Before his dancers had even taken a single step, a huge round of applause greeted Joe Goode at his group's 20th-anniversary concert at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. Goode is probably the best-loved choreographer in town. For two decades he has chronicled his generation's unease about living in its own skin. When AIDS began to devastate this town in the early ’80s, Goode was there to speak out with pieces that were blunt, poignant, and theatrically savvy.
Goode is the poet of anxiety, pain, and uncertainty. He's able to see a major catastrophe on its own terms but also as a metaphor for what ails us. His heroes — and they are heroes — are the outsiders, the watchers, and the misfits whose values and existence society would like to deny. He has a self-deprecatory wit that makes us wince and laugh at the same time. And he has developed a genre of dance theater that's exceptionally successful at blending speech and movement. Very few choreographers have Goode's ability to use language so acutely.
The anniversary concert offered the standing-room-only audience two pieces, the new Stay Together, to a score by San Francisco Symphony music director Michael Tilson Thomas, and the haunting 1998 Deeply There (stories of a neighborhood).
In Stay Together, Goode tackles what is glibly summarized as the midlife crisis: when long-term relationships unravel, careers begin to meander, and time ahead is shortening. A secondary strand explores the process of creating a piece, of finding a direction in which to take it. The ever-efficient Liz Burritt, clipboard in hand and glasses on her nose, was there to give the largely silent Goode plenty of advice of the "listen deeply" and "be in the moment" type.
The challenge here for Goode was to make a work about being clueless without coming up with a piece that goes nowhere. It's a challenge he doesn't quite meet. To achieve "a perfect little euphoria" is, no matter what Burritt says, no easier in art than it is in life. Despite good collaborators and several splendid episodes, there's something wan about Stay Together that makes for a disconcerting theatrical experience.
Tilson Thomas's score is perfectly serviceable, with monochromatic sections punctuated by percussive elements. Several times it hilariously called up sci-fi and Movietone music associations.
Goode and Melecio Estrella, as his maybe young lover, maybe younger self, had some telling shadowing duets together. During their first meeting, silhouetted against separate screens, heads longingly turning toward each other, they almost trembled with excitement and fragility. Throughout, Austin Forbord's live videos contributed excellent tonal nuances and a sense of sometimes almost painful intimacy.
Stay Together's most theatrically cutting moment came with Marit Brook-Kothlow's sex-starved Norma Desmond figure. The intensity of the character's obsession split her screen image and spilled over into some vigorous dancing.
Deeply There remains one of Goode's finest works. Robin Holcomb's on-tape score, with its echoes of Shaker and Americana folk tunes, is inspired; the a cappella singing by Goode's dancer-actors, haunting. With this quasi–musical theater work, Goode hones in on and pays tribute to a community that pulled together and learned to take care of and bury its own. Goode’s piece just barely avoids sentimentality by calling up equal measures of laughter and tears.