October 12th, 2013
Like Kate Weare, who has become a rising star on the New York dance scene in recent years, Randee Paufve is a product of Berkeley’s Shawl-Anderson Dance Center, though Paufve’s choreography career has taken quite a different trajectory. Not only did Paufve not move to New York, but she hasn’t produced many of her concerts across the bridge in San Francisco, as most ambitious choreographers do. I saw Paufve dance a few solos in San Francisco’s West Wave Dance Festival in the early 2000’s but—I remember being turned off by a solo with simplistic political statements—I didn’t follow her work. And truth be told, I only attended last weekend’s “Soil,” staged by Paufve at the Hillside Swedenborgian Community Church in suburban El Cerrito, because a friend of Paufve’s urged me. Well, I thank you, my friend. Paufve’s concert was absorbing, provoking, and subtly disturbing—a high achievement of tightrope walking between artifice and authenticity.
It consisted of five solos all danced by Paufve, including one by Weare and two by Paufve herself. The staging was ingenious. (Due credit to the veteran lighting and set designer Jack Carpenter.) The show began at sundown facing a picture-window view of the glowing Bay, with Chris Evans playing her score on electronically manipulated cello as the audience stood behind her. Paufve emerged from a closet in an ivory dress, sank her hands into a pail of mud, and began dancing her 2008 work “Laying Ground,” smearing the mud on the glass and eventually her costume.
For the next dance, the premiere of Weare’s “Erie Lakawana,” Paufve guided us to rows of seats facing the north side of the room, and for the transition between that solo and Gregg Bielemeier’s “its kind of a secret but she screams like a girl . . .” (also a premiere), Eli Wallace played the grand piano while Paufve, never wavering in presence, sat at a vanity table tucking her brown hair into a blonde wig. It was the perfect prelude to a dance featuring both recorded Satie and a version of “Over the Rainbow” orchestrated with absurd tuba, which moved Paufve to talk to herself, stumble, and generally behave like a woman alternately clinging to and mourning youthful glamor. My favorite moment came when Paufve stepped out the back door, to face a row of windows covered by blinds. Evans raised the blinds one at a time so that we seemed to catch Paufve in a bizarre peepshow: First bowling, then pulling apart the lines on her face, then pulling out her hair, then smoking. The comic release created by the slight separation of the glass was tremendous, a gasket blown on the audience’s tension.
For the fourth dance, 1991’s “Flying Over Emptiness” by the late Della Davidson, we turned to the church’s east-wall auditorium stage, and there Paufve danced like a Martha Graham disciple, dead-earnest and commanding. She has maintained her body as a muscled, precise instrument, and in every movement you see the old-fashioned values of her Shawl-Anderson training: control, centeredness, beautiful feet and deliberate, clean lines. Many of the solos had moments of conspicuous technique, especially in the many arabesque penchees, that balancing feat of slowly tipping forward with one leg held perfectly behind you. But the power of Paufve’s performances came from a persistent, odd, honest whiff of desperation—an anxiety that seemed to distract itself with vanity before facing mortality. In the last moment of the Davidson, Paufve clutched her throat and screamed—and the sound that came on the recorded score was of a baby wailing. It sent chills.
Paufve’s last solo, her own “Endless Mountain,” raised the sense of horror and poignancy to a more muted but somehow even more intense pitch. Her hips rolled in a gesture of frenzied sexual aggression, and her shaking hand extended below a pleading smile. I have one cavil with “Soil”: Some unnecessary recorded text near its opening promised “aging made sexy,” and though Paufve the woman is indeed sexy, her performance was anything but. In fact, it seemed to reveal sexiness as a trap, the panic to maintain sexiness as we age as a kind of hell. I left shaken, and curious as to Paufve’s feelings about these solos. We live in a difficult culture for middle-aged dancers, for middle-aged women in general. Paufve staged “Soil” at sunset. Does this imply that her life as a dancer is approaching sunset? I hope not. Clearly her artistry is far from in its decomposing phases.