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Of men, by men or men
Despite gratuitous sex scenes, 'Men Dancing 9' offers serious choreography.

“Men Dancing”
Mark Foehringer: San Francisco
August 21, 1990

by Judith Green
copyright ©1990

Some years ago, I was on a jury that auditioned performers for "Men Dancing" We were instructed to give preferences to those acts that might appeal to the gay community --the largest audience for this popular annual dance event, begun by the Gary Palmer Dance Company in 1982.

Dancers in tight pants, we were told in so many words, were favored over dancers in loose ones.

We the jury were outraged, but we did our work and selected for quality. We were told our choices would be honored, but the program would be supplemented with the kind of acts the "Men Dancing" crowd seemed to want.

And that's pretty much what "Men Dancing" is still about, to judge by "Men Dancing 9," which played this weekend to sellout audiences, mostly of men, at Theater Artaud.

For instance: There was a Hawaiian company led by Moki Ka'ai, a.k.a. Hula Bird, who did a clever juggling act with five balls on elastic cords. This number was gratuitously named "Having Fun With My Balls." (Great whoops and huzzahs from the stands.) And there were the San Francisco Saddletramps, an ensemble of cow-boy-booted men who dance Western swing with one another.

Well, I wouldn't care; but they clearly traded on the gimmick of man-to-man partnership instead of performance skill.

These were an insult to the serious work of such choreographers as Remy Charlip and Jose Limon; to the serious dancing of the Chinese Folk Dance Association's David Niu and newcomer Mark Foehringer; and to the hard-edged, confrontational humor of Contraband, whose explicit gay statements were presented with force, clarity and bravado.

Foehringer, who teaches at Zohar School of Dance in Palo Alto, is a real find: a big, supple, articulate dancer who will probably be torn to pieces by Bay Area dance companies desperate for good male dancers. His piece, "In Memoriam," was a delicate miniature of mourning, set to a bit of "Bachianas Brasileiras No. 9," by the dean of Brazilian composers, Heitor Villa Lobos. Foehringer grew up in Brazil, and danced with Negro Dance Company of Sao Paulo.

Niu's two pieces -- his own "The Drunken Swordsman" and Master Jai Zuogang's "The Magnificent Eagle" (performed on alternate days) --were balletic and drippy. But his dancing, anyway, had sinew and grace.

Fred Mathews of San Jose State University and his partner, Gary Masters, made their Bay Area debut on these programs. Mathews' solo, "(ASP)irations" (1985), is a simple, literal, intro-to-modern-dance kind of piece: "See, kids? We can make a dance about anything, even a rubber snake!"

Their duet, "Toward a Greater Place" (1986), is a little more significant. The two are a pair of oarsmen, poling their way around the dance floor with clean, slow strokes, and the piece goes on long enough that the movements take on the spare elegance of Chinese brushwork. Both works were created during a yearlong residency in Indianaplis, and the greater place, they explained, is anywhere beyond Indianapolis.

Masters, who is also an associate director of the Limon Dance Company, danced the opening solo from Limon's "Ordeo," a perfect little dance elegy made by the great Mexican-American choreographer in 1972 after the death of his wife, Pauline Lawrence. It's too bad Theater Artaud's sound system made mush out of the score.

Diane Frank of Stanford University spent the summer realizing Charlip's "Cuddle Duet," part of whose notation is reproduced here.

The dancers, Stanford under-graduates Richard Green and Sairus Patel, wore black briefs that looked like bathing trunks, and Frank's transitions often quoted from the movement vocabulary of swimmers and divers. Overall though I respected the realization. I thought it too sober, missing a lot of Charlip's cheeky humor.

The anarchist collective Contraband specializes in something called "rowdy dance," which often seems to me sloppy dance, but "Mandala," performed by the men of the company, was worth seeing. Episodic and anecdotal, this self-described "evolving pictography of the American boy/man" had the ring of truth to it.

The dancers flung themselves to the floor as they sang "Amazing Grace," landing with a grunt of exploding breath on the word "wretch." They stripped to black jock straps, looking for all the world like singing sumo wrestlers for a few verses of the folk dirge "A Hundred Miles." (Not a shirt on my back," they wail literally, "Lord, I can't go home this-a way!") And in the finale, they stood naked and vulnerable, yet pure as classical statuary under tactful lighting. It was one of few instances of nudity I can recall that didn't.

August, 1990
copyright ©1990
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