CounterPulse Pushes Performers to the Edge — In a Good Way

(L to R) Adam Smith and Arletta Anderson in our in unison in their 'weather//body' at CounterPulse. (Photo: Robbie Sweeny)

Sometimes you wonder about the souls of theaters. CounterPulse certainly has a fascinating one. The San Francisco performing arts organization's audiences, the way they commission and produce work, and the general vibe before and after performances feel at odds, in a good way, with how most performance is presented and consumed in the Bay Area.

You can certainly sense the company’s vision in the two pieces that comprise its "2017 Edge Residency," a program dedicated to the development of work that slips somewhere between dance, theater, performance, and social advocacy.

Scarlett Cushion’s The Bell in the Blood begins with dancer Hien Huynh in a yellow duster collecting tickets at the door. He performs an elaborate and ornate bow for each audience member as they enter the theater. Once there, it appears that the performance has been humming along for some time: Aaron Kierbel gently plays the drums; Iu-Hui Chua contorts her body in a series of poses that seem more animal than human; and Todd Thomas Brown plays the bass behind the audience. The melody is gentle. But Brown plays at a volume that rumbles through your body, making you feel like you are peacefully on edge.

Todd Thomas Brown speaks of the mysteries of his backpack in Scarlett Cushion's 'The Bell in the Blood' at CounterPulse.
Todd Thomas Brown speaks of the mysteries of his backpack in Scarlett Cushion's 'The Bell in the Blood' at CounterPulse. (Photo: Robbie Sweeny)

Perhaps because we’re used to dancers being the center of attention and bassists providing the support, it’s a little surprising when Brown strolls down the stairs next to us, and tells us about a little problem he’s been thinking about. He holds up a nifty REI backpack he bought four and a half months ago and asks: “How is it that I know everything that’s in here, but that I’ve lived in my body for over four decades and I know almost nothing of what’s in it?” It’s a nice beginning, though the writing could be pared some, and highlights the way the artists involved shift in and out of the limelight.

At one point, Kierbel plays the drums on a moving platform, as the others spin him around with ropes tied to the platform and their waists. Neither the rope metaphor nor the story of Kierbel's feckless grandfathers fully succeeds. But the way the performers work together certainly does. A lot of dance and performance is star-driven. It's as if the burning center of the work is in the vision of one person. With Scarlett Cushion, the pleasure is in the collective.

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Even the highlight of the piece -- Huynh’s unforgettable story of his parents’ love and his propulsive yet feathery-light dancing -- erupts from what feels like a group dream of survival. By the end of the evening, these four disparate talents have somehow managed to turn Marx’s old dictum of farce following tragedy into an aesthetic principal, and joyfully so. How wonderful that they should realize a kind of goofy utopia by working together as equals. The Bell in the Blood is a little rough around the edges, but it's always compelling and surprising.

Hien Huynh spirals through the air in Scarlett Cushion's 'The Bell in the Blood' at CounterPulse.
Hien Huynh spirals through the air in Scarlett Cushion's 'The Bell in the Blood' at CounterPulse. (Photo: Robbie Sweeny)

In the more assured and off-handedly ambitious second piece of the evening, weather//body, Arletta Anderson and Adam Smith achieve a kind of mystical relationship with theatrical space and time. Watching performers set up the stage is rarely riveting, but as Anderson and Smith go about placing their props and getting their lighting just right, you can feel an intensity of purpose in the calm and precision of their house management. Even while adjusting an onstage amp, they seem to have us just where they want us.

So before you can register Smith's electric guitar-playing and Anderson's posing across the stage, they’ve begun. The performers state their names, the day, date, and time of the performance, and then the stage blacks out. The next light we see is Anderson swinging an LED around in a circle, while Smith produces a soundscape of reverb and feedback. It’s a simple and beautiful effect, the arc of the light only visible as it spins around in front of us. And then Smith quits playing and we just hear the spinning light, which goes on for quite a while.

(L to R) Arletta Anderson and Adam Smith run and walk and run and walk and run and walk for a long time in 'weather//body' at CounterPulse.
(L to R) Arletta Anderson and Adam Smith run and walk and run and walk and run and walk for a long time in 'weather//body' at CounterPulse. (Photo: Robbie Sweeny)

It’s a mesmerizing effect and one of many bits in weather//body that arrest and reshape our perceptions of the empty space before us. At one point, Anderson and Smith walk across the stage on the diagonal and then run back to the other side -- again, and again, and again. Their ability to repeat the same action is astounding. And when that action begins to vary in the slightest bit, the changes are explosive.

We aren’t just watching, but also hearing what repetition does to the performers bodies, the way their breathing starts to deepen and expand as the physical toll of all that repeated movement begins to wear on them. The simplicity of the image, like a mathematical equation, is offset by the daunting nature of its execution. Even though nothing much is happening, it feels as if the world is all before us.

When Anderson drops a series of tiny lights on the ground while Smith plays, she suddenly resembles a God strolling among the stars. I heard a number of people gasp at what they were seeing. This might be the most stunning special effect of the year, as well as the least expensive.

Adam Smith plays the guitar while Arletta Anderson dances through the universe in 'weather//body' at CounterPulse.
Adam Smith plays the guitar while Arletta Anderson dances through the universe in 'weather//body' at CounterPulse. (Photo: Robbie Sweeny)

In the end, of course, they clean everything up and exit the stage in the most pedestrian way you can imagine. There’s Anderson sitting upstage diddling away on Smith’s guitar, her atonal twinkling more Morse code than music, as Smith sweeps up all the beauty that was before her like some janitor of the soul. In a piece that begins with the performers setting the stage, they end up leaving a clean and empty one.

That’s a task normally reserved for stagehands after the audience leaves. But under Anderson and Smith’s austere vision of the world, the housekeeping too becomes a moment of great mystery. Again, simple actions are rarely this riveting.

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The 2017 Edge Residency runs through Saturday Apr. 29 at CounterPulse in San Francisco. For tickets and information click here.

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