Dancer Gabriel Christen bows before the missing in ‘Los Desaparecidxs’ at CounterPulse.

Dancer Gabriel Christen bows before the missing in ‘Los Desaparecidxs’ at CounterPulse. (Courtesy CounterPulse)

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CounterPulse’s residency programs cover a lot of conceptual ground. In 2017, they’ve produced the “edge,” the “combustible,” and now the “diaspora” residencies, where two different artists or groups give us an evening of performance often form-fitted to the company’s Tenderloin space. Despite the thematic overlay, what you get always feels idiosyncratic, human, and alive to a vast variety of experiences.

In many ways the series is a sly and casual inversion of what we’ve come to understand as the epic. There are no superheroes or villains, no cities under threat of alien invasion, no CGI of worlds at war and vast armies. Instead, there’s a simple understanding that to experience the epic, we have to identify with its opposite — the lost traveller (Odysseus), the scared child (Huckleberry Finn), the harried bureaucrat (Joseph K.), anyone who feels the vastness of our everyday world and is at its mercy.

And so Performing Diaspora 2017 offers to great effect two delicate heroes — the son, and specifically the idea of the son, in Javier Stell-Frésquez, Ivan “Ivy” Monteiro, and Davia Spain’s Mother The Verb, and a lonely witness to atrocity in choreographer Randy Reyes’ Lxs Desaparecidxs.

‘Mother the Verb

Javier Stell-Frésquez searches for his mother in the distance in 'Mother The Verb' at CounterPulse.
Javier Stell-Frésquez searches for his mother in the distance in ‘Mother The Verb’ at CounterPulse. (Photo: Courtesy of the Company)

At first, Mother The Verb has the feel of a performance art stunt. Stell-Frésquez stands next to a coatrack in the CounterPulse lobby with a sign that says, “Dress Me As My Authentic Self.” Let’s just say he has quite a roving eye for the clothing of random audience members. Escape that trap and you’ll find yourself face-to-face with Monteiro (camped out on the theater’s risers) in a massive wig of wavy black hair and two plastic spray cans taped to his chest, spouting lines seemingly swiped from any number of nightmare mother plays — “I’m done trying to make you comfortable, fit in!”

In an audience discussion afterwards, the performers were vaguely surprised that everyone seemed a little wary during the prologue. They might underestimate the intensity of their personas, the way their commitment to the moment verges on what feels like a brutal psychic break with the world. Nothing that follows would dispel that notion.

The conflict is archetypal: the hectoring mother and the son seeking escape. Stell-Frésquez’s long flowing hair and Monteiro’s nutty wig give them the look of mismatched twins. The first time they approach each other is more than a little disconcerting, and as the piece continues there are times where they are impossible to tell apart. Or, better put, their performances are so tightly bound that it’s easy to lose sight of the one for the other, as they seem to switch roles and flip back again in an instance.

Javier Stell-Frésquez and Ivan “Ivy” Monteiro dance a strange duet in 'Mother The Verb' at CounterPulse.
Javier Stell-Frésquez and Ivan “Ivy” Monteiro dance a strange duet in ‘Mother The Verb’ at CounterPulse. (Photo: Courtesy of the Company)

Stell-Frésquez is a graceful and fluid dancer. You can feel the joy and precision of ballet in his movements, whereas Monteiro’s body is powerful and earthbound. To see them tied together by a swatch of red cloth as they try to negotiate a series of complex flips and turns is to see two people who can’t quite be free with or without each other. The contrast is shocking in its precision and the failure of their duet a crucial part of the tense beauty on show here.

It’s as if the dance is dedicated to confounding and succumbing to all the failures of motherhood, both as a debt and an endless source of creative inspiration. So, true to its title, Mother The Verb is constantly acting out and searching for new ways of being. When Stell-Frésquez lets loose a huge sheet of clear plastic over the stage, the child’s desires and the world suddenly become enormous. And in a touching end, it is that sense of a limitless imagination that proves too much for the mother to survive.

‘Lxs Desaparecidxs’

(L to R) Dancers Felix (Sol) Linck Frenz, Emilia Martinez Brumbaugh, Jose Abad, Randy Reyes, Stephanie Hewett and Bariel Christian feel the presence of the missing in 'Lxs Desaparecidxs' at CounterPulse.
(L to R) Dancers Felix (Sol) Linck Frenz, Emilia Martinez Brumbaugh, Jose Abad, Randy Reyes, Stephanie Hewett and Bariel Christian feel the presence of the missing in ‘Lxs Desaparecidxs’ at CounterPulse. (Photo: Courtesy of the Company)

Lxs Desaparecidxs really begins before it begins. As we return from the lobby to the theater, the dancers are huddled together off to the side of the risers. At a glance it feels like nothing more than a brief glimpse of a backstage get-together, and yet a more careful appraisal would have caught the religious overtones — bowed heads and an altar — and a sense that something or someone is missing.

But you unconsciously forget that as the dancers file onto the stage one after the other. And then they stand there. And then one person falls and gets up. And another. And another. Over and over again.

The opening has all the qualities of an exercise or game, a bit of contact improv, though each dancer does hit the ground with a nice, hollow thud. It’s the type of thud that makes you think a soul has departed; that is, if it weren’t for the way their eyes flutter while on the ground, and the preternatural way they hop back up.

Gradually, falling turns into snuggling, and snuggling turns into strange, precise swipes at one and other. A wrestling match breaks out, and then music, and we’re at a disco. The dancing turns solitary and frenzied, yet you feel the presence of others. And what was a slight feeling — someone’s missing — becomes a conscious idea. You start to think that there’s some invisible force or world shaping every aspect of these people’s lives.

Reyes and his dancers start to strip off their clothes, though they never finish in 'Lxs Desaparecidxs' at CounterPulse.
Reyes and his dancers start to strip off their clothes, though they never finish in ‘Lxs Desaparecidxs’ at CounterPulse. (Photo: Courtesy of the Company)

Reyes’ choreography is so fluid that you forget that anything is happening, and yet in the end the question of who is not there is addressed, at least as it pertains to rituals and why we might have gathered at CounterPulse to begin with. We can at least say that there has been an offering to the unknown world around us, and that someone has kept a keen eye on the world of the missing.

‘Performing Diaspora 2017’ runs through Saturday, Dec. 16 at CounterPulse. For tickets and information click here.

Two Sly Inversions of the Epic at CounterPulse’s ‘Diaspora 2017’ 13 December,2017John Wilkins

Author

John Wilkins

John Wilkins is the theater critic for KQED Arts. He was the Artistic Director of Last Planet Theatre for ten years and teaches in the Writing and Literature program at CCA. Follow him on Twitter @johnrwilkins2