Blind Dates: Fantasy Grandma Edition
January 30, 2014 at Christ Church Neighborhood House, presented by Thirdbird
By Asimina Chremos
Thirdbird’s Blind Dates series brings together musicians and dance artists for sets of improvised performance at the Christ Church Neighborhood House’s black box theater. In the world of popular culture, “improv” is often coupled with “comedy,” but the abstractions of contemporary dance and sound art can be quite serious indeed. Perhaps it was to counter this that led Thirdbird organizers Anna Drozdowski and Dustin Hurt to invite the delightfully batty duo Fantasy Grandma from New York City to host this most recent edition of their series, or maybe not. In any case, the program raised many questions about the function of humor and silliness in improvisational performance.
The Fantasy Grandmas are two young women, perhaps in their 20’s or early 30’s, dressed as typical American women of the “greatest generation” in fluffy wigs and brightly colored, shapeless dresses topped with sequined jackets for the special occasion. Calling themselves Myrtle J and Jane B, they sit on a small sofa, sing and rap with an electric keyboard and tell daft, touching stories with believable old-lady diction. Funny? You bet. Still, the strokes are not broad: the pair gracefully, creatively and subtly embodies a range of contrasting qualities that provoke cognitive dissonance and fascination: young/old, hip/dowdy, gentle/painful, love/anger, defiance/resignation, funny/serious.
The Grandmas are deeply committed performers. They apparently arrived on the bus from NYC in costume and character, remained chatting in character with audience members after the show, and would go home in full drag. Their practiced devotion and comfort with each other onstage stood in contrast to the edgy unplanned duets, trios and ensemble performances that made up the other sections of the evening.
Unlike previous editions of the Blind Dates series, for which dancer/musician pairs were predetermined and had an opportunity to meet ahead of time, for this evening, the artists didn’t know whom they were performing with until seconds before taking the stage. The Grandmas assigned bingo numbers to each of the performers and used a bingo ball cage to assign duet partners by chance, calling all the performers “grandbabies.” The image of children at play seems an apt one for improvisational performance—children often make up the rules of games as they go along—and this is one way of approaching improvised performance.
The first two performers were Megan Mazarick and Christina Zani, both dancers. This was unexpected, as the point of the Blind Dates series is usually to pair music and dance. The women seemed flustered and uncertain. Early in the duo’s performance, the women pulled musician-in-waiting Billy Dufala onstage from his seat in the front row. A short, funny, and uncomfortable trio ensued during which Zani was bent over with Dufala draped over her back and Mazarick crawled underneath them. It could have been a hot and weird moment, two pelvises and a head all in close distance, but it was just a little sad and droopy: a stack of two rag dolls over a toy dog. In performance with bodies, sexuality is always lurking, and it can be tough to handle if you’re not ready. It was pretty obvious that Dufala and Zani were a bit bewildered by their circumstance. Dufala returned to his seat and the women got to work discovering their duet.
Mazarick’s steady, internal focus on her own body and antennae-like attention to the space finally rubbed off on Zani, who eventually, after jumping up and down repeatedly, seemed to finally drop into her body. She relaxed her face and stopped making eyes and cute faces at the audience. Then the duo did, for a brief minute, swoop and dive together, rolling and leaping, offering a curvaceous and momentum-filled segment in which their strengths as dance artists finally came through.
The second duo consisted of two musician/sound artists, Jesse Kudler and Eugene Lew. The performers again seemed a bit surprised to be paired with one another, but they forged on. Like workers in an incomprehensible construction site or laboratory, they slowly they filled the stage with objects large and small, including a huge gong hung from a giant red scaffold on wheels. Two unnamed assistants entered the space with microphones.
Lew popped bubble wrap on the gong, moved a chain against it. Kudler dragged a long mic cord diagonally across the space, his setup of electronics emitting otherworldly squeaks and static. One of the assistants stood close to the audience with her back to us, doing something with things on a rolling cart. As the stage lights began to fade, Kudler, Lew, and their helpers cleared the stage and brought everything back to empty. The whole thing was inconclusive, but Grandma Jane B saw the beauty. “That was like an industrial ocean washing over me,” she quipped.
The next act, a trio consisting of musician Dufala with dancers Eun Jung Choi and Beau Hancock, brought a mix of differing sensibilities. Known as a sculptor and member of the band Man Man, Dufala is a talented musician with an open, buoyant stage presence. Using a flute as his sound instrument, he was free to move about the stage with the dancers, part of a mobile troika that shifted shape.
Tall, lanky, and flexible, Hancock pulled focus for much of the performance with his odd theatrics, first by handling Dufala’s flute case like a tiny suitcase and making a sad-puppy face, later by responding to Dufala’s rhythmic sounds with wildly mobile pelvic thrusts that sent the audience into hysterics. Hancock’s sexualized clowning was not lost on the Grandmas. “I think I started menstruating again,” joked Myrtle B after the set. Choi added a layer of intellect to the situation with her delicacy, elegance and witty responsiveness to the arising forms, but neither of the guys seemed tuned to her more subtle activity.
Blind Dates highlights how strong the siren call of comedy can be when improvising. Getting a chuckle or laugh out of the audience can cut the tension in the room, but if comedy is not actually what the artist practices, it can also reduce the level of expertise in play. It feels good to giggle and have fun, but I wondered how many moments of depth and sophistication were being drowned by a fear-and-joke cocktail before they could even sprout a bud. That said, it’s hard to be patient and sage when you know you only have 10-15 minutes for your set. The Blind Dates format does tip the scale away from the Apollonian and towards the Dionysian.
The Grandmas called percussionist Julius Masri, Zani and dancer Meg Foley to the stage. Foley and Zani both wore leopard-printed leggings with a ferocious feline face and toothy grimace placed provocatively across the hips. Masri, wearing black and a knitted cap, played his small setup of drums and noisemakers with tragicomic whimsy.
Masri has the ability to be imaginative, ridiculous and serious at the same time. At one point he scooted across the floor using a small xylophone as a skateboard. Masri’s performance was beyond the point of learning and experimenting, beyond simple willingness to try something new by working in an improvisational performance context with dance. His collaborative awareness with the dancers was sensitive, he was fully present, he didn’t give up on his own chops as a musician, and, like Dufala, he extended his physical presence into the space.
Despite their matching leggings, Foley and Zani had diverging approaches to performance. Foley’s attention remained on her own movement-based investigations while staying in context with the other performers, while Zani played the audience, at one point smacking and scratching her own leopard-faced butt to a burst of laughter.
In facing the empty space and time of an improvisational performance, the artist needs technical chops that come with training and practice and the awareness and acceptance of the moment. What is actually going on right now in the body, in the mind, in the visual space, in the audible space, with the audience, with the lights? When technique and awareness converge, flying and falling are the same thing. Searching loses its aimless fear and becomes unfolding.
The last duo of the evening was Kudler and Mazarick. The latter took the stage like a pro, with confidence in the powerful presence of her movement. Kudler traipsed around the performance space while Mazarick danced, heading into the audience to turn on a piece of equipment, as if he thought his own movement was invisible. Mazarick called his bluff by pausing and watching him.
When Kudler’s soundscape incorporated voiceover instructions such as “raise your arm, turn around,” Mazarick intelligently did not follow these cues. However, her attention was caught by the content of the words, and she stopped dancing to look into the audience with a quizzical expression, gesturing slightly as if she was the one speaking. Her actorly expression of irony was much less compelling than her fully embodied movement explorations; she missed an opportunity to move to the rhythm and timbre of the spoken word as pure sound.
The final set was a freaky free-for-all ensemble that incorporated all of the performers, the gong on the scaffold, even the Grandmas. Jane B took to the stage with her walker and fell over.
Asimina Chremos currently lives in Philadelphia and works with improvisational processes to create freeform works of dance and crochet. She is a former dance editor and writer for Time Out Chicago magazine.