiting for flight.
Video designers, Hi-Jin Kan Hodge and David Hodge masterfully prerecorded this environmental happening with their Blade Runner-like drones. Their video is as much a part of the choreography and art direction as is Jenkins’ futuristic eye and minimalist sensibility. The Hodges’ video projects across both the theater’s large full-room-screen and on its floor. It is visible and soft focused when the audience enters—the dancers appearing as aberrations in some foreboding charcoal colored world. Thomas Carnacki’s original soundscape adds to this aerial quality of hovering and infinite space, especially when he ricochets sounds through different speakers in the theater. When the real-time seven-member company begins appearing in front of the screen or moving across its projected floor, dressed all in white, “Skies Calling Skies Falling” places itself in league with performances by Meredith Monk (dancing in a rock quarry) and Lucinda Childs (dancing in front of her prerecorded performance in perfect synchronicity.) Both the audio and visuals are sophisticated and inspiring, as are the more tailored, live costumes by Mary Domenico who refined the white outfits of the video into high fashion– accenting white skirts with red zippers, red stitching, and red satin lining.
Now the dancers must match the high stakes created for them. Keeping, at times to different parts of the wide stage, they create even greater spatial relations, coming in and out of tableaus of fours, duets and solos that momentary bubble up before dissolving. Brendan Barthel and Corey Brady swing the lithe Chinchin Hsu back and forth up into lifts before tossing her into their arms like she is about to fly away. Hsu’s willowy effortlessness is a refreshing element to this physically competent company. To this, poets Michael Palmer, Gregory Sharpen, and Seva Vikander’s texts pop in and out, speaking of worlds of crows, of old crows, of swirling winds, and fires. In one segment the text is blurred as if read through a dream. These voices and words become additional music and imagery, like clouds for dancers to glide through. When the novelty of the video has worn down, the dance seems to take flight and the tireless momentum of Jenkins’ choreography, and one of her signatures, starts to soar. There are sections within sections, worlds within worlds, that at times string together by nebulous transitions that distract the flight and take away from the more complete segments–lengthening the 40-minute performance unnecessarily. At one point, the dancers on screen appear to be taking bows coming toward the camera like downstage curtain calls, but when you think “SCSF” is about to end it switches into more parts, and ends quietly without distinction.
“Site Series (Inside Outside)” a “reimagined” dance is also about spatial relationship in an economical and kindred sense. It’s designed as a suitcase production and unconventional performance settings, such as living rooms, galleries, clubs, and is itself conventional in that the set is a stylized living room. The floor and furnishing are painted red, with interactions happening between chairs, a standing lamp, a basket of red apples, small half-moon shaped floor lamps that are moved by dancers around the set. The walls of this room are the audience who are intimately close to the dancers; something the company appears comfortable with. They are also noticeably comfortable with each other, exuding familiarity and confidence even when the choreography has them at odds. Kristen Bell starts the piece sitting alone in a chair, little by little moving her hands like a puppet playing a piano, eventually standing and moving through the room, as the rest hold their own personal space and attitude. Bell repeats her puppet-like movement as if trying to muster up the energy to stand or play fully, each time falling back into the comfort of her chair. Again, Michael Palmer’s text floats in and out as do the musical compositions by several different composers. Small interactions happen as furniture is moved, the small space constantly being rearranged. A duet between Brendan Barthel and Corey Brady is contemplative, playful, confrontational, showing all the range of emotions and experiences that takes place inside the walls of our minds, and the projection of those notions into space and onto others. Eventually all are dynamically moving through the space as if it were a large stage, in a domino-like fashion where one quick and sharp movement causes a string of reactions. “Site Series (Inside Outside)” is tight–in space, choreography, and length. And within its constricted and self imposed limitations everything happens, everything that is worth seeing.
David E. Moreno