Lizz Roman & Dancers AT PLAY

Photo of Sonya Smith on the Dance Mission fire escape by Rapt Productions.

At Play
Lizz Roman & Dancers
Friday, May 15, 2009
Dance Mission Theater, San Francisco

I hate missing anything. I’m very good at negotiating site-specific performance and pride myself in being a good ‘participant’. In At Play, Lizz Roman’s newest choreography of architectural archeology, a vibrant quintet of dancers enlivens the walls, windows, doorframes, studios, hallways, bathrooms, and fire escapes of Dance Mission Theater. And it’s impossible to see everything. Shit. Then I realized that partial viewing is the point. It’s about the unseen, the surprise, the revelation and the sudden disappearance. It’s about the periphery in relation to the center and it’s about, “Where did she go?” and “Where did he come from?” Not only can the whole choreography not be seen, Roman challenges the idea that there is a whole.

Just as someone disappears from view you discover that someone else has been dancing for five minutes without you having noticed. Roman plays with our attention, abruptly tricks us, and then gently leads us. With the audience crowded into spaces never intended for public gathering, it’s clear that we’re not all watching the same thing. We can’t. Forced to choose, we follow different impulses and while half the audience has their necks craned to the right, the others are leaning to the left to see who just emerged from the stairwell.

A basic element of Roman’s site-specific dances, like most site or environmental performance, is to reveal the unnoticed and to bring our visual attention to places we might usually ignore. That’s why I refer to it as architectural archeology. However, Roman and her dancers seem as concerned with imaginal and archetypal spaces as with the visual or actual site. Watching a dancer fall out of our line of sight we might ask, “Who caught that woman as she fell into another room? What’s around that corner?”

I catch myself wondering if people dance in and out of bathrooms in other cities as much as they do in San Francisco*. Then I wonder how many people will find a new way to perform the fire escapes and external brick wall of Dance Mission. The Dance Brigade, Project Bandaloop, Jo Kreiter/Flyaway and I have all done it. This is neither the natural outdoor performance of Isadora nor Ted Shawn’s naked men at Jacob’s Pillow. This is closer to Trisha Brown’s 1970s experiments with rigged dancers walking down the sides of buildings, but subtract the minimalism, or Anna Halprin’s dancers on scaffolds in the 60s, but add a released and lyrical dance vocabulary that was not yet imaginable 30 or 40 years ago.

Co-composers Alex Kelly on cello and electronics and Clyde Sheets on percussion and electronics, parallel the experiments of the dancers. When some sounds, textures, or rhythms are prominent, an undercurrent of other sounds is happening in the sonic periphery. A child’s voice (Dahlia, Kelly’s daughter) recites her A, B, C’s as if she’s in the next room or just happened to sit next to daddy while the composers recorded a driving beat. Although we often can’t see the musicians except when traveling from one site to the next, we know they’re playing live. For the outdoor section, they play like neo-gypsy street musicians, using battery powered amps, a snare, Kelly’s electro cello, and a CD of prerecorded samples that was too mute to recall. Again, an evocative partiality occurs. Someone closer to that amp will remember it differently. Others might not have heard them singing live, unmic’d, briefly.

At every performance choreographed by Lizz Roman, I’m impressed with the ensemble, the team, the family of dancers. They shine as individuals, seem truly affectionate in duets, and are solid as an ensemble. They seem somehow unlikely as a team. When I heard that ODC veteran Brian Fisher (most recently seen dancing with Sean Dorsey) was in Lizz’s current company, I was surprised. But Fisher, again and again, shows us what a generous, willing, and versatile dancer he can be. Afterwards I told him that I’d never seen him do so many hand balances. He responded that he’d actually been a gymnast before a dancer. Roman treats the group democratically, sharing solos, alternating duets. Sure the men lift the women higher and more often, but women also support the men, and the same-sex lifting is where the affection is visceral. (But I’m biased towards actions that read as queer and feminist.) The way these dancers move between solo, duet, and company, alternating central focus and periphery, reveals a group bond that is more than a willful accumulation of disciplined labor. Maybe this invisible yet tangible bond is part of the unseen - the vibrant imaginary - that the work evokes.

It’s hard to imagine a better use or further exploration of the building, especially the transitional spaces - doors, windows, hallways, and the spaces between spaces. Sonya Smith and Tara Fagan performed a sweet duet for an improbable triangular space that links two dance studios. The molding above a door became as likely a place to find support as from her partner’s shoulder. All of these dancers, especially the three women, have lovely, muscular arms. They spend a lot of time, gently swinging onto their hands, pausing with their feet on the walls, and they seem to lift each other, or suspend themselves from doors and railings with ease. Kelly Kemp floated in a window frame overlooking the stairwell and James Soria jumped to grab overhead storage shelves like a parkour runner or playground athlete. Our experience of the dance and the space was enhanced by the spare and subtle touch of Jenny B. of Shady Lady Lighting. I especially liked the audience sofas bathed in blue and when the dancers in the lobby performed under a string of red bulbs, like a summer porch or vintage fairground at night.

Years ago Roman choreographed a piece at ODC Theater on 17th Street (now undergoing a radical rebuild). In that work (8-1/2 x 11) the audience watched the same dance from two different viewpoints. Imagine seeing a dance through a narrow doorway, knowing that you are only catching glimpses of a larger choreography viewed by the other half of the audience. In At Play, the audience is again offered a standard doorframe through which to watch a dance. Crowded, half of us sitting on the floor, we watch the five dancers in a line, leaping into and out of sight. We see landings with no take-off and rebounds with no landings. One dancer is carried into view, another is pushed halfway out the 2nd floor window overlooking 24th St BART, before he rebounds back into the studio, and then flies out of view. One dancer lies on the floor, and a dancer we can’t see, drags her from view, her legs trailing… as another dancer bounces into the visible.

For our final move we gather on and around two large sofas. An audience of strangers is now a happy family. Negotiating politeness is no longer necessary. We’re all in it together and accept the choreography that Roman has intended for us as we huddle together, sharing the same democratic spirit that the dancers have modeled. The music is pumping and the dancers are moving faster. Weight exchanges and supports are precise yet still seem gentle and easy. They are dancing now in the lobby where we sat to watch a hallway dance over 30 minutes ago. And we’re watching from what is usually the stage. As the music calms, the dancers disappear, Lizz points to our right, where they reappear at the top of the risers. Fearless Sonya Smith claims the steel beams that hold this building together. She recalls Joanna Haigood, a pioneering dancer of dangerous heights and exploratory spaces, concealing the work involved as she appears both relaxed and weightless. The final gesture of the evening is Smith’s back arching over the steal, her arms open to the side, heart open, available. Lights fade. Applause.

This review was, so far, easy to write. But I didn’t love everything about the performance and I wish I could as easily find the critical language to discuss what I considered the weak points of the work. To complicate things, I am a performer/choreographer in the same community as these people. I’m friendly with some of the dancers, the musicians, the choreographer, the lighting designer (Jenny B), the board operator, the videographer and the people who run the theater. Mutual respect among underfunded dance artists is important to me. I write about Bay Area dance and performance because of a painful lack of public discussion, visibility, critique and consideration. I don’t follow rules of journalism nor of academia, although I flirt in both fields. I’m stylistically prejudiced against most traces of Modern dance and Ballet vocabulary and compositional structures. So if I don’t always like or appreciate Roman’s movement choices, I tend to refocus on other aspects of the performance. Once I reveal my prejudices, of what value is it to critique an artist’s movement or compositional choices?

I want to ask the dancers about their faces. Where are they looking and are they trying to express something particular? Are the faces choreographed, like the arms, or the leaps? I’ve noted that the work investigates a physical, architectural space as much as it suggests psychic, imaginal, and allegorical spaces. Recognizing this dual or complex relationship to ‘site’ might explain the performer’s shifting choice of gaze and presence. Sometimes the dancers looked at us, acknowledged our presence, and acknowledged that we were looking at them. Other times they looked as if gazing over a distant horizon, or blanked their faces as if to reflect an internal meditation. I generally found this latter look confusing or off-putting. My alienation got worse when the cello sounded airy or moody to match these dreamy faces, and the gestures seemed less grounded in physical curiosity or in necessity. With a gestural vocabulary shifting between abstract and practical, I was caught between worlds, even time periods. But my attempt at critique only highlights the partial and inbetween where this dance played throughout the evening; playing between rooms, between inside and out, between visible and invisible, between the body and the imagination. Now it’s 5am and I’m still caught between, writing myself into further sites of transition and translation, between what happened and what I experienced. Thanks Lizz Roman & Dancers.

* Local spaces where performers have entered or exited from bathrooms: Smith/Wymore at CounterPULSE, Sunny Drake at The Garage, Lizz Roman at ODC, Neon Weiss and others at 848, Twincest at femina potens, Lizz Roman at Dance Mission…

Note: Audience size is limited to 30 people, and it is highly recommended that you buy tickets in advance. No late arrivals.

Lizz Roman & Dancers


May 15-17, May 22-24, 2009

Two shows a night 8:00 9:30

Tix $20

Dance Mission Theater, 3316-24th St. @ Mission, SF