New steps

CounterPULSE tries out some fresh moves with its Queer Series of revealing duets

Faye Driscoll with Jesse Zaritt

THEATER/DANCE Choreographer Mary Armentrout's itinerant, site-specific performance installation, reveries and elegies, passed through CounterPULSE last weekend. A post-solstice meditation on dislocation and flux, it was also the harbinger of a striking new season at the SOMA performance incubator. In fact, reveries and elegies, true to its theme of displacement, can be considered the odd one out among programming whose defining structure is the duet.

A broad range of interpretation and subversion of that basic form comprises CounterPULSE's Queer Series, running January through March and showcasing new work from artists as diverse and far-flung as New York's Faye Driscoll, the Minneapolis-based BodyCartography Project, San Francisco's Annie Danger, Berlin-based American Jeremy Wade, and conjoined local choreographic dynamo Jarry (aka Jesse Hewit and Laura Arrington).

If you've followed the vicissitudes of programming at CounterPULSE even intermittently, a glance at this year's calendar prompts a double take for the careful concentration of work and the thematic consistency it evinces, in addition to its impressive international lineup. The rigorous queering of the duet structure underlined by the series, for instance, comes further elaborated through complimentary work like DavEnd's well-received 2012 debut, F.A.G.G.O.T.S.: the Musical! (which turns on a duet of sorts with a wall mirror) as well as some rich auxiliary events.

The latter include a talk on gender by Judith Butler (on February 16) and, on February 28 (the eve of Danger's genuflection to sexual healing and empowerment, The Great Church of the Holy Fuck), a screening of Community Action Center (2010), the aesthetically and politically astute, 69-minute, queer, trans, women-centered celebration/subversion of 1970s porn by A.K. Burns and A.L. Steiner. (That program includes a post-screening Q&A with Steiner, whose film was recently acquired by the Museum of Modern Art).

The duet form (and the act of reimagining it) is an apt metaphor for the programming model behind the season too, which represents something of a departure from business as usual.

CounterPULSE's Julie Phelps, central in the development of the season and currently serving as interim artistic and executive director for Jessica Robinson Love (who is on sabbatical), explained that the Queer Series and the season as a whole had emerged from some serious rethinking at the organizational level.

"We were sort of primed to embark on this new season, which [comes directly] after our strategic planning process, where we really identified who we are, how we do what we do, and what limits we still have on our impact."

Phelps says one limit they identified was a single-minded commitment to the bottom line that was keeping certain kinds of work almost permanently out of reach — for example, much work by touring artists from out of the state or country, for which there is relatively little foundational money available for tapping.

"We're actually, financially, a very conservative organization," says Phelps, "which has brought with it a lot of stability — very important especially in the young years of an organization, but ultimately stopping us from taking risk on vision. We were always on a break-even model. Either it needs to be some mix of foundation support or some other kind of funding with some tickets sales. The bottom line always has to equal zero. So we've been pushing ourselves to think bigger about the types of risks that we can take."

That's far from inviting recklessness, Phelps stresses, but it does mean modifying notions of financial success and failure, bringing them in line with an artistic spirit of experimentation and what might be thought of as the useful flop.

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