Keely Garfield used to call her company Sinister Slapstick, but in her works, wit falls into cracks made by uncertainty, anxiety, and pain. Her two recent duets—Scent of Mental Love is an offbeat contemporary pas de deux, and Disturbulance a twisty, disconcerting domestic drama—deal with separation and ties that bind.
When Paul Hamilton and Omagbitse Omagbemi (wonderfully paired in Scent) strike out in unison across the floor, they swipe the air as if hoping to hit each other by chance. They spend time considering what encounter to walk into next. Perhaps he’ll walk over and sit on her when she falls. Perhaps she’ll hug him so tightly he goes “huh!” with each squeeze. Other events are less premeditated—as when she rips his shirt—or develop out of previous moves, as when his upraised feet become the armrests of a porch swing for her to relax in. The two may grunt or cry out, but their faces remain enigmatically calm. Not calm is singer Rachelle Garniez accompanying her folkish songs on the accordion. The words—when you can hear them—are wryly sardonic. In one song, Garniez shifts from a growl to a sweet soprano. Within a phrase her voice ranges disconcertingly from a soft tone to a throaty one to a whisper.
Disturbulance is darker, more stammering. The star performers, Garfield and Walter Dundervill, begin kneeling crouched over a blue bench, wearing sparkly gowns with zigzag stripes of red and white. The disaster ripping them apart is not all of their making. The white-clouded blue sky seen to be patterning his T-shirt and her skirt once they’ve removed the gowns supplies no optimism.
Terror and day-to-day strife have numbed the pair. They collapse against the wall with suddenly limp legs. Often Garfield regards Dundervill with worried intensity, as if asking mutely, “What are we doing now?” With Marc Ribot’s guitar score underlining their ruckuses, the two try one aimless activity after another. In one blackly humorous sequence, they sit, limbs interlocking but barely touching, and he jiggles rapidly for a long time. It’s like routine sex that pleases neither of them. She eventually shuts her eyes and endures. When it’s over, she kisses him with her hand placed between their mouths. Violence is ritualized—he mechanically spanks her, she stares, puzzled.
In a program interview, Garfield mentioned her interest in Outsider Art. She, too, likes to make work that hits no nails on the head, that’s colored by awkwardness and failed climaxes. Even given that stylistic choice, Disturbulance lags. I feel impatience bubbling up within and around me. There must be some middle ground between being slick and rambling about in a fine idea.
A dancer in Lines Ballet, Alonzo King’s San Francisco company, has to have lines and then some. When his nine company members dance, I think of diamonds—twisting in the light or rapidly scratching complex codes on glass. (William Forsythe’s deconstructions of ballet and the human body loom behind King’s abrasive yet luscious movement.) In two works, Who Dressed You Like a Foreigner? (1998) and the new Before the Blues, the performers tear into encounters, dash off (or stay and watch what’s happening), and then launch into another bout of demanding, ripping-apart dancing. You’d think meltdown was imminent.
Among all the terrific performers, one stands out: Prince Credell. It’s not just the velvety smoothness with which he unfolds a leg into the air or the pirouettes that he can slow down uncannily, but the fact that he can switch focus and direction on a dime without losing his sense of the movement’s flow. Gasps also erupt from the audience during Foreigner when John Michael Schert grapples Drew Jacoby into extending her super-long legs to improbable heights.
King’s inventiveness with powerful, lithe bodies isn’t his only virtue; he’s skillful at organizing movement—for example, in a kind of free canon for Laurel Keen, Lauren Porter Worth, and Chiharu Shibata in Blues. His weakness is that he doesn’t shape a structure to ebb and flow, build and change. After watching his choreography for a while, you marvel yourself into a stupor.
Before the Blues has music composed or played or selected by Pharoah Sanders, and his great recorded sax solo provides an overture, along with videos that fill the back wall with an expanse of water seen from a boat. It’s not often easy to see how the choreography might connect with these images and with the voices of old blues singers, plus Danny Glover reciting the uplifting words that end Isaiah 40. The men’s wide-legged, skirt-like pants, the women’s transparent draped outfits, and scenographer Axel Morgenthaler’s banks of descending lights suggest a more abstract urban-contemporary scene. The work’s 14 sections, beginning with a duet for Schert and Gregory Dawson, depict struggle more often than elation; without animosity, people wrangle with each other in ornate duets and with their own bodies.
I didn’t see a significant difference in tone between Blues and Who Dressed You Like a Foreigner?, nor could I grasp the implications of the earlier work’s tricky title. Foreigner is set to fine taped percussion by Zakir Hussain, with Ustad Sultan Khan on sarangi. The dancers again amaze us. At the end, Keen watches Brett Conway jump and jump. She stops him. They reprise a previous passage. Snow falls.