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By Karen Hildebrand
Sing a little ditty, bare a lot of soul.
You hear Joe Goode before you spot him—entering from house right chanting, “I’m a good guy. A g-g-g-good guy.” A strapping man of six foot four, wearing a neon orange jumpsuit and a construction hardhat, he climbs the stairs onto the stage, fires up an electric chain saw, and drives it through the middle of a wooden chair.
This entertaining bit of what some might call “Joe Goode shtick,” is the prelude to his solo, 29 Effeminatee Gestures (1987). Goode considers this a watershed work. He developed it after realizing that a series of what he intended to be angry gestures looked decidedly less than masculine.
“This is some queen!” he said about his reflection in the mirror. “I was distraught. I had been working on it and working…” But he recognized it as exactly the kind of personal discovery that, when teaching his method of “felt performance,” he pushed his students to make. “Finally,” he said, “ ‘OK, big boy. Here is the precipice. You’re standing on it. You are so uncomfortable with the fact that you look girly,’” he says. “It was a revelation. It changed my way of thinking about my art.”
Goode has been walking out to that cliff edge for 20 years—mining the emotions of his dancers as well as his own to make dance theater that questions what it means to be human. His artistic signature is a blend of spoken word, campy wit, songs, and luscious, full-throttle dancing. He’s not in your face with a message. Rather, he rocks you gently with humor and perhaps a cowboy melody. By the end, you realize he’s confirmed a truth. You’ve seen something of yourself.
For the Joe Goode Performance Group home season this month at San Francisco’s Yerba Buena Center, Goode will reprise his Bessie award-winning Deeply There (1998), about a group of people who surround a man dying of AIDS. He will also unveil Stay Together, a collaboration with the acclaimed conductor of the San Francisco Symphony, Michael Tilson Thomas.
In late January, the company—Goode plus three men and two women—convenes for rehearsal and Goode leads the warm-up. When he goes into a handstand, his T-shirt falls back to reveal a bit of a love handle around his middle. At 55, Goode’s in decent shape, but he doesn’t run marathons. There’s some Limón drop and rebound movement, and the dancers vocalize by humming “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad.”
Goode has been dancing since he was 7, but he also wrote and developed an interest in philosophy. At Virginia Commonwealth University, he earned a BFA in drama, then went to New York to pursue an acting career. He soon became discouraged with the roles he was cast in. “I played a lot of aliens,” he says.
The work of Merce Cunningham drew him back to dance. “I was interested in those kinds of artists who were moving—not telling a story,” he says. “Ultimately it wasn’t satisfying because I am interested in human emotion. I would look at those dancers and construct endless narratives about who they were and what their sex lives were and what side of the bed they got up on in the morning.”
He moved to San Francisco in 1979 and continued his exploration of Cunningham-based technique with Margaret Jenkins. “I saw his choreographic intelligence at work,” she says. “He had a theatrical background. After working together for a certain time, it became clear that he wanted to shift his own choreography into this more theatrical realm,” she remembers.
In making Stay Together, Goode started with the music. Audiences may associate the Grammy Award-winning conductor Tilson Thomas with symphonic works, but Goode was drawn to the composer’s musical-theater songs. “I was looking for something that had enough ventilation that I could enter into,” says Goode. “I’m not interested in illustrating the music, but I have to match its integrity, its ferocity.” Together, they decided to create a new work using the title, sentiment, rhythm, and tonality of Tilson Thomas’ “Stay Together.”
The title resonates with Goode on several levels. There’s of course the 20th anniversary thing: How do you stay together as a group for 20 years? How do you stick with your own ideas, keep finding the edge, pushing the limit? But there is also the relationship angle.
“I’m a hopeless romantic,” he says. “I really believe in love, in monogamy, in long-term devotion.” But, he says, “I’ve never been able to do that.” Between his company and his teaching at University of California Berkeley, he juggles several different roles. “How does someone else fit into that?” he asks.
In rehearsal, Melecio Estrella’s cartwheel kick across Rubén Graciani’s back looks studied at first. “I’m getting a big seam there,” Goode says. “Liz, what are you doing back there?” She tells him her phrase is too busy, and Goode agrees. “I like the empty moments,” he says. “Can you try to collect those moments? And erase the rest?” They run the segment again. It works.
Goode doesn’t require singing and acting experience of his dancers, but you’d never know that by watching them in performance. “The most important thing I look for in a dancer—aside from intelligence and humanity—is somebody who moves,” he says. “I look for an animal, someone for whom moving is like breathing.” His choreography calls for strong partnering, with the women lifting men as often as the opposite.
Liz Burritt has been with the company since 1986, the year it officially became the Joe Goode Performance Group. She was a student at Loretto Heights College in Denver when Goode was a guest artist. Goode made The Ascension of Big Linda into the Skies of Montana during the residency, she recalls, in which “he had boys in skirts with lipstick, and I gave simulated birth onstage.” When Goode invited her to San Francisco to reset the piece, she went. “It felt fated,” she says. “It was a good match. I knew I probably wasn’t going to be a pure dancer.”
She has a great comic presence onstage. In another watershed moment during the making of What the Body Knows (2001), Goode stepped aside and put her into the narrative spotlight. Burritt plays a chameleon-like character, not unlike herself, who takes on the emotions of others. Her elastic facial expressions are projected onto a giant screen. It’s one of Goode’s most successful pieces.
At a break during rehearsal, Goode tells a story about a recent photo session when the photographer asked him to change his pose, because, “You’re looking a little passporty.” But what Goode heard was, “You’re looking a little past 40.” Goode thought, “Yes, but that’s all I’ve got!” He clowns for the group, pulling the skin of his face back in an instant facelift. Dancers and aging. Another resonating theme for Stay Together.
But Goode doesn’t show signs of slowing down. Unlike What the Body Knows, he’ll perform in Stay Together (and he’s also the main character of Deeply There). “When it’s good, performing is like striking the tuning fork,” he says. “The vibration that goes through you when you can really be transparent onstage—there’s nothing like it. So for me to go too long without performing would be hard.”
Other projects include choreographing a production by playwright Paula Vogel and directed by Basil Twist, the puppeteer. This spring Goode directed an opera with a libretto by poet Anne Sexton. He wrote and directed a play, Body Familiar, produced in 2003, and he wants to do more of that. And maybe a film…
“I’ve always thought of this work as kind of a survival technique in a really crazy, unhappy world. To build a meaningful community of artists, make work that we care about, heartfelt and passionate, is a way of survival. That’s the main purpose,” he says. “It’s also a useful pastime. If I were working in an office or in retail, I wouldn’t know who I was. This keeps me in touch with myself.”
Karen Hildebrand is Dance Magazine’s education editor.