PURSUING INTIMACIES: Joe Goode’s installation makes performance into a personal encounter

By Kate Mattingly

September 1, 2015, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE

FOR A GUY who’s interested in the “up close and personal,” Joe Goode is awfully hard to meet up with. When we spoke by phone in July about his new project Poetics of Space, he was in Los Angeles and had been on the road for teaching and performance projects: Manhattan (KS), Chico (CA), and, most recently, Buenos Aires. A sabbatical from Goode’s teaching position at the University of California, Berkeley gave him muchneeded time and support—he was recently awarded a $32,000 grant from the university to research genealogies of Argentinean performance—and in spite of how different his projects may seem, they are bound by Goode’s dedication to human relationships and their vagaries.

Poetics of Space exemplifies this pursuit. Goode says this project has been part of his plans and dreams for years, and decisions he has made recently, like opening the Joe Goode Annex in 2011, have contributed to realizing this unique performance installation. Even though he has become known for performances that merge text and movement, Goode has developed a deep investment in proximities between performers and audiences. In other words, he’s as interested in where a performance takes place as he is in how it’s made.

French philosopher Gaston Bachelard published a book called Poetics of Space in 1958. In Goode’s version these written ideas become explorations of intimacy and encounters. He says the book, which he discovered at a shop while on tour in Wyoming in 2009, was “a jumping off place” for looking at ways in which environments affect us. “We have experiences in particular spaces,” he explains. “Our big revelatory moments, confessional moments, or moments of deep contact happen in spaces, and we remember where we had that catharsis. That is the dimension of space that interests me most.”

He adds that the project is not an illustration of the book—“I hope people don’t come to see a Bachelard performance”—rather he’s exploring how people engage situations that are both personal and unexpected. Goode wants audiences to feel “lost in a labyrinth of experience.” By abandoning seats so that visitors can wander through the Annex, he hopes individuals can be in “really close proximity to a performative moment that’s directed or addressed specifically to them.”

Goode says, “It is not so much a narrative as a meditation on this idea of how we exist in so many different spaces.”

For a choreographer who’s associated with theatrical fusions, and whose audiences have filled venues as big as Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, this shift to the small-scale takes patience and fortitude. Goode says, “It’s both liberating and challenging.”

Only 60 people can move through Poetics of Space at a time, so performances will happen over three weeks, from September 24 to October 11, with six performances each weekend. To make sure that both his dancers and audiences can negotiate this unusual setting without accidents or injuries, Goode ran “beta-testing” of the performance experience several months ago and discovered “yes, it’s safe,” plus people love this interactivity.

“It was really exciting for viewers to be close to that full bodied rush of movement, but what I didn’t like was the gallery feel,” Goode recalls. During the work in progress performances in April and May, he noticed that people tended to switch settings and rush through the environment, as if in search of a better scene happening around a corner.

Noting how people tend to “shop” when they visit a museum, checking off the major artists and getting to that “Matisse in the next room,” he wants instead to create a setting where people can stay and linger: “In the beta test there was some confusion about where audiences could be, which can be a good thing because it puts viewers in a place that makes them open their senses, but to have the whole evening be that is counterproductive. In this new version audiences will have a way of moving through the piece that feels more complete.”

He adds, “I don’t want it to be a gallery. I want people to feel captured and held in the moment. For me, the juice is in the intimate experience… I want this version to be more like a fun house… there will be a lot more time for audiences in spaces that are discreet and people can find their way through, or plant themselves with one character. The space itself can’t be the whole deal.”

That said, it’s still a captivating space. When I attended the beta-performance in April I was intrigued by the scaffolding, stairway, and ledges of Sean Riley’s set design. Large platforms evoked the tiers of laborers seen in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, but there is none of Lang’s ominous or foreboding atmosphere in Poetics of Space. It’s more of an inviting landscape that sheds light on different facets of our lives, memories, and relationships. The score generated an immersive, acoustic surrounding and the dancers sung and spoke in ways that were poignant and gorgeous. Even in its beta form it was an all-encompassing and altering experience.

Goode describes his different artistic elements as “pools,” saying that some “ pools are textual and some pools are movement, and when you work as I do in such a ‘collage’ way, bringing these different pools together, there is this painful moment of figuring out what is essential and how to draw all of these threads back to the central topic.”

For Goode this topic is a mapping of a life, although he anticipates that the performance will resonate in different ways with various audiences. “Each of us occupies so many different spaces in our lives. There are often separate tracks or cubbyholes we keep ourselves in. In this piece it might take a while for people to realize they are looking at the complexity of one life, and that territory is really interesting to me.”

Complex and personal territory is something that Goode has traversed not only through his performance projects, but also in his teaching and research. Traversing this terrain brings Goode into relationships and projects that are unexpected, unfamiliar, and profoundly transformative. Part of the travelling that keeps him so occupied is dedicated to the Resilience Project, an initiative to bring Goode and his company together with returning veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan. Goode admits that he was initially reluctant to participate, thinking,
“I’m not a veteran,” but has since become invested in the people and the program.

Woman in silver dress over concrete block man under in an extended pose
Joe Goode Performance Group/Photo by RJ Muna

He uses the word “powerful” several times in describing the workshops and conversations: “there’s something powerful about trying to be resilient in the face of amazing life changes, and about the wisdom people have, some of them very young, in their early twenties, who haven’t even had the chance to go to college yet.” Listening to veterans’ stories has allowed Goode to step away from developing his own scripts and brought him into contact with communities across the country. The residencies began in 2013 in Manhattan (KS) at the Institute for Health and Well Being of Military and their Families. In February of 2016 Goode will be working with veterans in a week-long residency at the American Dance Institute in Rockville, Maryland.

His other major project explores histories of performance, and was sparked by Goode’s curiosity about Argentinean Tanztheater, or what he calls “a Latin version of Pina Bausch.” In November he will host dancer and choreographer Mayra Bonard at his Annex, and during her residency, she will lecture, teach, and perform.

Both the Resilience Project and Bonard residency shed light on different approaches, nationally and internationally, that artists bring to making connections and forging relationships. They are projects that are committed to looking at how we touch people, expose vulnerabilities, and communicate honestly. As Bachelard writes in Poetics of Space, our encounters with environments and images are “iridescent, shimmering, unceasingly active.” In this acknowledgement of how places affect and transform us, Bachelard’s theories connect with an elemental definition of performance as a moment of exchange and transformation. Goode’s project sheds light on these endlessly changing aspects of our lives, the places we inhabit, and the beauty of risking intimacy.

Kate Mattingly is a doctoral candidate in Performance Studies at UC Berkeley.