at the Dance Center of Columbia College

May 3 and 4

The prospect of describing Mira, Cycle 1 fills me with the same despair I feel looking at my basement, which is cluttered with mostly useless objects that need to be sorted and put away or–more likely–thrown out. What a mess.

This evening-length work in 11 sections, performed by San Francisco’s Contraband at the Dance Center last weekend, mixes dance, songs, texts, and instrumental music–it’s nothing if not large. Mira, Cycle 1 is the first of a planned trilogy; a program note describes it as “an exploration of physical systems of the body interfaced with psychological images; personal experience and history in dialogue with cultural experience and history. The purpose of these explorations is to expose points of tension within the personal story and body and release the energy held within.” If a group has to rely on program notes to let us know what a piece is about, and we still don’t know, it’s in big trouble.

Mira equates the self with the world–an important aspect of its gigantism, but not exactly a new idea. Walt Whitman used it over a century ago in “Song of Myself,” and with his omnivorous imagination actually succeeded in gobbling up the world, catapulting the reader into a place without boundaries, somehow transcending self-absorption. In the process he argued a political idea: the validity of democracy. Contraband also has political aspirations–press materials say that Mira is about “seeing the war without as a reflection of the war within.” And there is a section in which one dancer is Iraq, another America. One of them says, “My navel is my base of operations”; the other, “My navel is where I feel hunger.” They also say things like “My heart is my mind,” and “Within the illness is cure.” None of it makes much sense–in the context of this section, the piece, or the outside world.

Instead of pushing the boundaries of the self outward, Mira seems to pull the boundaries of the world inward to the dimensions of a single person. The self-absorption here is astounding–the kind of navel gazing that gives modern dance and performance art a bad name. Sara Shelton Mann is Contraband’s director, and her program bio suggests that the story in the seventh section, “Linear History (Herstory),” is her own. It’s a terrifying tale, marked by abandonment, suicide, rape, abortion. Mira’s conceit throughout is to weave together Mann’s sensational personal history with the biography and poems of a 16th-century Indian woman, Mirabai, who also was abandoned–widowed at 27–and then chose a life of ecstatic religious/artistic celebration. Mirabai’s distance in space and time and her mystical, mythic connection with Krishna must have made her seem a reassuring, healing figure, and five of her poems, translated by Robert Bly, are part of Mira’s text.

But Mann not only takes Mirabai as a sort of guru, she also wants to be the guru. Mira deifies Mann: in the opening she’s attended by two dancers, who seem to beseech her to be their spiritual guide; the choreography often separates her from the other performers; she is the unmistakable focus of the piece, both sufferer and deliverer–Mother, Daughter, and Holy Ghost. (I don’t think it’s coincidental that Mann is 47 and the other six performers, judging by their appearances, are in their 20s.) In part Mira seems an extended striptease, whose purpose–telegraphed long before the ending–is to reveal Mann’s body.

The text suffers from a form of giantism too. There are Mirabai’s five lovely poems, of course (fortunately these are printed in a program insert; otherwise they would have been intelligible only intermittently). There’s Mann’s “Linear History,” and other bits of her story appear elsewhere in the piece. And there are hundreds of cryptic sayings, some of which are intelligible if not comprehensible: “The future is uncertain–so give up,” and “I am composted in your desires,” among many others. Because of the quantity of words, because of the live music, because the performers are frequently winded, much of what they say is lost. And much of it is intentional gibberish. The resulting sensation of drowning in a sea of words is not pleasant.

Often the movement seems pointless. Some of it illustrates the text in an obvious, unilluminating way: when Mann mentions a sign, she draws a rectangle in the air with her index fingers; when she says it had neon lights, she bunches up her fingers to place the lights on the rectangle. In one section the performers move chairs and vases around the stage aimlessly, put on and take off clothes with no apparent rhyme or reason. Facial expressions are sometimes unmotivated: at one point Mann jumps and jumps, lifting her skirt and flashing a breast at us, at first grimacing in apparent anguish and then breaking into an unfocused smile. Though there’s a lot of partnering in Mira, it doesn’t give a sense of relationship between the performers. A women’s trio (Kim Epifano, Julie Kane, and Mann) that comes during the tortured “Linear History” seems meant to be healing, yet it’s merely athletic and anonymous, filled with lifts and supported aerial somersaults that only show us, once again, how Mann is the center of the piece, to be attended by the others.

Yet sometimes the movement works–at its best it’s hypnotic. Right before the intermission, for example, in a section called “The Stomping,” the dancers repeat a rhythmic, folk-dancey stepping sequence while they sing–first in snatches, then in their entirety–the lyrics “Mira walks to the river by moonlight / Her heart can lift mountains by beating.” Here we get a taste of the trance state that Mira seems to aim for throughout. But I think there’s a mistake at the center of Contraband’s choreography–the solipsistic assumption that if the dancers are exhilarated, the audience will be too: “I am the world. Therefore if I feel ecstasy, you must.”

It’s not that Contraband is untalented–far from it. Only undisciplined. It’s heartbreaking to see the flashes of vision and wit in Mira. Mann’s parody of Martha Graham is quite funny: she announces dramatically, “The death of the self–with feeling,” and proceeds to mimic Graham’s poses and contractions in her famous solo Lamentation. It’s funny when Keith Hennessy steps out of character to commiserate with the audience, saying “I know. We’re all having difficulty making sense of these words.” The performers are attractive, even charismatic people with multiple talents: Epifano and Kane do some wonderful singing; Jules Beckman and Norman Rutherford play some bizarre but haunting music; Jess Curtis and Hennessy are commanding presences onstage. Lauren Elder’s set is beautiful: a wooden bench perched on a pile of unidentifiable material–perhaps dirt, perhaps dung, perhaps moss–over which are suspended three branches and three pale masklike blocks of ice that drip throughout the performance. But despite the enticing glimpses, Mira remains obstinately, aggressively, and self-destructively self-indulgent, a weed grown past all control.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Janet Van Ham.