SOMA Now and Then is a walking tour made out of movement and memoir, leading visitors along the back alleys of SoMa in the company of the choreographer Joe Landini. He dances while a pre-recorded narration of his sexual awakening and ongoing dalliances plays out on the headset of visitors' smartphones. Landini tells the story of the glory days of SoMa as a haven for gay libidinal liberation, and nods towards the neighborhood's subsequent decline, particularly the loss of a number of its leather bars and clubs.
Amy Lewis, who founded the dance company Push Up Something Hidden (P.U.S.H.), conceived and directed the production. This is her second piece aimed at exploring a San Francisco neighborhood with contemporary dance. Her first, Tread the Tendernob from 2011, was also a “walking tour." This new collaboration with Landini meets at the uneasy intersection of his personal history, dance, and the city’s busy streets.
On a recent afternoon at the start of the tour, a group of around 20 audience members gathers in a circle outside of the Eagle Bar on 12th Street. Lewis controls the audio from her mobile device as we follow a pink-hatted assistant around for an hour or so. A short prologue provides a brief collection of historical facts about SoMa, including how it used to be underwater, how redevelopment in the late 1960s made space for the leather community, and how AIDS, the closing of the local bathhouses and rising rents in the 1980s forced the leather community out.
As the group rambles down Ringold Street, Landini stands in front of a garage door in a large rectangle of sunlight. The performer begins to dance. In a white T-shirt and jeans, Landini wears the anonymous uniform of a gay cruiser looking for his next hookup. Instead of listening to music as he dances, we hear Landini's disembodied voice through our headphones, codifying the various gay subcultures that thrive in SoMa’s leather bars, including fetishes like S&M, bondage and discipline (which, he notes, is not the same as S&M), watersports and fisting. Without a doubt, this is a sex-positive walking tour.
However, there is an discomfiting disconnect between watching Landini dance without music and listening to his voiceover playing in our heads. His arm movements — fists thumping against his chest then extending out like an archer’s — are intent on communication. But his gestures often make us feel like we're watching someone sign in a weird physical language that none of us can interpret or understand.
As we move from alley to side street, past sex clubs and former bathhouses, we begin to acquire a wealth of information about Landini’s sexual preferences. The example that resonates the most: he prefers to be topped by tall men because short men can’t get enough leverage to stimulate his prostate in quite the same way. After he finishes a dance accompanied by his narration, he suddenly stops, turns and continues down the street. Then we follow him from behind as if we're cruising after a possible hookup.
It's as if the performer is the bottom asking to be penetrated by the audience's gaze. We become the tops he's looking for. If that sounds like a heavy-handed reading, consider that Landini confesses on the recording that, at this point in his life, it's too much work to be a top. He goes on to say that the great pleasure of hanging out in the back rooms of SoMa's bars is the lack of effort it takes to get laid. The theme of being lazy, of developing the habit for easy sex, resurfaces unapologetically and relentlessly. That all the dances feel starchy and asexual, save the very last, distances them even further from all of Landini's attempted aural titillation.
The handout and map of the tour contains a list of over two dozen current and former SoMa gay bars and clubs. While many of these venues have closed due to rising rents, Landini doesn't sound sentimental or elegiac. He talks about a renewed interest in the neighborhood's gay life because of the community's growing fatigue with the gay hookup app Grindr. The changing face of SoMa may have brought down the number of places to cruise, but according to Landini, there are still gay men meeting up and dancing in the streets unwilling to have their desires displaced or forgotten.
If endless sex with random strangers is the main point of Landini's storytelling — the neighborhood here exists less as an actual place than as a painted backdrop for his fantasies and encounters — then why not bring in different dancers at the various stopping points? The dances then might add up to a coherent, even moving performance, reinforcing ideas of loss, lust, and, perhaps even transient love in the midst of all of this shuddering and copulation.
'SOMA Now and Then' runs through Sunday, Dec. 4, starting at SF Eagle in San Francisco. For tickets and information, click here.