Dance Lovers 11, an annual presentation of James Graham Dance Theater, takes place in mid-February. Comprised of five duets by “couples, crushes, and comrades,” the title refers to the love between the couples be it familial, sexual, or friendship based. Personally, as someone who describes themselves as a “dance lover,” this is the ideal Valentine’s gift. Graham, who now goes by the name Bear, curates an evening of seriously interesting, often quirky, and uniquely memorable pairings, not to be found elsewhere.
Performers Andrew Merrell and Shaunna Vella exiting after Destination Wedding: Photo J. Norris
We begin with San Francisco performance-art royalty, in the Joe Goode Annex that bears his name. Goode, has been “here, a long time,” exploring performative gender. His 29 Effeminate Gestures premiered in 1997, a lifetime before the gender binary became passe. On this evening Goode offers an excerpt from I Understand: Queer Exchange Across Generations with his co-creator and fellow performer, Pangaea Colter, a self-identified young queer. Goode wears a utilitarian version of the little-black-dress (jersey skirt and tank), his bald head and short beard painted silver. Colter is in a drapey, lamé mini-dress, with curly hair piled atop their head. They each tell us they “want to be that girl…,” striking poses in unison, a coy head tilt with cheek cupped in a palm, or defiant fists thrust above their heads “…the one that doesn’t give a shit.” They cycle through a series of feminine attitudes, from flirty hands-on-hips, to don’t-tell-a-soul index finger pressed to lips. Singing tones in harmony with each other and then with a recording of themselves, the echo of the past merging with the present, makes a beautiful effect as they exit arm in arm trailing a long makeshift mylar cape.
A floral canvas covers the floor for the second piece, entitled Not My Forte, created by Indrek Kornel & Momo Akrami. Kornel stands, his legs in a wide stance wearing only a skimpy sequined poncho, over a pair of dark-colored briefs. He performs a dramatic and tortured solo to Gladys Knight and the Pips’ slower, torch-song version of the gay anthem “I Will Survive.” His eyes shut tightly and his feet planted throughout, he writhes, crouches, and stands once more, trembling in anticipation of the big ballad’s high note. As the music quickens, adopting a disco-dancefloor beat, the agony and ecstasy of surviving a lost love climaxes painfully with Kornel pulling out chest hair with long-drawn-out tugs. He is mesmerizing, and it isn’t until bows that I see the other performer, Akrami, who no doubt has been moving under the ground cloth throughout.
Choreographer Erik Wagner’s Coordinates follows the tempestuous contours of a female relationship. Featuring the statuesque Carolina Czechowska & more diminutive Jamielyn Duggan the piece begins with a respectful exchange of movement ideas. Their intimacy builds as Duggan lies on the floor. Czechowska towers above, placing her toes gently on Duggan’s upturned forehead and gently pushing her across the floor, hopping on her other foot as they scoot along. The trust and force required to maintain this contact is unnerving. Moments later they are wrestlers, knees bent, hands buried in the fold of their opponent’s hips, as they lean into each other. Their conflict set aside, they tunnel in and out of each other’s clasped arms. A playful follow-the-leader game ends abruptly as Czechowska skips off, leaving a crestfallen Duggan to disrobe alone.
A school-marmish Czechowska returns. Still dressed, she carefully observes the near-naked Duggan, dancing desperately for her. Duggan is all rippling muscles in constant, contorted, tortured movement. Czechowska answers with her own intense solo, frantically throwing herself at Duggan’s feet, before rising to her toes. The extreme emotions of this pair’s exchange leave us all breathless. As fast as it arrived, the tension breaks. Czechowska retrieves Duggan’s clothes and dresses her as one might a child, on her knees to help Duggan step into the pants. Quietly, Duggan thanks her. They gaze with eyes only for each other.
After intermission Bear guides us through a self-worth meditation, the goal being to accept that we are perfect and enough just as we are. Once assured of our readiness, There Once Was a Man begins in darkness with the sound of growling. When the lights come up Hien Huynh & Bear perform a series of improvisational vignettes, each featuring one partner speaking in the voice of an adopted persona, while the other crouches with a flat back horizontal to the floor, their hands resting on their bent knees for support. We meet a vegan chef, a pig-farmer, a new age guru and a tour guide as we laugh along with their hijinks.
After an extended section featuring eighty stuffed animals thrown to the stage by the audience and painstakingly arranged with parental, loving care by the performers, Huynh and Bear do what they do best: improvisational dance. Weaving in and out with confidence and grace, filling the space thrillingly with movement, they anticipate and respond to each other like a couple with years of shared experience.
James "Bear" Graham gleefully showered in stuffed toys from There Once Was a Man Photo: J. Norris
The program concludes with Destination Wedding (Thank you for your R.S.V.P.) a campy tribute to queer femme love, by Andrew Merrell and Shaunna Vella. This duo struts in, all faux-Hollywood glamour. They vogue, arms moving sharply into poses, hand to the back of the head, elbow jutting out, then arms crossed and down to cup a cocked hip bone. Between servings of finger-twirling-jazz, cheerleader spunk, and modern dance floorwork, these performers dress and redress, creating new hair-dos on the fly, as destination weddings require.
Merrell and Vella are masterful at creating specific characters with a few broad strokes. A musical theater moment has one typing, while the other plays the slimy boss, massaging his secretary’s shoulders, before finding her talents wanting, and leaving her crushed.
To the sounds of crashing waves, dressed in bridal-veils and white shorts ensembles, Merrell lifts Vella onto his hip, her legs in a stag leap pose. They cartwheel and high-kick in an over-the-top finale, before collapsing giggling to the floor.
Dance Lovers delivers on its promise. Three sold-out audiences will delight and be moved by the talent, rigor, humor, and passion on display in this compact, powerful revue.
Review by Jen Norris, published February 17, 2023
JAMES GRAHAM DANCE THEATRE PRESENTS: DANCE LOVERS 11
February 16, 17 & 18, 2023 8pm
I Understand: Queer Exchange Across Generations (excerpt)
Choreography & Performance: Joe Goode & Pangaea Colter
Video Design: Pangaea Colter
Not My Forte
Choreographed and performed by: Indrek Kornel & Momo Akrami
Music: “I Will Survive” by Gladys Knight & the Pips, “Sacrifice” by Dead Can Dance, Silence
Performed by: Collective Attention (Carolina Czechowska & Jamielyn Duggan)
Choreography by: Erik Wagner in collaboration with performers
Music: Mystic Temple by Clams Casino & Jazztronik, and Suite No. 4 in D Minor for Harpsichord by Frederic Handel
There Once Was a Man
Performance: Hien Huynh & James Graham
Choreography: James Graham in conjunction with Hien Huynh
Music: “Winter Solstice” by Dan Romer (edited by James Graham)
Destination Wedding (Thank you for your R.S.V.P.)
Choreographed and Performed by: Andrew Merrell and Shaunna Vella
Music: "Good Puss" by Cobrah, "Against All Odds (Take a Look at Me Now)" by Phil Collins, "Eggshells" by Alex Cox, and "Love Song" by Mariee Sioux
Sound Editing: Alex Cox