Dancing with Gravity

by Jean Schiffman

Contemporary dance company Gravity performs three short pieces as part of “Intercontinental Collaborations #7,” a series of biennial performance events produced by the company.

“Which comes first, language or movement?” Contemporary dancer/choreographer Jess Curtis poses that question to his ensemble at the first rehearsal of his new experimental work, “Sight Unseen.” It is the start of a five-week process of creative collaboration.

“Sight Unseen” is one of three short pieces to be performed in “Intercontinental Collaborations #7,” a series of biennial performance events produced by Curtis’ company, Gravity. Established in 2000 and based in both San Francisco and Berlin, Gravity regularly involves performers of diverse physicalities, addressing issues relevant to “anyone with a body.”

Accompanying “Sight Unseen” on the bill are two recent works: the U.S. premiere of “Remote,” Curtis’ duet for Tara Brandel and Linda Fearon of Ireland’s Croi Glan Integrated Dance, which explores digital technology in relation to actual physical place and includes text (and texting); and San Francisco dancer/Gravity collaborator Rachael Dichter’s solo, “A Portrait of Me as You (Everything is Copy),” which Curtis describes as “beautiful, moving, sexy, scary…a sort of duet with every person in the audience.” 

At the “Sight Unseen” rehearsal, Curtis has just asked the performers to cross the room while verbalizing exactly what they’re doing. Barefoot, they move slowly and tentatively, murmuring under their breaths. Afterward, they discuss the difficulty of such a simple exercise. “I kept trying to catch up with myself,” says Sherwood Chen. “The language was almost directing me.” 

For “Sight Unseen,” Curtis is following up on some choreographic ideas he explored in “The Way You Look (at me) Tonight,” his most recent collaboration with Scottish dancer and disability activist Claire Cunningham, who performs with crutches. The ideas concern perception: “How do we perceive the world, and how does that perception work in performance?” he asks rhetorically. He is working, he says, with the concept that our sensory experiences are embedded in the ways we move in the world. “I’m interested in the particular ability of everybody I work with, and that’s what we build from.” 

And he is continuing to develop methods for welcoming audiences with varied sensory capacities. In “Sight Unseen,” Curtis aims to connect with visually impaired audiences. Among the inspirations for the piece: U.C. Berkeley professor Georgina Kleege’s book of the same name, a collection of personal essays about blindness; and Tiffany Taylor, a blind actor, new to Gravity, who joins Dichter, dancers Chen and Celine Alwyn and actor Gabriel Christian in “Sight Unseen.” The music is by Matthias Herrmann.

One way to communicate with visually impaired audiences, says Curtis, is to reveal the shape and form of things. For “Sight Unseen” he is incorporating “self-description”—a practice that dovetails, he says, with what he learned with Sara Shelton Mann in her company, Contraband. “How does language shape our experience, shape movement?” he muses. “What is the integration [in the different parts of my brain] between my movement and my language?”
He lifts a hand to demonstrate: “I can say, ‘I raise my hand’—but I’m also moving my lips. So I have to make choices about what I speak about, and where my attention is.” 

Curtis also wants the audience to be able to wander around in the playing area during performance. But how would that work for visually impaired audiences? “We’re doing some open rehearsals with folks from Lighthouse for the Blind to figure that out,” he says. “Not everyone is super comfortable in an ambulatory space. It’s an important political action around physical diversity. I notice this in a lot in contemporary dance: how many young artists are basing their ideal viewer on their own bodies, the fit, skinny person in their early 30s. I really want a range of people to see my work. No two people are going to have the same experience…”

He adds, “In the end I’m interested in how five very different people negotiate a space, and in seeing the interactions between them.” In the middle of rehearsal, he glances at Tiffany Taylor: “Are you feeling safe in the room?” “Yeah,” she says, smiling.

Nov. 2 → 5

Jess Curtis/Gravity 

Joe Goode Annex,
401 Alabama St., San Francisco 483-5996