Concert dance performance comes with heavy expectations of performative perfection: dancers, with ideal bodies and otherworldly flexibility, offering flawless unisons to timely, knowledgeable, and reverently silent audiences. Contemporary choreographers may cultivate a superior unknowability in their work, believing explanation unnecessary. CALI & CO dance’s co-presentation, with the band The Welcome Matt, of PERFECT. RESPONSE., acknowledges those expectations and then vehemently casts them aside.
Rather than enforcing “no-late-seating” restrictions and shaming late arrivals, this show at the Joe Goode Annex will only begin in earnest once everyone is comfortable, receptive and ready. Composer, guitarist and singer Matt Langlois and The Welcome Matt musicians, percussionist Ricki Carter and Keyboardist Adam Rossi, begin their set right on time at 7:30, as wait-list entrants find floor-pillow seats and others use the restrooms. They play us three mellow original soft rock songs as the audience chatters happily.
At 7:45 CALI & CO collaborators Farrah McAdam and CJ Logel step in for opening remarks. Prompting us to introduce ourselves to a stranger, they hope this simple act of making a new friend has the added bonus of expanding our individual and collective communities. McAdam and Logel deliver their scripts with heartfelt intention honoring “the artistry, cultural wisdom and lineages of First Nation and BIPOC people whose forced labor has built the America we know today,” through thoughtful land and labor acknowledgements. Calling for a ceasefire and aid to Gaza, while holding space for the vast diversity of the Jewish diaspora, they break the non-sensical norm of performing in an apolitical vacuum.
Following several guided deep breaths, it's time to put the words into action, to lean in and engage. The performance unfolds in two sections, separated by a short pause for costume changes. Part one, PERFECT., begins with a single mover in half-light, pressing into the sidewall. They tip forward, limbs splayed over the unyielding surface. Additional bodies follow; all faceless, they glaze flatly along the wall. The architecture’s towering form is revealed by high searching blocks of light, which dwarf the human forms below.
Clad in the uniform of professional conformity, a navy blazer over a blouse and pants, a dozen distinct shadows slink along, as the walls’ magnetism forces close embraces as they pass one another. The uncovered flesh of their hands and feet catches light, a reminder of the humanity within.
PERFECT. RESPONSE. Image Photo Credit: Myray Reames
A spotlight, with the crosshairs of a gunsight, hovers low on the sidewall. A figure, now facing outward, caught in its glare, sinks, back pressed into the wall until their legs bend at ninety-degree angles. The exhaustion and anxiety of conformity is evident as their hands anxiously gesture. In a state of constant adjustment, one hand pushes and pulls on the crown of their head, their cheek or opposite arm.
Freeing themselves from isolating margins, a collective forms centerstage. A unified march progresses to bursting linear dashes. A narrative accompanies this section of PERFECT., reminding us that perfectionism is a tool of empire, capitalism, white supremacy, and heteropatriarchy. Having succumbed anew to the weight of expectation, bodies lay haphazardly in the liminal space. A “Not Enough” chorus develops with performers yelling out the ways in which they fail to meet impossible standards, as they are “not rich enough,” “not smart enough,” or “not skinny enough."
“Quiet and still,” the leaders chant, hoping to contain the masses, before the stage transforms in joyous rebellion. Golden light replaces the energy-zapping gloom and the music pulses with renewed life-blood. A wild spinning vigor fills the space as duos, trios, and quartets emerge, their forceful antics amplifying each other’s energy.
A struggle unfolds at a table, under which one dancer is trapped, fighting to get out, while another presses down, enforcing confinement. As the table topples, a moment of revelation to our shared condition finds the oppressor reaching out a hand of assistance to their former opponent, as others fold the table and carry it away.
Empowered by the removal of the objectification of perfection, the group tracks through space like a herd or flock, pivoting on vocal cues from within the scrum. As the momentum builds, there is individuation within their shared imperative; moving as a collective doesn’t require lock step, just shared intention.
With reverent palms held open, the dancers form a half circle in support of guest soloist Raven Malouf-Renning a self-identified “queer, non-binary, neurodivergent, fat dancer, choreographer, and musician.” Their dance follows the arc of the text from insufficiency and discouragement to acceptance of the wholeness of self. Becoming “perfect together in our imperfection,” Malouf-Renning’s hands lead graceful tendrils rising into sunlight. With open arms they circle, offering their authentic self to the room and leading the way to a new day and a new way.
Part 2, RESPONSE., is a less structured piece, collaboratively constructed, malleable and purposeful without being stringent. It begins with Artistic Director Christine Cali squatting with bent arms and legs spread wide. Energy flows through her rolling shoulders and tensing fingers. Her pelvis swirls as she conjures a space into which to invite her tribe.
Satisfied, she assumes a dapper disposition with one hand casually tucked into her pants pocket. Her jaunty stroll moves to the floor. A dance phrase develops, repeating as new dancers fold into the sequence, always beginning with hands in pockets and slouchy bouncy happy walks. The gestures and shapes look different on each body and that is ok, in fact it proves to be more interesting.
The spirit of cooperation is sufficiently infectious that an audience-participation section, in which anonymous affirmations submitted prior to the performance are read aloud, is surprisingly well-embraced. The dancers create spontaneous movement in response to the voiced intentions, such as “I affirm the power of rest,” or “I let go of the need to be doing everything, all the time.” Clumped at the rear of the stage, it is difficult to recognize the form of their individual improvisations.
With the house lights dimmed once more, exuberant sashays, barely-controlled roundhouse kicks, and skyward reaching twirls expand the cast to larger-than-life status. A series of dance-battle play out, with performers mirroring and challenging each other in a supportive, rather than a competitive, way. Their excitement and appreciation for each other’s skills is palpable.
None of us is truly free until all of us are free, an intention from earlier returns, as the performers lure the audience onto the stage for a dance party, which culminates in a four-wall line dance.
Experiencing some strong communal dancing with just enough narration to make it accessible to all, releasing perfectionism, and affirming the power of responsiveness, versus reactiveness, leaves us satiated. The sixty minute “show,” concludes ninety minutes after curtain time, but none of us seems any worse for wear. Making space for human imperfection is surprisingly liberating, even for a retired theater manager like myself.
Review by Jen Norris, published December 1, 2023.
CALI & CO dance with The Welcome Matt presents
Nov 30-Dec 2, 2023 @ 7:30pm at Joe Goode Annex, SF
CALI & CO Collaborators
Artistic Director, Performer: Christine Cali
Music Director: Matt Langlois/The Welcome Matt
Production Manager: Jenna Valez
Event Coordinator: Kim Holt
Dance Collaborators & Performers
Moriah Costa, Devon Chen, Tamara Chu, Rian Dixon, Chelsea Gregory, Alyssa Harrison,
Madyline Jaramillo, CJ Logel, Farrah McAdam, Jenna Valez, Carla Vega
Music Collaborators & Performers
Ricki Carter (Drums/Percussion)
Matt Langlois (Composition, Recorded Sound, Guitar, Vocals)
Adam Rossi (Keyboard and Vibes)
Guest Performers - Dance
Nov 30 - Raven Malouf-Renning
Dec 1 - Chisa Kobayashi
Dec 2 - Alexandra Tiscareno
Guest Performers - Music
Dec 1 - Guinevere Q (Bass Guitar), Jason Young aka Young Sun (Drums/Percussion)
Dec 2 - Frencesca Lee (Vocals)
Special Guest Performance
Dec 1 - ROCO dance’s BodyLanguage
*creative work by Maxine Fischer-Duzgunes
Lighting Board Operations: Joe Goode Staff
Costume Design: Christine Cali
Stage Manager: Francelle Mariano
Volunteers: Rebecca Brown, Dave Hahn