Finding an eXquisite New Orientation

By Michael Nugent

September 1, 2017, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE
group of 5 dancers
group of 5 dancers
eXquisite Orientation (from right to left) Nadhi Thekkek, Juliana Monin,
Nol Simonse, Anna Greenberg and Karla Quintero) / photo by Tony Nguyen

Early last year, Randee Paufve, a Bay Area choreographer known for creating intricately detailed, multi-layered performance, found herself working on distinctly different projects that addressed issues of gender. One was a series of discrete duets, each choreographed by and performed with men; another, six solos for women of varying backgrounds, using female archetypes to investigate each dancer’s particular physical expression of power. Against the backdrop of the vitriolic 2016 election, Paufve decided to throw these dances together under one roof in a mashup titled XO.

The show oversold, and the overwhelming, supportive feedback suggested that the qualities and feelings evoked by the work were relevant to audiences beyond an exploration of gender.

“The January performances revealed that we have the makings of an evening length work, rather than a showcase of discrete pieces,” Paufve said. “Post-election, we have found ourselves in a shocking new world, one that compels a shift in our focus. To reflect these shifts in our local and global circumstances, we moved towards a cohesive body of work that helps us locate and orient ourselves in a new world: XO = eXquisite Orientation.

XO explores archetypes and stereotypes as means of reorienting ourselves in these unsettling times. As familiar, albeit outdated and sometimes violent representations of our human incarnation, these images of humans relating and personal power can also act as a compass mapping out new coordinates for us all.

“What can we draw from stereotypical images, broken down and resurrected by the media that still rings true? Do we cling to or let go of archetypal aspects of our ‘self’ when they are placed before us, in full relief? While it is a crying shame that we need to reiterate such themes in 2017, our new world order tells us that we do still need dances where the men are tender and the women—Queens, Witches, Mothers, Warriors—are cauldrons of gorgeous power. XO is a dance woven from archetypal imagery and the need to tap into narratives inside and outside ourselves in order to move through the current times,” Paufve said.

XO seeks to reorient us, offering ways through critical times not evident at first glance.

Paufve goes on the say, “Dance is always an orienting activity: Where am I in space? Where am I in relation to others? How are these relationships constantly shifting and evolving? This is the orienting work: the work dancers, collaborators and the audience take on to create a world based on different politics of interaction and more sustainable ways of moving through our lives than current social/political circumstances present. While not overtly political, the process and performance of XO galvanizes us as artists, helping us to remain strong and empowered in our craft, creating and presenting work that allows audiences to meet, rather than abstract, their full spectrum of feelings.”

Juliana Monin experienced XO’s galvanizing impact while performing in the original mashup.

“I remember going into that show feeling like what I was doing was so frivolous and silly,” said Monin. “But then once we were there doing it, I saw how that piece was our protest. What we propose is more proactive and solution oriented: we need connection and relationship to heal this mess we are in.”

XO begins in the aftermath with Dream Dressed as a Husband, the mythic duet of Ceyx and Alcyone, choreographed by Nol Simonse, and danced by Paufve and Simonse. We witness the breakdown of an “ideal” relationship and sense an impending shift beneath our feet.

From the rupture in one archetypal relationship emerge five powerful female solos, which help guide our way through the wilderness.

A nod to recipients of bitch-mongering, Queen distills iconic stereotypes of female power/powerlessness while deconstructing dance vocabularies from classical ballet to vogueing. A dense, subtle solo, dancer Crystaldawn Bell incarnates regal power as she surveys the landscape.

Gestural Migration, a Bharata Natyam-meets-modern dance incantation performed by Nadhi Thekkek, signaling the start of a day and women’s work. Emerging as the sun, Thekkek is then brought down to Earth, having fallen into a women’s worldly duties.

A movement mandala performed by Juliana Monin, Mother taps into the pain, joy and resilient strength of our visceral connection to the earth via the power of mother as a life-bearing vessel. But this mother’s nature is sweeping and angry.

“The dance brings up some of the hidden struggles and challenges I have as a mother: the sacrifice, the urge to take on another’s pain, the fierce instinct to protect,” said Monin. “It is not the lovey-dovey joy of nurturing a wee one and feeling that all is right in the world. When I do this dance I feel like the mother who lifts a Mac truck to save her child. It is primal and wild.”

Witch offers a rapture that breaks the spell, upending notions of aggressive, power-wielding women. She is all women who weave, make things with their hands, cast spells, and move energy in tangible ways.

Dancer Anna Greenberg described her creative process embodying the Witch.

“I worked with dramaturg Beth Harris, who gave me hand exercises to do. Hands are where the magic and work is really channeled—holding the weight of the world, plucking, holding, banding things together,” she said. “Every movement is purposive; I am hunting, I am seeing, I am shape shifting, and I am casting.”

Completing XO’s quintet of solos, Warrior, performed by Mechelle Tunstall, emerges from the chaos as our new hope. She is Joan of Arc, the Archer, Diana, a benevolent protector and vigilante. She is listening.

Provoking ideas about empathy and the phenomenology of touching and being touched, Touch Faith is the evolution, the solution, the healing of relationship through vulnerability.

The only men in XO after the opening duet, the work reveals real life spouses Andrew Merrell and Rogelio Lopez’s intimate knowledge of relating, at turns tender and healing, though not fully reconciled or known.

“Randee asked Rogelio and me to pull more from our own personal story and who we actually are to each other,” said Merrell. “The show centers on female embodied archetypes, and Rogelio and I seemed to represent more the idea of love as an archetype by being who we are. We have danced many times before; he is my favorite partner to dance with, and I think it allows us access to parts of our relationship that are unspoken and exist purely in the emotional physical plane.”

Moon/Shadow, danced by Karla Quintero, offers the possibility of resolution, the fleeting movements of shadows multiplied by the mysterious, mischievous moon. It is a call to the full community to gather onstage, to gaze at the same moon, dance, and be in this brave new world together.

Set design by Lauren Elder coveys a natural, elemental feel, with tree limbs, passive rotating elements and randomness embedded in the design.

“The sets are nature as a metaphor for the forces being acted out on the human stage at this time in history,” said Elder. “We are using some version of tornado—unexpected, capriciously, randomly destructive.”

Power’s (mis)use lingers in the mind after XO’s final bows.

“What it is about power that is so attractive to those that gained it at the expense of the well-being of so many others,” asked Quintero. “Performance is power and my intent is to acknowledge this and perform the work in a way where audiences can hopefully have a more active, embodied experience, sharing in this power.”

XO is deeply resonant with this time, standing up as people to believe in the work, ourselves, and art,” said Paufve. “I believe in our physical capacity as humans that we can poetically rise up by tapping into our power and tender sides. The body keeps the score, and not just for dancers. I seek to have some shared experience with audiences about the body expressing its deeper beauty in these times.”

Michael Nugent is a writer, dancer and vocalist living in Oakland; he also helps dancers get grants. He has performed with Eye Zen Presents and Trip the Dark Dance Company.