Photo by Chelsea Rowe

Lost control

Wednesday, May 19, 2004

Kunst-Stoff's courted chaos. Rita Felciano The San Francisco Guardian TOMI PAASONEN DIDN'T take choreographic credit for Super Vision, the hour-long theatrical extravaganza that constituted the second half of Kunst-Stoff's sixth annual home season at ODC Theater. Instead, Paasonen â?? the show's creator â?? credits himself with "Direction, Set and Costume Design." It's just as well. Despite the fact that he started as a ballet dancer, Paasonen isn't interested in even the most elastic definition of choreography, that is, composing through movement. His bag is physical theater. He uses dancers because they have the stamina, the daring, and the imagination to throw themselves into the maelstrom of images and ideas he cooks up onstage. In this particular work, Paasonen seemed interested in the image-making power of clothes. The contrast between who we are and how we and others see us is an intriguing subject. It's probably also a good topic for an artist whose strongest attribute is his ability to create visual images. But as a stage work, which existed in time, Super Vision had too many passages that began to drag â?? no small issue in a piece that so depended on the physical energy of its performers. Super Vision (an earlier version of which was shown two years ago at the Cowell Theater) had mesmerizing moments: dancers performing against their mirror reflections, or rising from the dark like mermaids from the deep to swim in a spreading sea of water. But Paasonen needed to exert more compositional control. Non sequiturs, turmoil, and boundless physical energy are most effective onstage when their representation is shaped. Chaos may be part of life, but trying to re-create it in the theater, always an artificial environment, rarely works. Mostly it's boring to watch. Paasonen had excellent performers who were able to create fabulous momentum. However, he needed to channel it. The performance started in the theater lobby when, one by one, the dancers mingled with the audience and started to talk â?? to themselves, to a wall, to an invisible partner. Even in the crowd they were isolated, unaware, disinterested. All the performers wore black suits on which were superimposed images of body parts. You saw a head next to a buttock, a piece of arm next to a belly. The effect was stunning. It made the dancers look as if they were wearing a second, glowing skin, or patches of armor. As the performers moved their fragmented and isolated babblings into the theater, they encountered their opposite, an immobile man dressed in a white suit (David Jude Thomas, also responsible for the sound design) who talked obsessively about control and organization. Out of this spoken flurry emerged phrases, both verbal and physical, that gradually built into an unstoppable momentum, with people imitating each other's runs, hops, and falls. Dancers smashed themselves against walls, dived into piles of bodies, broke into arabesques, and took to the microphone. Throughout the growing frenzy, the lights flickered on and off and the soundtrack's most prominent feature was the sound of a bleating goat. That segment worked primarily because the dancers â?? including David Bentley, Nicole Bonadonna, Erin Carper, Kara Davis, Gabriel Forestieri, Jose Navarrete, Juliann Rhodes, and Leslie Schickel â?? were so extraordinarily committed to the physical demands of the movement, which was both robotic and volatile. But the main idea of people following each other blindly, even off a cliff, may have gotten lost in the melee. At the eye of the storm, clothes came off, leaving the dancers topless, with identical shirts and ties wrapped around their waists as a mysterious masked figure (Schickel) worked her way across the stage. It was an exquisitely poetic section, in which the dancers raised themselves into beauty queen-like displays. It also brought the evening's single most striking image: Davis, pushing herself onto her hands, one curled foot supporting her knee, the other pointed and shooting open like switchblade. Throughout the work, Yannis Adoniou was similar to a master of ceremonies, gathering the skin-uniforms, fingerprinting the dancers, and giving each a little black box that was supposed to contain their essence. They lined up against the theater's side-wall mirrors, and their individual voices melted into each other as they folded, fell, and rose in unison. Matthew Sarena's darkly soft lighting doubled the resulting images to great effect. The dancers became pure poetry in motion. Eventually Adoniou removed the last vestiges of artificiality â?? the shirts â?? and the dancers lined up at the front of the stage to recite the Pledge of Allegiance while nude. But Paasonen had a more theatrical coup in his bag of tricks. What had looked like a lamp shade became a waterfall, and the dancers began to slither, dive, and roll across the stage. Their movements seemed natural and spontaneous â?? and a lot of fun.