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Jess Curtis’ Under the Radar

Inspired Spontaneity

I’m at CounterPULSE ten minutes before Renaissance man/theatrical swashbuckler Jess Curtis’ highly anticipated show, "Under the Radar". As I’ve gathered from the website and tight-lipped program material, a kaleidoscopic assortment of dancers and performance artists will be entertaining the audience with genre-liberal food for thought: that includes concepts like beauty, normalcy, and preconceived notions of (dis)ability. All very heady stuff, but at the time being, I’m more interested in what’s going on right now.

Indeed, Curtis’ sparse set, tweaked a bit to accommodate a roomy, lounge feel and a beer/wine bar that proclaims itself in twinkly lights, is filled with stuff that reeks of fascinating pre-show bedlam. The effect is almost circus-like. A musician strums what appears to be a ukulele, while a chirpy sample erupts from behind him. All the while, performers flit about the stage like flaneurs, and Curtis himself -- a congenial gentleman with a mad-scientist shock of white hair and a body that looks like it’s about to take flight at any moment -- enchants the audience with cute asides and exhortations to drink up (the bar, after all, isn’t merely a set piece).

Aptly enough, the bar is stocked with a box of “fortune cookie” slips of paper that audience members are encouraged to take, “to get into the mood of the show more deeply,” Curtis explains. I end up with an enigmatic snippet from Leonard Cohen’s “Chelsea Hotel No. 2,” that archly affirms: “Well never mind,/we are/ugly but we have the music.” If that isn’t an alembic to usher in the rest of the evening, I don’t know what is.

Curtis is renowned through Europe and the States as a collaborative risk-taker, an artist who swells the ranks of multidisciplinary virtuosos with his own brand of creative hooliganism, which includes physical comedy, cabaret, social dance, and circus. Curtis, who has described himself as invested in finding “the virtuosic edge of each performer’s capabilities,” is in good company. His energetic, vignette-filled performance doesn’t draw from the fusty annals of modern dance; rather, his is an international ensemble that sings, pirouettes, rouses laughter, does trapeze, and improvises its way into our very psyches.

The bunch includes British Kaz Langley, a performer with cerebral palsy who does whirligigs in her wheelchair; and Scottish Claire Cunningham, a petite singer and dancer with spinal scoliosis who gracefully glides across the stage in crutches. Italian Maria Francesca Scaroni doubles as bartender and erstwhile performer, and serves up a great drink along with some seriously frenetic stomping. German Ulrike Bodammer, who womans the bar with Francesca, offers her own deliciously acrobatic feats, while Germans Jörg Müller and Matthias Herrmann, as well as Curtis, make up the band.

This is a performance that’s striking partly because our eyes want to dart in a variety of directions at once. In fact, if one of the linchpins of the show is the very indeterminacy of communication, many prized moments occur in the peripheries. Langley begins the performance, almost unnoticed, as she attempts to communicate with a nonplused Scaroni -- becoming increasingly insistent as she voices her simple yet powerful declaration: “I can’t keep still. I move.”

Finally, the laborious efforts at getting her point across give way to a demonstration. With her ballet pointe shoes, Langley swirls around the stage in her wheelchair, in an almost involuntary-looking array of gyrations. The exploration of disability in dance is hardly new, but something in the near-possessed dynamism of Langley’s limbs forces the audience to look a little closer at our own assumptions of ability and disability -- and admit that, just perhaps, what we are seeing is poetry in motion.

The performance ensues with a variety of narrative-devoid sketches, including absurdist cabaret rock songs (as we learn, the setting is a bar called the Lost & Found, and our performers comprise the house entertainment) with tongue-in-cheek lines like “It’s the start of the end/Men learn to bend, cripples to walk.” In a particularly memorable moment, Langley drops from her wheelchair to the floor with elated briskness, and the other performers follow suit, as if to mimic and interpret her seemingly random movements. The scene is cleverly choreographed to seem improvisatory, but in fact, we have no way of knowing whether Langley’s twitches and movements are random or predetermined. This in no way detracts from the beauty of the scene. At one point, the performers bunch together, facing Langley (whose back is turned to the audience) like eager students, as they attempt to copy her facial expressions.

It’s a delightful and moving representation of the act of mirroring -- a time-honored theater exercise -- as the ultimate vehicle for understanding. Mirroring is a theme that plays out throughout the remainder of the show, as in the ethereal Cunningham’s achingly beautiful performance. Cunningham is a student of the Shannon Technique, a dance form named after performance artist Bill Shannon that was created specifically on crutches. As we hear voiceover of Cunningham explaining how she learned to walk, she goes through a medley of dexterous poses: walking up walls and gliding atop prostrate performers as she uses her crutches as a tool to balance herself. Her performance is touchingly mirrored back to her as the two traditionally able dancers (Scaroni and Bodammer) take up some crutches and dance with her.

Make no mistake -- as inspiring and gorgeous as the pieces are, they’re in no way sentimental or mawkish. The point isn’t, after all, to show us that disabled performers can be just as enthralling as able-bodied ones. If anything, the show interrogates the very idea of normalcy on all levels and reduces beauty and ugliness to entirely relative concepts that are nearly eradicated in the spaces presented. Additionally, rather than tip-toeing around some of the performers’ disability with staid reflectiveness, the show has a certain levity and celebratory gusto that work in its favor. Tender pas de deux are supplemented by hilarious scenes where crutches become multifunctional pieces in a juggling act. Perhaps the only moment that straddles a line between humor and “wait a minute -- are we supposed to laugh?” anxiety is when Scaroni and Bodammer divorce themselves from the action and start making saucy remarks about the dance scenes (“It’s contemporary dance time,” Scaroni quips). When the focus shifts to the two disabled dancers, the comments become increasingly cruel. It’s a particularly brilliant moment that forces audiences to examine their own degree of comfort and to interrogate their own assumptions of the disabled performers.

Certainly, Curtis’ performance can be a little hard to watch sometimes, as it’s rather disjointed. As dancers leap into the air, the visual sense is usually one of floundering play rather than the dexterity that’s obviously there. But this is, after all, the point. According to Curtis, pushing the edge of each performer’s capabilities isn’t all just elegant fun. “For one this may entail standing on her hands for two minutes in a variety of shapes…For another…standing on her own two feet and walking in a simple circle,” he has explained in previous interviews.

What results can only be described as inspired spontaneity. As the performers throw the rules of movement out the window and make up new ones, a gesture as simple as Curtis tickling Cunningham’s feet during an aerial act (and her subsequent recoiling) becomes a beautiful, symbolic act -- one that makes the normalcy associated with dance banal in the face of such magic.

Under the Radar plays Wednesday through Sunday until April 1 at CounterPULSE. Tickets are $15-30.