Not so safe choreography at SAFEhouse

At a small gallery space in the Tenderloin on May 17, SAFEhouse for the Performing Arts presented three performances developed during its RAW (resident artist workshop) program. Several Bay Area choreographers created three dynamic pieces that overlapped in their consideration of intimacy, boundaries, and the creative process.

The evening opened with Steven Horner’s Encountering, performed by himself in the round and hinging on heavy audience participation. Each seated spectator was asked to pull out a strip of paper with a written instruction from under their chair – mine read “Place hand anywhere on body.” Horner began to circle the ring, stopping seemingly at random to lock eyes with somebody, who then carried out the instruction, including whispering in his ear, pushing him over, or stretching him. When confronted by Horner, the reactions of the audience members were mixed but always fascinating to watch. While some were shy or coy, others were bold and dramatic. The spontaneous behaviors of the audience became just as visible as the choreographed fabric of the piece. Horner remixed each instructed action, sometimes duplicating it several times, weaving the piece in and out of solos and duets with audience members.

Steven Horner in duet with the audience in Encountering. Still from video by Mark McBeth.

The second half of his piece was an entrancing, almost maniacal synthesized re-enactment of all of the prior actions. His energy peaked through moments of sustained eye contact with audience members and cryptic whispering set to Donna Summer’s pulsating “I Feel Love.”

The next performance, In the Seam, choreographed by Oakland-based Rachael Cleveland and Iranian dancer Armineh Astanbous, began with dancers Pauline Canteneur and Emma Lanier facing each other across a smooth white sheet sprinkled with small river rocks. In an esoteric game with unknowable rules, they broke eye contact only to rearrange the rocks into cairns and piles. This surreal game of chess evaporated into a ghostly lovers’ dance of intimacy as the pair rolled itself up in the sheet, trailing the rocks with them. They slept and spooned, turning and reshuffling their limbs against one another.

Wrapped up “In the Seam” at SAFEhouse Arts in San Francisco. Photo by Sam Javadi.

Composer Rae Diamond of the Long Tone Choir provided a soundtrack of droned and percussive strings, punctuated by otherworldly sibilant voices. The duet escalated in energy; the dancers alternating between submission and challenge. They finally reached a tentative balance, fingers crossed behind their backs.

The final piece of the evening was the aptly titled Leave Room for Dessert. Two smiling choreographer-dancers, Melanie Harvengt and Tayler Kinner, played on the genre of coquette wearing cocktail dresses of red tulle. Through a series of what seemed to be semi-improvised bursts of movement, the duet strove to disconnect from expectations of body and gender. However, the piece didn’t fail to delight in the way that a “feminine” number might be expected to. The moment of most resistance was a cherry pie wheeled out on a small dolly. This third dancer, campy and light, took on a more serious role once a dancer dipped her finger in. Like In the Seam, the piece ended with a surprising and cathartic contract between the dancers, who both plunged their faces into the pie and emerged transformed. The entire performance space was tinged by the smell of baked fruit.

SAFEhouse offered audience members a dessert of carrot cake and brownies on their way out of the theater.

– Dasha Bulatova