The 10-year-old event Ten Tiny Dances at Washington High School at 8:30 pm this past Saturday, September 8, was this year as it always has been: inconsistent, often frustrating and spiked with ever-so-occasional moments of transcendent hilarity or beauty.
The premise, for those unfamiliar: 10 different dancers or companies are invited to perform a short dance on a tiny 4-foot-by-4-foot stage. It's the dance equivalent of a themed compilation CD, or a bout of arts TV controlled by an ADD kid with a remote. What is beautiful does not endure, but neither does the terrible, nor do any of the separate performances cohere except in their constraint.
The event, I should note, has evolved to house performances that only peripherally include dance: It has become a tight-straitened soapbox for all forms of performance art, for grandstanding and stillness both.
And so we have TBA festival mainstay Miguel Gutierrez making a tongue-in-cheek, tone-indifferent sound-collage version of Salt 'n' Pepa's "Push It" that twists itself inside out and becomes a hypnotic sonic meditation on the making of vowel sounds, followed immediately by Hana Erdman bending over in a loose-fitting dress, flashing the audience while interminably feeding a baby goat. The play on classical madonnas and virgins of the meadow was evident within seconds, long before Erdman drew a halo around herself in goat food. The audience cooed at the goat, of course, but the performance was hollow to its core.
In a bright moment early on, Milwaukee's Leita Kaldr used the tiny stage to explore the fragilities of aesthetic exertion; dressed in a burlesque approximation of ballet wear, she pushed balletic movements into a masochistic yoga that left her muscles seizing and tremorous.
Carlos Gonzalez, perhaps Portland's most promising young performance artist, enacted an unfinished-seeming but affecting piece centered on high school sports, in which he stripped down (characteristically, for Gonzales) into a Spider Man costume and then a ripped T-shirt, while enacting deadpan-intense, self-satirizing parodies of sport movements. The bewildered seriousness with which he performed them made the act of shooting a jumper a perilous search for identity rather than a simple component of a game. Still, the piece looked as if it had yet to find its full form, and so was in the end a catalogue of effects, however wonderfully effective.
The night's one moment of real transcendence was provided by San Francisco performance artist Julie Phelps. After a jerky striptease performed to the sounds of an electronic drumkit, Phelps stopped the strip at the first flash of control-top undies, and rose to the microphone to explain that what she really wanted to do was make a speech: she had performed the dance only so that she would feel tired and exposed in front of the audience.
But she had gotten too drunk and forgotten to write the speech, she said, which was supposed to be about how we don't know what we're talking about when we talk about love, or about vulnerability. So she asked instead that an audience member volunteer to share an intimate moment with her drummer, a spritely-boyish Ellie Cameron. The intimacy turned out to be a tender, slow dance.
Each time Phelps said "Snowball", each dance partner was to find another partner. And so, as Phelps sang karaoke-quality seventies soft rock about the end of hurt, the entire audience exponentially became swaying partners in dance, endlessly happy. Some of them clutched each other perhaps too tightly, and one pair couldn't stop kissing. For all anyone else knew, they'd only just met. It was a world erupted into sudden—and brief—fulfillment.
Readers, it was lovely.