Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco, CA
February 3–6, 2011
Reviewed by Rachel Howard
Maria Francesca Scaroni in Dances for Non/Fictional Bodies. Photo by www.hagolani.com, Courtesy YBCA.
For the better part of a decade, Jess Curtis has been on a self-styled trajectory, presenting himself as an artist equally interested in theorizing about performance and practicing it. Jerome Bel is clearly his hero.
Sometimes—as in his deceptively simple nude duet The Symmetry Project which his company Gravity performed in 2009 at San Francisco’s CounterPULSE—Curtis’s heady ideas distill into provocative images that open a true conversation with the audience. And other times—as in Dances for Non/Fictional Bodies, co-commissioned by YBCA and Germany’s Fabrik Potsdam—the ideas don’t make the leap from his brain to the stage.
Dances for Non/Fictional Bodies
arrived with copious program notes, including an adulatory review of an earlier work-in-progress written by Keith Hennessy, Curtis’ former collaborator in such companies as Contraband, CORE, and Cirque Batard. The piece’s thematic concerns are also expounded upon, sprawlingly, in a note from the show’s dramaturge, Guillermo Gomez-Peña: The body as “center of our symbolic universe,” the body as “true site for creation and materia prima,” the body as “a tiny model for humankind” and “a metaphor for the larger sociopolitical body.” This thematic diffusion has produced a flat piece.
The two-hour show’s episodes were shuffled in different order on different nights. Maria Francesca Scaroni donned a fat suit and roller skates and scrawled phrases like “I appreciate Spinoza” on a blackboard. Bridge Markland, in black leather gloves, posed a naked Curtis to match the posture of a female mannequin, then shoved his genitalia between his legs. Jörg Müller performed a striptease to reveal a sock with monstrous blue phalanges on his penis. Most memorably, Curtis used a walker to reach a toilet placed within the audience, then held a headstand with his head inside and sang a karaoke rendition of “Light My Fire.”
In another of the more engaging sections, Müller cracked a ringmaster’s whip as Scaroni and Curtis performed like circus elephants, eventually balancing atop a refrigerator. And throughout much of the show, Curtis obsessively pedaled an exercise bike. Both that and the ringmaster section pointed to ideas about our false notions of ideal bodies, and our enslavement to attaining and parading them. But the theme—an old yet worthy one—was not developed.
Dances for Non/Fictional Bodies
was not much aided by an undistinguished sound-score from Matthias Hermann, who recorded and looped ukelele pluckings and tambourine shakings. Scaroni contributed an intensely engaged performance, and Claire Cunningham, who dances on crutches, lent her classically trained singing. Still the episodes did not gain traction.
Early in the show, Curtis passed out some of his favorite theoretical writings to audience members, asking them to read aloud if things got slow. No one piped up; I wish they had. Even more so, I wish Curtis had framed Non/Fictional Bodies more rigorously, so that the conversation between what was on those pages and what was on the stage could have opened up to us viewers.