San Francisco

Contraband, Oracle

Theater Artaud

Contraband is an eight-member, San Francisco-based, interdisciplinary performance collective that boasts of its “rowdy dancing.” It annexed a social context and power for its work several years ago with a series of performances in the Gartland Pit, the politically charged site of an unsolved crime in San Francisco’s Mission district in which arson destroyed a hotel for low-income residents and 12 occupants died in the blaze. I, for one, carried the memory of Contraband’s provocative performance there into the Theater Artaud for the company’s recent premiere of Oracle, presented by American Inroads. The response of the audience at the end of the evening can only be described as tepid—surprising for opening night in the artists’ home town—and it is interesting to consider why.

The performance was dazzling, with energetic, acrobatic choreography by Sara Shelton Mann, a spare, intriguing taped score by Rinde Eckert, and an “industrial,” kinetic visual environment by Lauren Elder, all within the impressive, cavernous setting of the Theater Artaud. Separated from the audience by a barbed-wire fence, the dancers carried contact improvisation to Olympian extremes: they spun and soared from aerial devices, performed balancing acts and maneuvers with such props as flying refrigerators, and even passed a huge paper fish hand-to-hand through the audience. Duo and trio ensembles executed imaginative sets with a grinning adolescent aplomb reminiscent of the exuberant flower children choreographed by Twyla Tharp in the 1979 movie Hair. Jules Beckman’s live music and Julian Neff’s interesting lighting strategy—including three follow spots operated by technicians suspended above the stage on swinging I-beams—kept the visual and aural atmosphere changing from moment to moment. Passages of spoken and sung text from various sources—lyrics by the rock group Black Flag, and the writings of members of the collective, John Brandi (of Semiotext(e) USA, the program notes pointedly remind us), Hermann Hesse, and Arthur Janov—provided bursts of poetry if not insight, such as this passage by one of Contraband’s own: “Falling angels burning as they fall / screaming out the names of God. / Do you hear them in the dark? / Do they make you cry?”

But anyone searching for content, or for context, had to look to the program notes, and even there they would have found only abstract statements about “freedom,” “the body as prison,” and “exploration of contemporary issues via personal experiences.” Scattered sections of text provided what seemed to be confused attacks on organized religion. The message of Oracle seemed to be that dance by energetic kids offers a more meaningful spiritual experience than any orthodoxy.

In recent years, the controversy over San Francisco performance has heated up, with the charge being leveled that the city’s most celebrated works are spectacles nearly devoid of content. Perhaps that’s why this audience, like me, was disappointed. Oracle showed craft and inventiveness. But maybe we expected more than just another evening of “rowdy dance” and “a spectrum of color in movement and song” from Contraband, which in the past has satisfied our hunger for social relevance. Maybe, in fact, we’re desperate for it.

Linda Frye Burnham