Photo by Chelsea Rowe

Macabre magic hits a crescendo in '3 Drops of Blood' series

Monday, August 7, 2006

Rachel Howard, Special to the Chronicle San Francisco Chronicle A long line of fans spilled out of Project Artaud Theater on Friday night for the 10th and final installment of "3 Drops of Blood," the bi-monthly performance series curated by Ali Tabatabai. He's the founder, lyricist and lead singer of Nanos Operetta, a slyly macabre musical ensemble whose performances can hardly be topped for cinematic punch. Tall, dark and mischievous, Tabatabai takes the mike wearing a three-piece suit and swigging beer, singing in a lounge-lizard drawl about syphilitic annihilation. Behind him a guitarist, cellist and accordionist weave a wild mix of Middle Eastern and Western sounds, and two percussionists hammer out mind-bending time signature changes on a junkyard's worth of instruments both found and traditional. It's sexy, wacky and totally absorbing, reason enough to explain the popularity of "3 Drops of Blood." But in fact the series has been much more. Two and a half years ago, looking to showcase Nanos' works in progress, Tabatabai hit upon a formula wherein he would invite at least two dance groups and one other experimental music ensemble to round out the entertainment. His contacts were first-rate -- the Balinese ensemble Gamelan Sekar Jaya, Janice Garrett + Dancers, the Burmese butoh dancer Ledoh -- and his sensibility unerring. "3 Drops" became no slap-dash matter, but a can't-miss venue for often dark, always envelope-pushing dance and music. And any sadness at the series' ending was tempered by appreciation for the most arresting "3 Drops" slate yet. For this ambitious send-off, Tabatabai called in reserves from the major leagues: Lines Ballet. Brett Conway and Maurya Kerr danced a short but potent pas de deux from artistic director Alonzo King's "Signs and Wonders," Conway's hands molding to Kerr's exquisitely sculpted body, her arms unfurling with the delicacy of a spider web in a gentle breeze. Later, Conway returned in a solo from King's "Signs and Wonders," sweeping through space with a softness that seemed to transcend gender and even the human form. Kerr and Conway were their most otherworldly on a dance lineup that also included an eloquent work in progress by Yannis Adoniou, the leader of the dance company Kunst-Stoff, and a physically raw duet by Sara Shelton Mann, the influential founder of the collective Contraband. But the revelation of the evening was Dohee Lee, a Korean-born musician who synthesizes movement and singing like a woman possessed. For "PURI -- Instinct of Spirits," she cried with a lamentation to make your hair stand on end, while tossing herself in throes of hurt, and then crescendoed to shrieks as Nils Frykdahl hit the neck of an electric guitar with drumsticks, the chords clanging like wickedly distorted peals of a monk's bell. Lee's climactic frenzy rushed onward in a stream of words unclear in their language of origin but universal in their horror. Her arms reached in desperate pleas as a helpless audience held its breath. There is something about the deep emotional authenticity of butoh in what she does, certainly. And yet I have never seen anything like it. Nothing else could match such intensity, though Adoniou's "In Sync," danced with compelling vulnerability by Nicole Bonadonna and Leslie Schickel, gave a promising glimpse of Kunst-Stoff's latest work (set to lush music by Alfred Schnittke), with the women planting two hands to the floor and extending one leg in oddly submissive ways. And Mann's "Bonobo," though repetitive in its central wrestling match, offered the entrancing illusion of Frieda Kipar levitating weightlessly upon Brenton Cheng's upstretched legs. Not to be upstaged, Nanos Operetta claimed the second half of the show, amping up their appeal with two extraordinary guest singers. Robin Croomer put a sultry, jazz-tinged spin on lyrics like "Should we ever part/like a soldier leaves his home/A butcher would be free/to what remains of my heart," while Frykdahl brought anguish to a wicked waltz, "The Loan Shark." And of course, for the final " 'Neath the Albaloo Tree," there was Tabatabai, keeping time with his grim reaper swagger as musicians Max Baloian, Craig Demel, Sam Ospovat, Robin Reynolds and Phil Williams maintained sonic mayhem. Friday's show felt more like a send-off than a funeral, for this is hardly the end for Nanos. The group has just released a CD, the soundtrack to a documentary by Iranian filmmaker Bahman Kiarostami. And two collaborations loom: the first, staging a Nanos-penned opera with Bay Area butoh company inkBoat; the second, a new work with German musician/conceptualist Blixa Bargeld and local troupe Kunst-Stoff. No doubt, loyal "3 Drops" fans will be watching.