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Sublime is a movement miracle.

By Sima Belmar


JESS CURTIS FOUNDED Gravity Physical Entertainment in 2000 as a "research and development vehicle for very live performance." And though I'm advised by my writing style manual to use "very" sparingly, Curtis's Fallen, which had its North American premiere at ODC Theater Feb. 7, is very much alive.

Four large picture frames hang in the space. One frames a table and two chairs and holds an egg on its edge. Another frames Matthias Herrmann with his cello and soundboard. Five chalk body outlines lie sprawled on the black marley floor. A voice-over tells the story of Himalayan birds that are born, live, and die in the air. The voice, Curtis's, is soothing and clear. Dancers Sabine Chwalisz, Anise Smith, Sven Till, and Wolfgang Hoffmann enter. They gaze at and sway over the outlines. As they lean in mirror image with them, the dancers appear to be falling as the outlines appear to rise. The cello strains as the dancers fit themselves into the outlines, slowly raising and then heavily dropping a limb or two, a torso, a whole self. As their bodies crash down, chalk rises, billows, and settles.

Fallen is bursting at the seams with innovative movement ideas, gorgeous visual design (by Curtis, with Marco Wehrspann), and existential musings. What stands out is an enormous physical and metaphysical risk expressed through some of the simplest means with the lightest touch. When feathers float down from the rafters, it's just three or four rather than a torrent. When a man hovers over a frame, poised to drop an egg, he lingers there for a long, long time. There is always action, but stillnesses are maintained. A viewer can glance back at an image, and the interplay between the frozen and the flailing creates a new charge. When Curtis finally appears on a rope in the upstage right frame, his fetal self exploding downward, dangling precariously, it's less about the arrival of the director and more about a chance encounter with another life destined to live on the ground.

Curtis's nonlinear vignettes are filled with movement that feels necessary and signifying. But occasionally the movement vocabulary looks familiar, and that familiarity of form and phrasing pushes me out of his world and into the larger atmosphere of San Francisco dance. Of course, Curtis, a former member of Contraband, is considered an early innovator in this style of movement – released, athletic, acrobatic, low-flying – but the style has so affected the scene here that it begins to look unmeditated and extraneous.

Yet Fallen's mixture of high drama and patience effects a strong gravitational pull on its audience. Herrmann's score creates a unique aural ambience for each vignette with a propensity for the epic-cinematic. The text is strong, particularly during Curtis's solo: "Note to self: Notice details. Take revenge at meaning. Try to be misunderstood. Give up a desire to have an impact. See if anyone notices. Don't be afraid to be mean. Don't be afraid." He practices what he preaches, risking foolishness and seriousness and coming out on the side of both.

Fallen doesn't back off an image in a hurry. The dance's development and sustenance of ideas, its delicate balance of text, movement, and stillness, take it far beyond an amusing diversion. Fallen closes with a shocking text that describes the body positions of people falling from great heights off burning buildings. The reference is unmistakable but does not manipulate. Curtis dangling, a dancer gliding low on a skateboard, another in a harness walking the brick wall, a naked woman standing on her head on the table, another woman unable to get up off the ground – all evoke a time when "jumping makes more sense than staying." By the time Curtis asked, "How would I feel? How would I fall?" the tears had started to roll. Maybe it was the cold in my chest that my body free-associated with grief lodged in the solar plexus. Or maybe Fallen, with all of its artistic purpose and accidental resonance, is that rare sort of movement miracle that heals as it stings.

'Fallen.' Through Sat/16. Wed.-Sat., 8 p.m., ODC Theater, 315 17th St., S.F. $15-$17. (415) 863-9834.