Sticks and bones

By MARCIA B. SIEGEL  |  March 20, 2009

After Donovan's overflowing physicality, the movement of Joe Goode's Performance Group from San Francisco, at Northeastern University's Center for the Arts Saturday night, seemed brainy and controlled. Joe Goode is not one of those dance-for-the-sake-of-dance people. The works of his that I've seen are engaging mixtures of theater, movement, popular culture, and politics, with the choreographer often holding things together as a folksy, singing-talking anchor man.

Excerpts from a 1996 work, Maverick Strain, opened the program. This is a spoof of movie-Western conventions, though you never get very far into Joe Goode's jokes before the ground gives way. Goode welcomes the audience with a chat about the company's national tour, and he strolls out like Roy Rogers, warbling a song. The four men and two women dancers gallop down the aisle and dance up on the stage as ropin', ridin', fightin' cowboys and Indians. They're all as fake as three-dollar bills.

The women begin a conversation of barroom clichés, and they're joined by two men who might be looking for an evening's fun. The talk circles back on itself, pointless, familiar, and the characters shift on their chairs with each line, into poses that appear to go along with the dialogue but soon congeal into further clichés. The same conversation repeats, with the same gender-specific poses, like a movie running for the second time, but now the roles are reversed, the men perching coyly and crossing their legs, the women leaning back and draping their elbows over the chairs. What better platform than the Western for exploding the stereotypical American male and female?

After scenes of unconvincing mayhem ("He's daid, paw. I shot 'im," says one character, staring down at the crumpled form of another), there are endless slow-motion fights that melt into embraces. The action seems copied from classic movie footage, like the poses in the bar. Joe Goode ruminates in song about how "Ah gotta find mah way to the other side of the day somehow," with the rest of the cast swaying and waving their 10-gallons in unison behind him. Then he strides out through the audience, head held high, hips only a little bit swishy.

The company's newest work, Wonderboy, features a waist-high puppet designed by Basil Twist. This character sits in a window and watches life go by in the street but can't move of his own volition. "I am just sticks and paper," he says, but maybe that's his excuse for his fear of commitment. It takes the whole company to animate this figure and tell his story, which in the end turns out to be inspirational and naively sweet. We all need help, and especially love, to experience the wonder of life.

The puppet is brilliantly choreographed and manipulated by the dancers in teams. They're completely visible, like their counterparts in traditional Japanese bunraku. Depending on what the puppet does, it takes one or two or more puppeteers to move its arms and legs, make its head nod or tilt, fix it so it can kneel or sit cross-legged by itself in the window frame. Standing or moving outside the window, the dancers speak its lines and enact the romance and roughness passing by: love scenes, a woman screaming at her husband, a drag queen being mauled by an invisible trick.

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Related: 2009: The year in dance, The other side of heavy, High stepping, More more >
  Topics: Dance , Northeastern University, Kelley Donovan, Kelley Donovan,  More more >
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