Gentle Giant

By Regina Marler

Originally published on Advocate.com March 25 2009 11:00 PM ET

San Francisco-based
choreographer, writer, and director Joe Goode has been
described as "the gentle giant of dance theater."
Although his themes are consistent -- community, connection,
the artist's search -- his works defy easy categorization.
Dancers are as likely to speak as to leap. They might share the
stage with video or voice-distorting technology, or expect an
audience to find them behind walls or through open windows at a
gallery installation. In a 1999 essay Goode praised the
"crazy impulses" of art, even if he risked being
branded as "the dancer with the chainsaw" or the
Peggy Lee impersonator with the fire baton: "For me,
art-making isn't a profession or even a calling. It's a
necessity, like eating. Without it, I become malnourished and
the world gets fuzzy, my grasp on it weak. So, clearly, the
craziness of an artist's life is an easy choice when the
alternative is starvation."

Goode teaches half the
year at University of California, Berkeley, in the
department of theater, dance, and performance studies, where he
cherishes a diverse group of students from disciplines, like
the hard sciences, that don't traditionally combine with
performing arts. He founded the Joe Goode Performance Group in
1986. In 2007 he was awarded a Guggenheim fellowship, and in
2008 was named a United States Artists Fellow, one of only five
national dance artists to be honored.

Current works on tour
are
Wonderboy

(2008), a collaboration with puppeteer Basil Twist, and an
excerpt from 1996's
Maverick Strain

.

Advocate.com: Your work has been described as "storytelling theater."
When did you begin to feel an urge toward narrative, or maybe a
sense of the constraints of modern dance as others were
practicing it?
Joe Goode:

The rule of the dancer as a mute didn't make sense to me.
Part of the expression of being human is vocalizing. I feel
bereft if language isn't around me, just as I'd feel
bereft if I didn't have a full range of movement, if I had
to move only naturalistically. So I shuffled around between
dance styles and wanting to change the world, and finally
decided I had to make my own work.

Joe Goode's Wonderboy x100 (courtesy) | advocate.com

And did you define that to yourself before you began?

It had to be personal. It had to be a statement, deeply
drenched in what I felt about life, about the world. And being
a gay man, and dancing as a gay man in the 1970s in New York
among gay choreographers whose gayness was nowhere in their
work -- that affected me. Why wouldn't I want to illuminate
the strong women and vulnerable men in my life? I don't
want to always stand behind the woman and open her legs and
show her as some vulnerable flower, something compliant. I want
to be the flower. So in our company, we lift each other and
move each other. I like that parity between genders.

So your sexuality became a large part of your
choreography.

Always there's a homosexual thread in my work. Growing up in
suburban Virginia, I didn't have that. I felt so outside
life, so different, so broken, so in need of repairs. It took
years to realize that I'm OK. I bring that to the center of
my work. In the late '80s I made a piece called
29 Effeminate Gestures

-- what it meant for a man to own them, have them, and live in
them: how scary for the world and how unsafe for the carrier of
them.

That makes me think of some of the discussion surrounding
Prop. 8 -- this comes up perennially in the gay rights movement
-- about how gays and lesbians should behave in public, how we
should represent ourselves to the straight world. Some argue
that we shouldn't be flying our freak flag, that progress
depends on people recognizing our common humanity.

I like to think it's our common complexity that's our point of
overlap. We're all equally complex and capable of embodying
our queer selves, our fallible selves. Trying to scrub
ourselves off and make ourselves perfect isn't going to
work. Straights aren't perfect either. We're imperfect.
We're all in a state of decay. We can acknowledge each
other in a friendly way. In accepting our difference,
they're accepting their own. You can be complex and full
and accept your own self.

Is there an autobiographical element to
Wonderboy

?

Yes, and that's true for my collaborator, Basil Twist, as well.
Wonderboy is an ultrasensitive puppet who discovers he's an
artist and has some aesthetic power, that his way of seeing
things can teach people. I went from being an introverted and
nearly suicidal teenager to discovering art. And it's still a
survival technique for me, as it is for Wonderboy, a way to
make sense of the world.

Three dancers have to
operate Wonderboy at all times. But instead of being in black
and veiled, as they'd be in bunraku [the classical Japanese
puppet art], they're exposed. They're responsible for
their gestures and his at the same time. And these are
contorted positions. Dancers just want to flow and be open, but
when you're holding a puppet, there's a constraint and
tightness involved. Basil encouraged the dancers not to be
perfect puppeteers but to think of Wonderboy as a real
character, thinking and reacting in each moment, and they began
to say things to me like, "Wonderboy doesn't like it
over there." Now we treat him like a seventh member of the
company.

We talk a lot about
disappearing into the material, and Wonderboy pushes that. He's
the star of the show and the audience is really focused on
him.

Joe Goode's Wonderboy x100 (courtesy) | advocate.com

How do you make a decision about pairing older work with
newer? The excerpts from 1996's
Maverick Strain

with
Wonderboy,

for example.

It's contrast, mainly. With
Wonderboy,

I was working with the image of a silent French film -- thin,
reedy, off in the distance. This felt like the right mood for
Wonderboy.

He's all about his sensitivity and his longing -- his
homoerotic longing, wanting to be with the boys. So it was
about this state of longing and this state of wonder too, while

Maverick Strain

[a deconstruction of Arthur Miller's screenplay for
The Misfits

(1961)] is about ruggedness, this disease of ruggedness,
particularly as a man in America. It's a very lonely,
principled, dogmatic life. And even though the culture is more
subtle about it now, we're still giving those messages to
little boys with the toys we give them and how we treat
them.

Maverick Strain

is a big, ballsy, overt piece in a way that
Wonderboy

is not. Wonderboy is a fragile, porcelain thing. So I thought
it was a good contrast. They're both about how a man is
expected to live in the world.

Will you be premiering a new piece this fall in San
Francisco?

Yes, it's called
Traveling Light.

I'm delving a little into my Buddhist studies and the
desire to live a less-encumbered life, to move into the future
less attached to worldly possessions and vitality. This is
about accepting aging too, and about ecological change, about
ending our fossil fuel dependency and turning to alternative
sources of fuel. I'll be collaborating with my longtime
lighting designer, Jack Carpenter. It's going to be staged in a
warehouse, and much of the work will happen under a large
industrial light that travels across the warehouse, and the
audience will have to move too.

Wonderboyhas had a fantastic press response. When you read that one
of your "characteristic moves" is an upside-down
split-leg lift, does it make you self-conscious as a
choreographer? Do you think of it every time you're about
to choreograph a lift?

I'll tell you the truth. I don't read reviews for that
very reason. I'm a flower. I'm very sensitive to
criticism. And it can even be a positive review, but the
passage where they say the piece is slow, that's what I'll
attach myself to. So I don't read them. They come and they
go. I don't want to know. I'm living in my little
bubble.

I do want to have
conversations about the work and its growth, but that's a very
privileged position. I talk with very few people about it, and
their critical feedback is huge. And you reach out to
collaborators who are going to push you out of your comfort
zone. Before I met Basil Twist I was a puppet-phobe. I had a
real attitude. But when I saw what he could do with puppets, I
wanted to work with him.