Dance Brigrade

January 11, 2002

Dance Brigade

Dance Mission Theater
San Francisco, California

January 11, 2002

Reviewed by Sima Belmar

Dance Brigade took to the fire escape of Dance Mission Theater as part of Cave Women 2002, a violently expressed movement and text feast that served as a call for peace. Dressed in black leather, wraparound sunglasses, and high heels and toting toy guns, Krissy Keefer and her “art army” stood high above their audience, who were gathered in a Mission District alley and inadvertently included a number of local hecklers. Through a bullhorn, Keefer shouted, “Comrades! We are the Art Liberation Army, here to liberate all sentient beings by any means necessary!” And in a final gesture, the army broke their guns.

Artistic Director Keefer, who said she has considered retiring from performing after this piece, is a veritable encyclopedia of current events, specializing in statistics related to violence against women and children. Her entire dance career has been fused with political activism, from The Revolutionary Nutcracker Sweetie (a kind of anti-Nutcracker in which soldiers and rats become Central American freedom fighters and the CIA) to women’s rights and artist evictions, which she addresses in this new work. Keefer was also involved in a skirmish with the San Francisco Ballet School over what she has called height and weight discrimination in the school’s admission policies. Cave Women seeks to heal the cumulative anger and pain of generations of oppressed women, rendering the performance as much of a ritual as an entertainment.

Once inside, the audience was led through the theater’s halls. Urged to keep moving, we caught only glimpses of arresting, live images: Tina Banchero tearing newspaper and throwing the shreds at us; Lena Gatchalian, veiled in white, taking slow turns while swinging a large lamp. After walking past candles and an array of bestial sculptures by Tom Wolver, the sold-out crowd made it to the main theater, where taiko drums and tires dotted the stage.

Cave Women brings the audience on a distinctly yonic journey through sections called “The Cavern,” “The Slaughterhouse,” and “The Temple,” using all three of Dance Mission’s studios. In “The Cavern,” the dancers performed taiko compositions by Bruce Ghent, Wushu sparring (choreographed by Ling Mei Zhang), and Keefer’s own brand of aggressive ballet phrases inflected with African and acrobatic movement. What makes this broad pastiche successful is Keefer’s tone: She honors the cultures from which she borrows by never crossing the line into exoticizing or fetishizing. Even the explicitly sensual portions of the dance averted objectification.

In “The Slaughterhouse,” a burning war zone flickered on two television sets, while Karen Elliot and Banchero performed a gender-bent tango. When Keefer appeared on the TVs as a mock pundit for “NOOSE,” the National Organization for Our Safety Everywhere, in a parody of a news station special report, the audience roared. In the dance’s final section, a third studio became “The Temple,” a circular space with high projections of Buddhist images, Debby Kajiyama signing to a Yoko Ono speech, and an eruption of violence made graphic by flying red paintballs splattering against the walls.

It is precisely Keefer’s undying commitment to political and social causes that give her art so much weight and vitality. That, and her gift for choosing collaborators. In addition to Ghent and Zhang, Keefer enlisted Lauren Elder to provide the exquisite set for “The Slaughterhouse,” which consisted of twisted metal, broken glass, punctured screens, and radiator coils hanging from the ceiling. Lighting designer Elaine Buckholtz created environments that ranged from the watery to the fiery. Veteran aerialist Terry Sendgraff choreographed the beautiful ending: dancer Gatchalian low-flying on a rope with startling grace and flexibility. And Joe Williams’s multimedia design lent an appropriately spiritual and visceral backdrop for “The Temple.” All of the dancers?Banchero, Sarah Bush, Elliot, Gatchalian, Kajiyama, and Keefer?showed unparalleled commitment and range. The company looked tighter than ever, like an organism or a coven.