Two promising new works-in-progress debut at CounterPULSE
DANCE This past weekend, Kendra Kimbrough Barnes and José Navarrete with Violeta Luna — CounterPULSE's winter artists-in-residence — showed what artists can do, given time and space to work. Both tackled complex issues that extract high human costs. For Barnes it was imprisonment; for the Navarrete-Luna team, water. Both half-hour pieces will benefit from some refinement and rethinking.
Barnes calls her Home Is That Way? a work in progress, so one can hope it will return in a modified form. Home doesn't even to attempt to untangle the morass surrounding the justice system, instead trying to shed light on the personal cost for prisoners and their families. Intimate yet far-reaching, Home has strong bones; they need to be fleshed out. Seen through Shelley Davis' chain-link fence, Barnes, Clairemonica Figueroa, Kayos Makaya, and Travis Rowland are four automaton prisoners who do their own version of walking the walk. When Figueroa puts a slight drag into her step, she fills it with the weight in her soul.
The often haunting Home reworks all-too-familiar images well. The dancers spread-eagle themselves against the wall, and you don't know whether there is guard behind them or whether they are trying to push the stones down. A lineup turns into a row boat with a futile dream of getting away. In a prison yard, the men work at bodybuilding, the women at connecting with each other. When Home attempts to recall a time of innocence, it runs into a common theatrical conundrum. It's almost impossible for adults to slip into the skin of children. So these games of pattycake, kick the ball, and hopscotch look imposed instead of embodied. The piece's un-credited writing, though undoubtedly heartfelt, also has a stiff earnestness to it that undercuts its emotional thrust. Davis' set, including what looks a place for dreaming, needs better lighting.
At the end of another work in progress, New Rituals for a Desperate Era, Navarrete invites the audience to fill out a petition to Congress to recognize water as a human right. He explains that he wants the audience to go away having done something hopeful. Audiences will also take something good with them if a piece is rounded off successfully. He and Luna might try to do that in addition to the political gesture. Luna is a performance artist from Mexico whose finely tuned theatrical skills complement Navarrete's more exuberant antics. Together they have created a wild ride that starts cosmically and ends in a carnivalesque phantasmagoria. Major credit has to go to long-time Bay Area designer Lauren Elder's stunning set and costumes, the key to which are that detritus of modern society: the plastic water bottle.
Rituals is divided into distinct episodes, with Luna taking the lead in evoking a holistic perspective of nature with slow-paced but tightly controlled images of birthing and growth through sacred practices. Navarrete is a motor-mouthed huckster of "agua mágica" — the product of multinational greed — that promises to heal everything from asthma to sexual dysfunction. He also beautifully segues into a transformation from an oil-slicked subhuman into a dying fish who dreams of clean water. The final image of the transformation of the gods takes too long, though it's worth the wait.