Lower Left excels spontaneously
Ten years ago, Lower Left Performance Collective reinvigorated the San Diego dance scene by introducing a new way for local artists and audiences to think about movement. Founder Nina Martin had danced with postmodern great Steve Paxton, who pioneered a technique in which points of physical contact provide the foundation for movement improvisation and exploration.
But technique was only part of the postmodern revolution. Martin and co-founders Mary Reich, Jane Blount and Karen Schaffman also promoted the democratization of the creative process, insisting that all performers were equal partners, with shared responsibilities and rewards. Forget Balanchine's famous dictum to his dancers – "Just do the steps, dear" – which typified the traditional relationship between choreographer and dancer. For Lower Left, all dancers were generative artists. You didn't just do the steps; you had to make them, too.
The show – a co-production of Sledgehammer Theatre and the temporarily homeless Sushi Performance & Visual Art, where Lower Left has been in residence since 1997 – features Lower Left veterans and rotating guest artists in works that will change nightly. The second act, in particular, features dancers, actors and musicians jamming in a free improvisation born of audience participation and the artists' spontaneous communications within certain parameters.
Act I reveals the collective's aesthetics in a series of pieces with set choreographic scores. In "Family Portrait," which runs through tonight only, founders Reich, Blount and Schaffman, lounging on a sofa, decide to make contact, via cell phone, with Martin, who now lives in Texas.
Some initial schtick involving the way Blount's phone garbles her voice commands and misdials Martin's number unfolds, humorously and poignantly, into a dance shaped by Martin's movement suggestions and descriptions of what she is doing on her (unseen) end. At first, performers and audience alike are encouraged to imagine Martin's movements, but then her voice becomes the score against which the trio's live action unfolds.
"In Depth" features Blount dancing alongside Margaret Paek, Rebecca Bryant, Jessica Benson and Alicia Marvan. The piece is scored by live vocals by Molly Wilmot, who wanders around the stage, and is heightened by Xavier Leonard's video art, which is projected behind the dancers and on a large white ball that sits on the stage. Wilmot's notes and words become starting points for the dancers, whose all-white costumes and delicate movements match the ethereal beauty of the soprano's voice.
Trust is a key element in improvisation – trust in oneself, in one's partners, in the process itself. What is revealed in performance is not usually a narrative, but the dancing itself, though performer and viewer alike are driven, perhaps innately, to discover a story in the dance.
In "Passing for Four," it is possible to see Paek's dancing as an account of her creative journey with the collective. She enters a wooden rectangle filled with crisscrossed strings; moves (to beautiful and often to alarming effect) within that matrix; then exits out the other side, to the sound of Miya Masaoka's "Rice Falling (on the strings/on the wood)."
But it is also possible just to watch Paek, who has blossomed into one of the most interesting dancers in town, and simply enjoy the experience of watching her. A moment is illuminated; this is the essence of dance.
"ATTENDANCE," with Lower Left Performance Collective and guest artists
8 tonight; 7 p.m. tomorrow; 8 p.m. Monday; 8 p.m. Thursday through Sept. 18; 7 p.m. Sept. 19; St. Cecilia's Playhouse, 1620 Sixth Ave., downtown. $10 to $20; (619) 544-1484
The fruits of that vision are on view in "ATTENDANCE," a two-weekend performance showcase at St. Cecilia's Playhouse, with which Lower Left is celebrating its 10th-anniversary season.
By Jennifer de Poyen
September 11, 2004
by Jennifer de Poyen
in San Diego Tribune