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Fluid Measure Performance Company

at the Dance Center of Columbia College, November 17-19

Fluid Measure Performance Company has evolved amazingly since the days in the late 70s and early 80s when a group of performance artists (including me) sat at a table in Patricia Pelletier's apartment haggling, at times yelling, over the goals of a performance-art collective. Since that time, Fluid Measure has been whittled down to its present incarnation, Kathleen Maltese, Donna Mandel, and Pelletier. And their work, which has always been skilled, has matured into something truly evocative and magical.

I haven't always loved everything I've seen of theirs. In fact, by the mid-80s, after seeing a piece by Pelletier at MoMing, I feared her work had run aground in concept, dialogue, and heavy-handed drama. And I thought Mandel's work in the mid-80s, though beautifully executed, was just so-so. So what's happened? It seems to me this sea change must be due in part to the way Fluid Measure members have influenced one another, bringing their considerable talents in dance, contact improvisation, visual art, voice, and writing together. Part of their success too may be that since the late 70s they've continued to work and to develop their individual artistic voices and practice has indeed made perfect. And since the three of them began working together, in 1987, they've influenced one another in a wondrous way. A subtlety and beauty have emerged that transform their stark, painful, at times bleak subject matter into powerful, even funny stuff--what can only be called great performance in the tradition of Chicago narrative art.

Part of the magic has to do with the way they work together. Though the concept for each piece at the Dance Center may have originated with any one of them, each was ultimately created by all three in rehearsal. As anyone who's worked by committee knows, this is a difficult process with far from surefire results, but here it's had the effect of honing these concepts into works of real weight and beauty, of truth and authenticity, each standing on its own as a fully developed piece. When people tell me they neither understand nor like performance, this is the sort of work I wish I could pull out of my pocket and show them.

The evening, framed by Ken Bowen's lighting, with costumes by Ann Boyd, began with Escape Velocity, a wonderful ensemble piece, an earlier version of which I'd seen on video last year. The sound, by Lauren Weinger, with Fluid Measure, was poignant and textured, moving from purely rhythmic percussion to complex, varied synthesized layers that sometimes sounded almost like prayerful wailing and sometimes had a lush sound like wind moving through trees. The piece is about finding a place for oneself in a society that pigeonholes everyone--for example, in an income bracket, an ethnicity, or a sexual orientation. The concept of a happy or unhappy marriage, gay or straight, ultimately seems oversimplified and superfluous, defining nothing in a changing, malleable world.

The other two pieces, For Love or Money and Whyoming, with sound by Victor Sanders, debuted at the Dance Center; both have scripts so conceptually tight, evocative, and haunting they could stand on their own as short stories. For Love or Money, written by Pelletier and Maltese and based on Maltese's family stories, addresses the ambivalent feelings an Italian American girl (Maltese) has toward her controlling mother (Mandel) and her poisonous, disturbed, rebellious aunt (frighteningly, beautifully played by Pelletier). The story unfolds as Maltese steps forward, speaking to us directly in her soft, clear voice, then moves back into the action with Pelletier and Mandel, who sometimes drop their personae to reinforce Maltese's words by repeating what she's said or spinning out on a tangent. This approach creates the illusion that the mother and aunt have become aspects of the protagonist's thinking.

The language is simple: "My grandmother lost her house in a fire....Soon after, my grandfather lost his heart." Maltese describes so palpably the houses her mother bought on Ogden Avenue for her children that one seems to see them, hear the four lanes of traffic, and feel the young girl's disorientation and confusion as she tries to get back into her house at one point by going underneath the porch and kicking at the foundation. This image becomes a metaphor for the protagonist's struggle as an adult to understand the family dynamic, and to expose the deceptions and secrets that were intuited but never penetrated.

I've never seen Maltese so confident and so gut-wrenchingly sincere. It was an amazing performance by all three artists, but Maltese was truly flying like a scrappy boxer, sparring with Pelletier and Mandel as the family she loved yet fought and literally leaping out on her own when she illustrated the panic of a lost young girl trying to find her way home from a school only three blocks away. At the conclusion of For Love or Money, a disturbing family secret is revealed that leaves the audience gasping.

In Whyoming, written by Pelletier, a woman seems to confront the dichotomy between desire and reality, the everyday and the transcendent--she's caught somewhere between a wish and a lie. Wondering at unfulfilled desires (a handsome park ranger is the object of a momentary heart flutter) and the reality of her life as a wife and mother, the woman (played by Pelletier) despairs when a glass of wine tips over and crashes to the floor.

The entire piece has a western theme. Sculptor Dan Galemb has created a boulder that floats over the stage, seeming to represent the conglomerate of feelings involved in the woman's marriage, unaddressed and inchoate emotions, desires, and yearnings. She believes "Wyoming" is spelled with an "h"--because, while on vacation, she's suddenly caught in "Why" (questioning), "Oh" (sighing), and "Me-ing" (self-involvement). Nearby buffalo represent the power of animal instincts within the woman, as well as raw energy and raw anger--those ever-present impulses and emotions capable of thundering across the psychic landscape at 40 miles an hour but that for the most part merely supply the annoying gnats that blind and disorient. Finally, a lone buffalo dumbly, unexpectedly totals the family car, showering the children in broken glass. The images in Whyoming, and the contrast between yearning and reality, are wonderful; all three artists interact with grace and abandon.

Fluid Measure's use of standard performance art devices--text, movement, contact improvisation, sound, and voice--to tackle difficult, almost raw autobiographical material works wonderfully. This is the stuff for young performance artists to study--the stuff for audiences generally. As performance goes, it's the real thing.

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

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