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  • Writer's pictureJen Norris

Review: Keith Johnson/Dancers presents DRIFTER March 3 & 4, 2023 Joe Goode Annex, San Francisco

DRIFTER presented by Keith Johnson/Dancers a quartet of dances is structured like a collection of connected short stories. Each chapter moves the narrative along, but could also be experienced on its own as a distinct work. A story of the sixties, but not the day-glo flower decal Volkswagen bus sixties, but the one Americans experienced when hope turned to disillusionment, violence, and tragedy.


In the opening piece Drifter (premiere) four hippies play together, creating a curving daisy-chain of bodies. They circle and melt to the floor, piling nonchalantly atop one another in their field of dreams. Johanna Brouk’s soothing piano music provides a contemplative mood for the soft-edged twirling and gradually forward-tilting arabesques. It is the age of individuation. No unison-work here, each explores their own tipping point. Free-love is the mantra, as casual pairings form and quickly dissolve, until a final pairing between real-life spouses Rogelio Lopez and Andrew Merrell is sustained. Lopez stands, his back to Merrell’s chest. Merrell spiders his fingers up Lopez’s arm, their foreheads meet tenderly.


Keith Johnson/Dancers cover art for DRIFTER presentation


The love children yield to Paul Matteson and his achingly lyrical solo Camelot (Mourning Glory) performed to Bob Dylan’s Murder Most Foul (2020). Dylan’s lyrics are a poetic telling of the assassination of President Kennedy, full of references to Americana, all that Kennedy represented and all that was lost. Matteson embodies the weight of the nation’s most emblematic shared tragedy. A gorgeous mover he staggers mournfully, dancing on the side of a foot, his mouth agape. chasing the pieces of his loved one’s skull, evoking the images seared in our memory of the First Lady reaching out the back of the car. Johnson and Matteson’s choreography reinforces the narrative strings of the song. Matteson on his toes, his feet overlapping as if nailed to a cross, arms outstretched appears to dangle as we hear the lyrics, “killed him like a human sacrifice.” I was devastated by this piece, and it is with me still.


My Vietnam (2022) turns to one of America’s darkest moments, the Vietnam War. A war whose combatants have been hidden from sight since even before they returned. A recording of a deeply disturbing interview with a Vietnam Vet dispassionately recounting the atrocities he committed in the name of America fills the space. Andrew Merrell moves from pose to pose, with powerful determination, limbs straight or bent at right angles, as the speaker equates the relief he felt when killing someone to sexual pleasure. Our revulsion makes it difficult to concentrate on the movement.


WARNING: this section contains details of graphic acts, that may be triggering for some and spoilers for others. As Merrell marches out in militaristic formation, three women enter and thus begins the horrifying exploration of the Manson murders entitled Family (2019) Part 1: Krenwinkel Part 2: Doris.


Looking warily over their shoulders, Haihua Chiang, Bahareh Ebrahimzadeh and Courtney Ozovek are on a prison yard. A fever dream takes hold. An incessant siren blares as the women fling themselves high against a wall, bouncing off and landing with equal impact on the floor. Del Medoff’s blistering gold sidelights tinged in blood red at to the macabre scene. Caught in a destructive magnetic force field, they belly-crawl away only to be swept back up. Charles Manson devotee Patricia Krenwinkel describes the outrageous killings. The crimes are so infamous that we instantly recognize that the women onstage, now in near-frenzy, are writing in their victims’ blood.


A second night of mayhem, the fever-pitch siren is SO loud. The women run at the wall, jumping, colliding, falling, and grappling unsuccessfully away, until they lie spent. The nightmare has ended, or has only just begun as a rooster crows. Waking Ozovek rises to her elbows, looking disbelievingly at her blood-soaked hands.


Manson is among us. He (Andrew W. Palomares) stands from his front row seat, and jumps onto it, facing the audience. The fourth wall is broken. The sound of his weight hitting the chair reverberates through the venue. He stomps up the aisle, his long shaggy hair flying, a man possessed.


Revealed in a white spotlight, Palomares has pinned Bahareh Ebrahimzadeh to the backwall, her delicate chin held tight in his meaty grip as he lifts her, dragging her along the wall. She tries to escape running full out toward the audience, but she is no match for his strength and speed. He grabs her, blocking each attempt to reach us.


Keith Johnson/Dancers' Andrew Palomares and Bahareh Ebrahimzadeh rehearsing Family; Photo Credit Facebook


In Part 2: Doris, Ozovek embodies Doris Tate, who became a victim’s advocate as a result of her child and in-utero-grandchild’s killing. Doris’s voice is heard confronting one of her daughter’s murderers at his parole hearing, asking, "What mercy, Sir, did you show my daughter when she was begging for her life?”


Dressed in a simple yellow cotton housedress, Ozovek’s dance has vast emotional range. One moment she is gently floating in a leap, the next, she strides to us, glowering over Manson/Palomares, who has resumed his seat in the front row. She lies down, one knee bent, gazing at the ceiling. We feel the weight she carries as she rises each morning. Her compulsive head and shoulder rolls, a reminder of the constant tension. She marches off into darkness as a judge says, “Thank you Miss Tate.”


Johnson is a teller of dark truths. The arc of the evening is complete and we are drained. The disconnect between the myth of the free-and-easy sixties and the reality of the war-torn disillusioned later years has been laid bare.


Review by Jen Norris; Published March 4, 2023

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Production credits:

Keith Johnson/Dancers presents DRIFTER

March 3 & 4, 2023

Joe Goode Annex


Drifter (Premiere)

Choreographed by Keith Johnson in collaboration with the dancers

Music: Johanna Brouk

Lighting Designer: Del Medoff

Costumes: Ketih Johnson

Dancers and danced by Haihua Chiang, Bahareh Ebrahimzadeh, Rogelio Lopez, Paul Matteson, Tara McArthur, Andrew Merrell, Courtney Ozovek, and Andrew W. Palomares.


Camelot (Mourning Glory) (Premiere)

Choreographed by Keith Johnson in collaboration with the dancers

Music: Bob Dylan

Lighting Designer: Del Medoff

Costumes: Ketih Johnson

Dancer: Paul Matteson


My Vietnam (2022)

Choreographed by Keith Johnson in collaboration with the dancers

Sound: Interview with Vietnam Veteran

Lighting Designer: Del Medoff

Costumes: Ketih Johnson

Dancer: Andrew Merrell


Family (2019)

Part 1: Krenwinkel

Part 2: Doris

Choreographed by Keith Johnson in collaboration with the dancers

Socre: Interviews with Charles Manson, Patricia Krenwinkel, Leslie Van Houten, Doris Tate, and music by John Luther Adams, Madonna, and Karen Dalton

Lighting Designer: Del Medoff

Costumes: Ketih Johnson

Dancers: Haihua Chiang, Bahareh Ebrahimzadeh, Courtney Ozovek, and Andrew W. Palomares



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