It’s October and Joe Goode Performance Group (JGPG) has tricked out its garage and invited the neighborhood inside for what, among others things, is surely the coolest haunted house so far this season.
The distinguished San Francisco dance company, led by founder-performer-choreographer Joe Goode, calls its latest work “an immersive performance installation,” which is also apt, if not as fun-sounding.
In fact, Poetics of Space is a mood-shifting dance-theater piece that takes the form of a semi-guided tour through intimate quarters—the mental as well as physical nooks and recesses inhabited by a set of characters reeling from the death of a young man named Logan who, we are told, has recently taken a very long fall.
The piece draws its title and inspiration from French philosopher Gaston Bachelard’s enduring 1958 treatise on the lived experience of space, and in particular the childhood home. For Bachelard, the house is by definition that place safe for daydreaming, and as such its very cupboards and stairwells influence the architecture of the imagination.
Because Poetics arises from the professional daydreaming of artists inhabiting their own artistic home—namely, the handsome postindustrial box known as the Joe Goode Annex in San Francisco's Mission district —patrons do enter something like a dream house.
In preparation, however, we gather in a roomy lounge adjacent to the Annex. Greeting us there is Death, standing atop a tall aluminum ladder. Personified by Goode himself in natty undertaker attire and a patina of ghoulish face paint, the unsettling image high above us belies a suave and soothing manner.
Death introduces the tragedy of Logan, a possible suicide. But more than that, he encourages us to remain attentive to ourselves, to feelings and memories, to the slightest somatic influence of the spaces we are about to inhabit.
Then we file outside and shuffle through the door to the Annex, a dozen or so at a time, past a foyer functioning as a brief approximation of a forest (Bachelard likens the reassuring coziness of the home to a warm hut in a vast woods), and finally into the main performance area.
This last, in scenic designer Sean Riley’s handy work, has been subdivided horizontally and vertically: there are tiers and platforms above and an elaborate set of black curtains that open and close throughout the next hour or so, creating a shifting labyrinth through which groups of audience members disappear this way and that.
10 performers in all, including Goode, personify a range of characters and states of mind through dance, dialogue and song. Depending which way you stray or what side of a moving curtain you find yourself on, you’re treated to a particular series of scenes.
In one, for example, the dead man’s pregnant sister (Damara Vita Ganley) and her husband (Andrew Ward) greet mourners in a well-loved corner of the family home; in another, the dead man’s unrequited love interest (Melecio Estrella) pleads his innocence to us but is confronted by the deceased unhinged brother-in-law as a staccato, slo-mo fist fight ensues a few inches from our faces; in a third, especially affecting scene, a boxer (Felipe Barrueto-Cabello) demonstrates proper fighting form to an audience member while explaining he's a figment of the deceased's former imagination.
These scenes and others unfold with a remarkably well-coordinated and finely-calibrated fluidity, just slightly slowed-down. It's almost as if everything were happening underwater or everyone were under hypnotic suggestion.
And much like another of JGPG’s site-specific works, Traveling Light, the subdivided audience hears echoes or premonitions of looping scenes taking place in another part of the building, effectively enhancing the dreamlike quality of the proceedings. Music curator Peter Peschke adds a further shimmer to this atmosphere with his eclectic arrangement of songs, some of which are sung by the dancers.
At least twice the room configures itself into a more or less single open space in which dancers perform together in an ensemble, and at one point the action moves overhead as Estrella and Goode perform an anguished yet graceful duet along the metal bridge. These more conventional moments, with audience looking on together, tend to be less interesting from a choreographic standpoint.
The piece excels in its most intimate removes, where the audience-to-performer ratio drops down significantly, sometimes becoming one-to-one. Specially designed alcoves and Jessica Swanson’s mesmeric video design enlarge the opportunities for private revelry.
But it’s the proximity to and interaction with the dancers—all forceful presences as well as preternatural movers—that heightens the senses and charges the air. The choreography in these moments is more focused and concentrated—so pared down, precise and proximate as to be undeniable.
Nevertheless, not every moment needs that kind of intensity to make this a worthwhile outing. This is a piece in which it is perfectly safe, and even rewarding, to space out.