I Want To Make A Piece With You | By Marie Tollon

As part of a one-hour radio program devoted to exploring how the bond between dancers off stage influence their relationship on stage, the French artists Dominique and Francoise Dupuy were interviewed last fall. Husband and wife, they have been dancing together for 60 years. Summing up the intensity and depth of the collaboration, their interviewer observed: “Even when you are back to back, it looks like you are looking at each other.”

James Graham and Sebastian Grubb in "Michael & Roland" Photo by Mark McBeth

James Graham and Sebastian Grubb
in “Michael & Roland”
Photo by Mark McBeth

With five duets involving partners related in life by blood, marriage or friendship, Dance Lovers, presented two weekends ago at the Joe Goode Annex, provided an in depth -and local- elaboration on the idea. Curated by Bay Area choreographer and performer James Graham, the program included duets by Melissa and Elizabeth Castaneda, Chris Black and Courtney Moreno, Caroline Alexander and Andrew Ward and a piece choreographed by Ashley Salter for dancers Mary-Kate O’Sullivan and Katie Florez.

Michael & Roland, choreographed by Graham, featured him performing with longtime friend and dancer Sebastian Grubb. The piece fluidly traversed various historic periods through an economy of information. At the outset, the two performers appeared on stage each sporting white 17th century jackets with a high collar and long coattail, giving them a flair of European aristocracy. The two dancers walked away from the audience, holding each other’s back. Their fluid and assured gait was peppered with a quirky plié, heels lifted, that became a recurring motif throughout the piece, reminiscent of the ornamentation typical of baroque art. Once their jackets removed, their white jeans, long-sleeved white shirts and soft purple socks catapulted the performers into the 21st century. In an email correspondence following the show, Graham mentioned that he was interested in exploring how “power structures from colonial systems are still in play or how they still affect us.”

The dance contained thoughtful self-referential moments, where the performers disclosed possible ways of making. At one point, Grubb sits down on a chair and begins telling Graham, and the audience, that he wants to make a piece with him. He goes through several scenarios of possible duets, one that includes “being completely honest.” The sentence “I want to make a piece with you” becomes a mad refrain, repeated over and over, as the rhythm of the movement accelerates, and Graham simultaneously performs a solo in a circle. Grubb eventually comes into contact with him and the interaction becomes increasingly forceful, to the point where Grubb pins Graham to the floor, smothering his body. It is as if the desire for collaboration -and/or for the other- eventually becomes so overwhelming that it literally crushes the object of desire, a not uncommon scenario in relationships, whether personal or professional.

Photo by Mark McBeth

Photo by Mark McBeth

In another self-referential moment, Graham acts out choreographic directions. In one of the tasks he gives to Grubb, he asks him to “touch [his] face like it’s not a face” and one sees Grubb’s hand kneading, rubbing, poking, and pulling Graham’s face, turning the body into a malleable material to be sculpted and processed. The moment echoes another scene where Graham stands facing the audience and performs a bio-historical tour of his body, pointing out the origins of his scars and alterations -the back of his ears pulled back when he was a child as a parental precaution for him not to be teased, a back injury during a rehearsal… At the same time Grubb touches those places that hold memory; the body reads as a time capsule holding both the personal and the public seamlessly.

In a stunning moment, Grub and Graham’s bodies become parts of a kinetic construction game. Grubb’s cheek is on the floor. Graham brings his head on top of Grubb’s. Grubb removes himself and stacks his head on top of Graham’s. The process continues, as the two performers carefully build a tower of fleeting imprints and newly found structures, a hint at the construction process of collaboration and the ephemerality of movement. At the end, Graham stands tall, and Grubb, smaller but resourceful, jumps on Graham’s back and places his head on top of Graham, like two children at play.

Photo by Yvonne Portra

Photo by Yvonne Portra

Graham’s smooth and mesmerizing way of moving take roots in his study of Gaga, while Grubb’s effortless physicality comes from his training in various techniques, including contact improvisation and capoiera . Most recently, Grubb appeared in choreographer Scott Wells’ the why we ask why we dance dance, demonstrating his astonishing ease with daring flips and acrobatic moves; last Spring, Graham instilled the end of choreographer Hope Mohr’s Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction with a wondrous vitality. In Michael & Roland though, their physicality was less outwardly, more internal. It is as if they were tuning into each other, finding a common language, thus pointing to how collaboration, not unlike friendship or love, is a process of moving toward the other.

Michael & Roland will be featured in an evening of duets presented by James Graham at ODC Theater in December 2015.

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