Christopher Bernard on Continua in Light: Three Acts, at San Francisco’s Mystery Venue

 

 

From Continua in Light: Three Acts

Hold On: Rehearsal at Mystery Venue in Dogpatch

Continua in Light: Three Acts

Cheryl Calleri and Thekla Hammond

Nancy Karp + Dancers

Music by Morten Lauridsen, Pauline Oliveros, Nik Bartsch and the Tin Hat Trio
Thekla Hammond, Soprano; Lucy Collier, Alto; Marguerite Barron, Alto; Griff Hulsey, Tenor;
Dean Fukawa, Tenor; Glen Leggoe, Bass; Richard Stanton, Bass.
At the San Francisco Performance Art Institute

 

Performance: May 4, 2013

By Christopher Bernard

 

I couldn’t make it to the performance of “Continua in Light” at the San Francisco Performance Art Institute, but was invited to the dress rehearsal the evening before.

The stars were in conjunction, the talents were promising, the evening was bright. I was ready for a little adventure.

The institute is housed in a big, blocky facility that looms at the edge of San Francisco Bay with a lonely and mysterious banality, like a building out of a de Chirico painting, in a part of the city I had never heard of: Dogpatch.

Hold on. Here was a moment of surprise, puzzlement, charm. I was intrigued: anyplace called “Dogpatch” has already half won me over.

I was instructed to take the “T” Metro line to 23rd and 3rd Streets. Hold on! Don’t numbered streets run in parallel – except, perhaps, when they meet in infinity?! Where, by all the stars, was this place?

Simple: tucked between the southern end of Portrero Hill and the bay, a mile or so south of AT&T Ballpark, this place where (it seems) all parallel lines meet is an old working class cum industrial neighborhood, made up of half-retired warehouses, abandoned wharves, a neglected electrical generation plant, acres of parking lots, and a string of residential blocks built in the early twentieth century that – partly because it’s so little known, and so comparatively cheap, and partly thanks to the new “T” line – has been discovered over the last few years by artists and the evening set. A dance studio, the aforementioned PAI, and live-work spaces, and a handful of wine bars, clubs and restaurants have made it their home. There’s even a Dogpatch Saloon.

I swallowed my skepticism (which I have found can be as useless as another person’s unquestioning faith) and, trusting my instructor, took the “T” down down down the rabbit hole of Third Street, miraculously, to the implausible intersection.

I’d been told to walk from there toward the bay, go to the second of three walk-in gates at the building’s address, wait to be let in, make smoke signals with my cell phone in case of distress, and, if my psychopomp to this new underworld showed up, accept from him further directions to the mysterious venue.

After walking down two long, lonely blocks through a wasteland of open lots, with a half-abandoned electrical generation plant in the distance, its enormous unused chimney stack, the color of blood-red brick, towering against the sky, I came to a warehouse-like building with the word “STORAGE” painted in huge letters across its western face.

An amiable white-haired gentleman greeted me as if he’d been expressly sent for me, and another invitee (who appeared mysteriously behind me – hold on: where in heaven’s name had he come from? but by now I was starting to get used to this) and I wound our way up to the second floor and through a cluttered maze of artist’s quarters to a dark, cavern-like space at the back, divided in two by a long white backcloth, in front of which was a performance area and a several rows of small pale chairs.

A muttering of greetings in the dark. A moment to find a seat. A quick look around at other shadowy forms come to witness the ritual of rehearsing. A little eavesdropping on furtive laughter and chatter between the women. Then a little flash of light from two hanging bulbs. A stringing together of two hauntingly lovely female voices. And two female dancers work through the motions of a delicate, highly formal dance in a pre-full rehearsal version of the performance to come.

Think of yourself as watching the tracing of a bare-bones sketch before you see the full painting. That is what I felt, though I didn’t realize it at the time.

The air of a rehearsal is often one of casual informality alternating with intense focus. Stagehands put up ladders, remove ladders, disentangle lights, confer, change their minds, try again. The choreographer (the warm, quietly intense Nancy Karp, one of the Bay Area’s most admired dancers and choreographers) suggests this, that, the other thing – sits on the stage with her dancers giving notes, advice, encouragement. 

Much of the music is staged live, and part of the rehearsal is strictly musical, with a small chorus singing in subvocalized polyphony off to the side.

As it turns out, only the first two “acts” are being rehearsed tonight. The first, “Gioia and Sine Nomine,” incorporates music and a large video projection. The second adds two graceful and tireless dancers, Diane McKallip and Randee Paufve. The third act, with its promise of audience participation, makes rehearsing it largely moot.

After half an hour, the rehearsal lights are finally disconnected, and a full dress rehearsal takes place. As so often happens, seeing and hearing the parts rehearsed separately gives no idea of the particular magic that will occur when the parts are finally blended.

What I then see is the final bit of mystery in an evening that has been, since its beginning, of a most lovely strangeness.

The opening act begins with a double projection against the large backcloth, of partly abstracted views of what I imagine are immensely long traffic flows at night along busy freeways, seen from a distance, the lights elongated through some sort of filtering, mingling and mixing, in long diamond shapes, pencils and pins of light, with starry foci generating them; the end result being an almost mystical play of light, random and yet directed, free yet orderly, bright and vague and shapely, created from the most ordinary of sources. Another projection includes a single light, stretched vertically so it looks like an electric candle flame. (This projection will return at the end, when the lights, stretched vertically before, will be stretched horizontally before re-emerging into their attendant darkness.)

With these projections are performed two pieces by Morten Lauridsen, “O Nata Lux” and “O Magnum Mysterium,” and the modern classic “Deep Listening,” by Pauline Oliveros, sung by a small, tight chorus and a soprano and alto duet.

There seems to be no break between acts one and two. In act two, the two dancers join the video projections, with piped-in music by Nik Bartsch. The dancers perform, stretch, turn, reach out, reach up, reach forward, turn toward one another, then away, summoning and rejecting, embracing, meeting, parting, on an almost entirely dark stage, with low lighting placed along the stage front that projects the shadows of the dancers against the back-projected screens, creating a complex, immersive fusion of light and shadow woven together by the mildly pop-jazz-flavored score. A strikingly beautiful effect results, as the dancers dance not only with each other, and with their own and each other’s shadows, but with the video projections, continua of light and shadow in darkness and light. It is especially fascinating when the shadow of one of the dancers momentarily disappears (while the other dancer’s shadow remains), and the dancer seems to dance, shadowless, with her darkly doubled partner, like a spirit, a ghost, against a backdrop of dazzling streams of brightness. At the end, I could hardly believe I had been watching only two dancers; the stage seemed to be occupied by a perfectly coordinated corps.

I think I detect a story I have often felt in Nancy Karp’s work: a story of independent inspirations working together almost by osmosis, but without willfulness or constraint, to create a mysterious whole larger, more ramifying, more suggestive, than the mere sum of its parts would suggest alone.

Out of the simplest of elements, and imagination, trust and skill, a “magnum mysterium,” truly, emerges.

The next night the show went up. For one night. Then, like a candle, went out. Hold on: you mean, that’s it?

Christopher Bernard is a poet, novelist and critic living in San Francisco. His novel A Spy in the
Ruins was published by Regent Press (http://www.regentpress.net/spyintheruins). He is also a
co-editor of the literary and arts webzine Caveat Lector (www.caveat-lector.org).