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Testing Ground 

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Naked I--A Feast for the Senses

at Bailiwick Arts Center, through February 9

By Carol Burbank

The Naked I, curated by Jonathan Pitts, is a six-week performance festival loosely organized around the theme "a feast for the senses" and featuring local artists, actors, and dancers who are restaging, reworking, or premiering short pieces. A chance to test ideas, expand works in progress, collaborate, and experiment, it would seem an ideal forum for the inexperienced or border-crossing artist, but it takes a seasoned, flexible performer to make the most of such an opportunity. Choreographer-performer Peter Carpenter, whose narrative work combines a suggestive theatrical structure with the gestural fluidity of dance, makes the most of it. His reshaped Little Man, You've Had a Busy Day, first performed two years ago, was the best offering on last week's program.

This tightened performance of Carpenter's playful, sometimes rueful tribute to gay male sexuality reveals a greater maturity. The raw subject matter and comedy are used more strategically, and the gestures that define the scenes are clearer. The piece is shaped into five theatrical beats: a punning funeral dance, a finely staged kinetic argument about a closeted movie star, a relatively sloppy parody of pickup bars, a double-edged scene of violence and eroticism, and finally a pseudocoy striptease.

More performance artists than dancers, Carpenter and Patrick McNulty, Doug Stapleton, and Leif Tellmann jostle and tumble through the athletic choreography, immediately establishing a slapstick tone. They enter like pallbearers, three black-suited men carrying the fourth on their shoulders, doing the wedding-march shuffle so familiar to us from church processions. But they quickly get bored, clutching their dicks and then grabbing each other in a blank-faced frenzy, as if their arms and hands and crotches were separate beings. The dead man is mourned and then revives, and the four men rise from and fall to the ground in a dizzying dance of lifting and dropping, rolling and tossing like sleepless children. They couple and recouple in leaps, lifts, and posturings that seem both casual and menacing, intimate and uninvolved, masculine and feminine. This prelude establishes the performance as a lighthearted game that will go sour and strange in playful ways.

The escalating verbal and physical argument about an unnamed movie star--I took him to be Rock Hudson--has much the same rhythm. Casually walking, running, jostling, and climbing on each other, the dancers tell the story of loving and hating the gay star of boy-meets-girl movies, of young gay identities affirmed and denied by the same presence. Partly because of the similar pacing, this section also feels introductory, as if we were starting over again. But it captures the buffoonish, snobby voyeurism of star watchers while prefiguring some of the camaraderie and earthiness of the striptease.

The next two beats adopt the same languid-to-frenzied pace, which seems sexually motivated. The gestures change, but the hunt remains the same, as isolated prowlers move into a cluttered, almost hyperactive stage climax. Carpenter's irony requires us to make choices about the scene, but for me the repetitious structure made the whimsy wear thin, the frenzy seem a little pathetic. In his work Carpenter often seems to simultaneously criticize and accept gay culture; these sections are more critical than usual. The scene in a bar turns into a sarcastic, tedious series of rock 'n' roll blow jobs and one-night stands; each series of rapidly repeating, increasingly isolated encounters ends in a "Taxi!" salute. Then, in the fourth beat, Carpenter is blindfolded and jostled back and forth in an ambiguous scene of violence and seduction. These two beats, the weakest, feel long and abstract, depicting an emptiness that could have been conveyed more succinctly and subtly. Still, the sometimes goofy cynicism carried me through.

The last scene, in which we meet the dancers' "little men" face-to-face, finishes the piece with a bow and a phallic wink as the four men take turns removing their jackets and ties, then their shirts and pants. Finally they quickly pull their underwear down and up, flashing their penises with obviously false coyness. Straightforward, uneroticized, the men's stripping off of different items creates a shifting pattern of diminishing costumes. They repeat gestures from earlier beats, bringing them briefly back into this moment. Once revealed, the men turn in a circle, flashing as if by habit, echoing the themes of the piece in their joined disconnection. It's a vivid image that takes the voyeurism out of the beat, ending the piece with a resonant visual joke.

Carpenter wisely augments his sly minimalism by choosing performers with a more rounded sensuality. His work is strongly, sometimes almost aggressively, self-revealing, combining the visceral directness of queer performance-storytelling with a pared-down modern dance aesthetic. The result is a highly personal, confrontational communication with the audience--a remarkable approach even in its self-indulgent moments.

The other works on this program were nowhere near as sophisticated in ambition or effect but deserve mention. Charlie Levin, Meghan Strell, and Dave Gipson's Alternating Currents charmingly explores the way light is used as a metaphor--an idea piece worth watching thanks to its clever visual design and simple concept. Three white-clad women seem to spark light out of darkness using children's old-fashioned flint-and-steel toys. Then they play with the possibilities like wondering primitives. One is greedy and wants to unscrew all the lightbulbs and keep them in her basket. Another literally hides her lights under a bushel and loses them to the greedy one. But the third, in the most clever staging, attaches the bulbs, cords and all, to her belt and walks around like a mother duck with a following of light. Providing the only stage illumination, the bulbs' fluctuating patterns are beautiful as well as whimsically narrative.

Jonathan Pitts's The Answer is a silent version of those endless lightbulb jokes, with a gaggle of stagehands turning a ladder to change a bulb and a little girl showing them an easier way. A cute one-liner, it got a laugh. Nambi E. Kelley's Screams Without Consciousness is a moralistic tale of "the oneness of God and Humanity" that uses the same tired improvised dance methods that hobbled her play Girl to be Named Later. Director Tracey Nadine Rambeau has managed to pull a few lovely images out of the muddle, but this was the weakest work on the program, with stereotyped characters going nowhere, sudden expressions of pain without explanation, and poetic explanations implying too many stories at once.

The last two pieces were blessedly brief. The best way to approach this kind of showcase is to go for a performer you know is interesting but remain open to surprises. With the Naked I festival, every week brings a new mixed bag.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Peter Carpenter photo.

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