Last Friday, I spent the evening with Joe Goode and his Performance Group contemplating When We Fall Apart, which is the title of Goode's latest dance theater piece. I left the venue haunted by an image that did not appear onstage, nor in the text, the set, on video or otherwise, though it may have been inspired by some of the dancers' movements. The image was of a helpless astronaut floating backward through space, his arms flailing as he attempts to check an infinite fall, his white space suit in deep contrast with the inky black void. I don't know why this image was conjured so strongly in my imagination; there were no science fiction elements in Goode's piece. On the contrary, When We Fall Apart was very much grounded in the facing of reality and -- there it is, the source of my obsession -- the effects of gravity. My imaginary astronaut will float forever through space until he gets caught up in the gravity well of another body. He will not experience infinity, but he will come to understand it in whatever time (with whatever oxygen) he has left. He will know the smoothness of the void, because he cannot grab onto anything to impede his motion and he will come to terms with his own smallness, while developing an understanding of his unique place in the vast universe.
The greatest artists produce simple images that inspire the contemplation of profound things. They provide just enough material to inspire the viewer to go ahead and make images of their own. And Joe Goode is truly a great artist. I think this greatness comes from the generosity of spirit he brings to every one of his creations -- and from his ability to make fun.
Alexander Zendzian (front), Joe Goode (back); Photo by Margo Moritz
Decay, entropy, broken relationships, disappointment, aging, the failing of the body, and the inevitability of the grave are the subjects being explored in When We Fall Apart, which could be very maudlin territory in anyone else's hands. But Goode inspires a tender identification by rooting out the subtle humor in human frailty, while casting himself as a dotty uncle or aunt presiding over the spectacle he and his collaborators have made.
When We Fall Apart is based on a questionnaire Goode sent out to his extensive email list asking his fans and supporters, "Has there ever been a moment when it all fell apart? When everything was shattered, dismantled, destroyed? Do the effects of that time still linger?" Goode says that he didn't ask these questions out of morbid curiosity, but he "wanted to learn how [his subjects] had been able to be resilient in those moments." The responses Goode received are the foundation upon which When We Fall Apart is built. The respondents were honest and surprisingly candid, conveying how the structures we create and the assumptions we build our lives upon can be shaky, unstable and as unreliable as "A.T. & T., Muni, or drug-addicted siblings."
Jessica Swanson and Alexander Zendzian; Photo by Margo Moritz
The set, made by Bay Area architect Cass Calder Smith realizes the metaphor of the body and/or life as a house, something we build and live inside, which will ultimately be reclaimed by the earth. A green stripe runs through it, representing the traditional suburban lawn. An inverted tree hangs from the ceiling. A video monitor floats above it all, switching back and forth between abstract patterns created by the house's slatted structure and a close up of Goode's face portraying the various characters whose stories are illustrated by the dancers below.
Teetering and stumbling, the dancers try to maintain balance, yet ultimately fall. Each inhabits a character that serves as a witness or as part of a support system for the others. They become twisted up in one another, entwining their bodies for reinforcement or strangling and forcing each other into gestures of dependence and submission. They create a delicate balance between dynamic interaction and solitary resistance, using their shared strength to do more together and abandoning one another in favor of escape, freedom and self-reliance. Dancers cannot help but struggle with gravity, though it was sometimes difficult to imagine such young, strong and flexible bodies falling apart.
Battlehooch keyboardist, Ben Juodvalkis created a brittle, sometimes tinny drumbeat that sounded like something about to crumble, or already distorted and coming apart. And then juxtaposed this sharp metallic grit against lilting piano or banjo melodies that combined with the dancers' voices to create a lush score, which challenged and reassured in equal measure. I got the strongest jolt from this collaboration; the music developed an unexpected texture, an electronic edge to offset Joe Goode's folksy style.
Damara Vita Ganley and Felipe Barrueto-Cabello (front),Joe Goode (back); Photo by Margo Moritz
Toward the end of the show, Goode, as one of his characters, says that falling apart provides an opportunity for rebirth. It allows you to "put yourself back together, to rearrange." It makes you decide what to lose, what to let go of. It is in this moment that he reveals the parts of himself that remain fundamental -- the images he returns to (Rock Hudson and Doris Day) when he needs reassurance. It's true that every artist, every person, has his or her own particular bag of tricks, and the trick is to continue to see more deeply into it, even as the eyes begin to fail. Goode claims not to know how to "fall apart gracefully," yet he is the embodiment of grace, continuing to uncover and share unexpected depths in the beautiful stereotypes he has spent a career exploring. He makes them shimmer for us in sequins and toy cowboy hats, bringing them to brief and magical life like sparklers at a picnic, flaring against the velvet blackness of a summer night's sky.
When We Fall Apart runs through June 30, 2012 at Z Space in San Francisco. For tickets and information visit zspace.org.