FRESH FESTIVAL 2013 POV Performance Series
January 11, 2014
KUNST-STOFF arts, San Francisco

San Francisco’s Fresh Festival mostly lived up to its name last Saturday with the second installment of its POV performance series. I was particularly fascinated by Brontez Purnell—or more specifically, I’ll admit, by his buttcrack. It did more than peek above a silver-studded belt—it fairly glared—and whether or not that was intentional (Purnell several times tugged the hem of his untucked dress shirt down), that very beautiful buttcrack was just one of many ways Purnell’s wonderfully distinctive body provoked curiosity over the course of “Unwanted Conversation.”

For the first half of the piece, Purnell and his collaborator Sophia Wang danced around each other, he all limbs, sharply arched back, and flaring eyes, and she compact, contained, and cool. Though many contemporary choreographers have, thank goodness, accustomed us to seeing dancers of diverse physicality onstage together, the question still arose for me: Who were these two and why would they be dancing together? That’s a question Purnell’s choreography wonderfully stoked, as he and Wang traversed the stage in thick soled shoes, stomping, mostly not looking at one another, but in unison launching into a jump that landed (thwack!) with one leg kicked up behind, one arm slicing forward. The movement felt mysterious but not random.

Then Purnell opened a window (the performance was happening not in a proscenium space, but in the Kunst-Stoff Arts studio, with windows along the back wall), and writhed while making sex noises. Finally Purnell and Wang came to stand face-to-face and—whack!—she slapped him. And he slapped her, with equal force. Gasps in the audience. Then they began to kiss.

Purnell made his way to the far side of the floor and began to shout. “Fucking sex. Oh. Girl.” By this point the audience was catching on—these were ludicrous cat calls. “Oh. Female who can get pregnant. Oh. Fertile woman.” Then Purnell went to the back wall and screamed “STELLLLLLLAAAAA!”

After the applause, Purnell explained that “Unwanted Conversation” was inspired by an encounter at a bus stop. Then he said his next piece, “Radical Gesture,” would be abbreviated because he had just hurt his knee. The whole audience said, “Awww,” and he glared at us in mockery. Then he said we had to start shouting questions at him or the next piece would fail.

And so, as Purnell began to slither around the stage, we did. What does he do all day? He’s a student. Where? Cal State East Bay. This led to a tirade about his student loans, now at $30,000. If someone gave him $30,000, what would he do with it? Buy drugs. What kind? Cocaine and weed and Yerba Mate. Someone asked if he had tattoos. Someone asked if we could see them. So he started by taking off his pants and underwear, and then he took off his shirt. How did he like being uncircumcised? He loved it. What was the worst thing that ever happened to him? Not getting laid. How come he was from the South but he didn’t have an accent? And this led to the story of Purnell’s mother studying speech pathology, and saying, “You’re gonna get a job anywhere, bitch,” and about his childhood as a military brat, and about the assumption that because he’s an African American from the South, his mother must have been a good cook. Purnell picked up a huge sword, put it in his mouth, and began to crawl. What are you going to do with that sword in your mouth? He answered, matter of fact, Symbolism.

Would you believe me if I said all of this was fascinating? It was to me—and others in the room were equally hooked. Was that due to Purnell’s stagecraft or his peculiar style of vindictive dignity, which seemed to invite us to gawk at him just so he could throw it in our face? In a genre like performance art-based dance, where charisma might be everything, can you distinguish craft from presence? I don’t know, but I know I’ve seen a lot of dull performance art, and Purnell not only made me pay attention, he left me wrestling with my reactions. Someone give this guy a grant.

I was taken, too, by Anna Martine Whitehead and her “Falling Queens,” in which she began with an aggressive dance, the music pumping out lyrics like I’m gonna teach that bitch, as Whitehead moved with very fast hands and head flickerings, almost flailing, yet making mesmerizing clear shapes. She then trained us to watch her, saying “right foot up, right foot down” as she did each movement. Behind her a furry brown blanket lay in a heap, and she began to circle it as though it contained something secret, directing herself: “Act like you can’t see this thing. Don’t let them know that you saw it. Get close but act normal.” And as she was peeking out the side of her eyes, “More normal! MORE NORMAL!”

Soon we were all entranced by the mystery of this invisible thing, which—we learned as Whitehead continued to interact with it—changes position, and “makes you feel good but you can never fucking get near it,” “as though it’s in the floor or in the air,” “as though it’s coming out of you!” “You’re a cloud shaped like Beyonce”—and here Whitehead moved sexily, but a moment later, “maybe the thing is inside you!” And suddenly she was gasping, convulsing, desperate to pull it out of her body.

Now, with Whitehead, for me there was no question: This was not mere charisma, this was masterful manipulation of the audience, the kind of mastery you might find in a top magician or comedian. The second half of “Falling Queens” became less memorable. But I would certainly see more performance from this woman.

Violeta Luna ended the program with a piece reenacting the chilling performance art of Ana Mendieta. I think I was interested mostly because Brontez Purnell was sobbing in the audience—did he know something we didn’t? The blood pouring from Luna’s hands—no, don’t let this be true—had she really cut herself? No, thankfully, and with such fears removed I found her presence rather winking and coy.

Sara Kraft started the evening with a wonderfully smart installation, “Wrecked/A-Part-Ment,” which played off the studio windows by projecting text upon them, leading us to look at reflections and the street below simultaneously, as Kraft’s low, purring voice directed us.

The whole evening was so engaging that I wish I could return tonight for Jess Curtis and Abby Crain, among others (work commitments prevent me). The POV performances are just one small part of the Fresh Festival, which fills three weeks with workshops, discussions, and parties. It must be enormously stimulating for the students and teachers, and I’m thoroughly impressed by what its organizers, Kathleen Hermesdorf and Ernesto Sopprani, have offered to the dance community.

PS: Brontez is new to me, but not to fans of his zine, Fag School, and of his band, the Younger Lovers. Here is more on him.

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