XSight! Performance Group

at the Dance Center of Columbia College, December 7-9

Wow. It’s one thing for a collaborative group to survive the death of a crucial member, and another to actually extend his legacy. For a couple of years, while Timothy O’Slynne was ill with AIDS, XSight! Performance Group didn’t do any new pieces. They added a couple of O’Slynne’s students as associates, canceled a concert. I think everyone wondered what would become of this provocative dance-performance group, founded in 1988 by O’Slynne, his partner Brian Jeffery, and Mary Ward. A year ago, just a few weeks after O’Slynne’s death, the reconstituted troupe–headed by Jeffery and the students, Peter Carpenter and Marianne Kim–mounted a promising concert, but both the humor and the efforts at transcendence fell a little flat.

This program at the Dance Center of Columbia College revealed a troupe clearly descended from the old XSight!, with its cross-eyed conflation of spirituality and earthy humor, but with its own character. And it was easy to see this concert, unlike last year’s, as unified, perhaps because the collaborative piece that ended the evening commented on the one that began it.

The opener, Cycle of Unveiling, is at one end of the current XSight! spectrum, the end focused on angels, love, death, and transcendence. Five of the dancers–Carpenter, Martha Donovan, Jeffery, Kim, and Julia Rhoads–are nude except for strategic bits of gauzy cloth. But it’s amazing what a little bit of cheesecloth can do: I’ve never seen nudity onstage as offhand and natural as this. Where complete nudity is often an affront, a challenge (think of Bill T. Jones), nakedness just barely covered somehow expresses simply the stripped-down human. Further distancing us from the dancers’ nakedness are lengths of the same gauzy cloth hanging from ceiling to floor between the stage and the audience; a sixth, clothed dancer (Holly Quinn) first pulls these aside and later pulls them down.

In our culture disrobing is sexual. Cycle of Unveiling plays with that assumption, with the multilayered idea of stripping away masks and coverings. When finally a woman walks out and lies down completely naked–no bits of cloth, no gauzy curtain–and a man approaches her and removes his loincloth, we think of sex. But in an act of tenderness he uses his cloth as a pall, covering her and exposing himself. This piece is filled with gestures of caring, with dancers caressing each other’s faces or carrying one another–sometimes roughly. It made me think of a place I dread being, preparing a loved one’s body for the grave and envisioning the spirit in the next world.

Jeffery’s duet Doubts About Waking recalls a similar world, the world of dreams. The vaguely Eastern music (by Muslimgauze) is reflected in delicate, sinuous motions of the torso and wrists; the piece was beautifully danced. Jeffery and Rhoads are as comfortable and tender together as two lovers, but at the same time this piece moves with a careening energy.

Kim’s trio Unleashed–the third in her series about Viola the dog lady–is perhaps the least connected to the other pieces thematically. A bit inconclusive and unsatisfying, it essentially manipulates our perceptions of a single image: a woman (Kim) holding two male dogs (Carpenter and Jeffery) on leashes. At the beginning we see only the men, first as flashers, then as exotic dancers–objects of desire rather than stereotypical male aggressors. Next we discover the woman who holds them in her hands, literally, standing at the rear in a short red dress and bridal veil; the men, lit to show every rib, cower and cringe before her like starved animals. But a shift occurs when she advances toward us: now held by them, straining at the ends of the ropes, she’s the one who has our sympathy. Just as she’s about to slip the leash she turns to face them, and the balance of power changes again: she seems to be driving them before her like two reined horses. The point that power relations between the sexes are not simple is worth making, and the dance is certainly to the point; but it doesn’t go beyond that.

Carpenter’s diffident, moving duet Shaman Slips seems to depict a symbiotic long-term relationship, perhaps between a parent and child or an old married couple. It opens with Carpenter and Kim standing side by side, first searching their own pockets and then, with increasing frenzy, each other’s; it continues with occasional unison dancing, occasional interaction: kneeling next to each other they lose and regain their balance in increasingly large arcs until Kim is scrabbling to get away while Carpenter holds her back by the ankle. In motions half horrifying, half comic they argue, shrug, and struggle across the floor, her legs somehow caught around his head as he crawls on all fours to the strains of Les Paul and Mary Ford’s “Bye Bye Blues.”

The piece really comes together when Carpenter’s text, recited by the two performers almost in unison, begins: it seems at first to describe a bad dream in which keys are lost and someone returns late at night to a kitchen. Then it’s explicitly said not to be a dream, as they realize that “he’s my…” and “I forgot to…” Who he is and what was forgotten are never made clear; but as Carpenter and Kim jangle sets of keys like chilly castanets and draw them sensuously over their bodies to Merrilee Rush’s “Angel of the Morning,” the anger and guilt and sense of loss and separation are palpable.

The text in the final work, Lying Prophets/Cruel Fools, is as powerful as the one in Shaman Slips but seems more spontaneous. Set up like a circus, this work recycles elements from last year’s concert: the spiky paper-cone arms are now worn by the circus’s exotic “Creatures of Passion,” and an intellectual argument between two men is more bitter, more comic, and ultimately more human than the one in last year’s Gotta Go.

Using only a few props–some paper hats, partial circus rings, a few black boxes–and wearing striped costumes reminiscent not only of the big top but of prisoners, XSight! creates a fluid, dreamlike, self-reflexive piece as comic as it is passionate, very like the events O’Slynne used to stage. Carpenter adopts something like O’Slynne’s old persona, acting the part of the ringmaster in a superfake German accent, while Jeffery is a cruel dunce who’s always complaining that Carpenter’s show is boring and untruthful. Their arguments, spiked with the language of Shakespearean fools and the “logic” of the liar’s paradox and focused on XSight!’s split between spirituality and campy humor, are wonderfully alive. And the circus itself is so truly bad yet so entertaining that it seems to justify their charged disagreements. Kim, Quinn, and Rhoads are the primary entertainers: we first see Kim squeezing an accordion and wearing a simpleminded grin, while Rhoads’s big act consists of swinging her arms in circles. The combination of unabashedly sleazy, cheesy showmanship and deep commitment and passion is the old XSight! all over again.

This was a great evening. But one of its features irritated me at first: the concert tended to spill over theater’s traditional boundaries. Arriving about five minutes before the hour, I found that something resembling Cycle of Unveiling was already being performed. And at intermission I caught only the last sentence of an unannounced performance in the lobby. I worried that my experience of the concert was incomplete. But the preshow gave the actual performance of Cycle of Unveiling a teasing sense of deja vu. And part of the point of Lying Prophets/Cruel Fools is that the show is going on all the time all around us. What the hell, XSight! can mess with the boundaries between art and life all they want, so long as they do it this well.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/William Frederking.