Human, nature

Deborah Slater Dance Theater marks 20th anniversary with world premiere
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Deborah Slater Dance Theater performers move to the beat of poetry by Pulitzer Prize-winner W.S. Merwin
PHOTO BY DAVID PAPAS

arts@sfbg.com

DANCE If Deborah Slater had not grown up into an artist, she might have tried her hand at science. She bases her dance theater pieces on extensive studies of physical reality. Her inspiration can come from concrete objects like furniture (Hotel of Memories) and paintings (The Desire Line) or less tangible phenomena like sleep (The Sleepwatchers), perception (Passing as ... The Mathematics of Being), and death (A Hole in the World). Accessing Slater's works can take patience, but her creations stay with you because they are formally inventive, finely crafted, and engage the mind and heart long after you leave the theater. But rarely have the many strands she weaves together resulted in a piece as sprawling, ambitious, and poetic as her 20th anniversary premiere Men Think They Are Better than Grass.

Seen at a preview performance, Men — the title is not anti-male, but refers to humankind — takes on nothing less than the destruction of the environment that started probably as soon as humans were given "dominion" over the earth. Instead of reiterating well-rehearsed arguments, evidence, and position papers, Slater and codirector/dramaturge Jayne Wenger went to poet W.S. Merwin. Excerpts of his writings provide the backbone and scenario for this evocative, richly textured canvas of sound, color, language, and movement. The poetry, heard on tape and — helpfully — reprinted in the program, was recorded by a number of well-known Bay Area artists.

Men explores human alienation from nature in a series of imagistic episodes that, though loosely structured, build momentum. They are dark (dancers rushing about in increasing desperation), funny (Justin Flores transforming himself into a man made of briefcases), and dreamy (people trying to dig up the firm ground of history that proves to be unexpectedly porous). Perhaps most remarkable was the way Men deepened its sense of entropy, barely alleviated at the end by something, at least, suggesting a way out. As the piece darkened, the confrontations between the dancers, who had stripped off their business black to reveal battle fatigue greens, became increasingly agitated. They intensified to the point where they had a Lord of the Flies aspect to them. You also wanted to gasp for air every time the dancers crushed themselves into an ever-smaller piece of terrain.

Still, at this point, the choreography worked best in the small units: Travis Rowland heaving one woman after another, Private Freeman on a "war path" to protect his potted plant, and the fierce Kerry Mehling in anything she lent her regal body to. Some of the ensemble sections, particularly the unisons, needed more of a profile; they sometimes looked tense and rushed beyond what I think the intention was. All the dancers — Natalie Green, Kelly Kemp, Wendy Rein, Breton Tyner-Bryan, Shaunna Vella, and the others already mentioned — contributed to the choreography.

Men was a collaborative enterprise in other ways as well. Thom Blum and Floor Vahn's soundscape of natural and animal sounds beautifully evoked the natural world, so increasingly absent in the lives of these depraved-deprived people. Elaine Buckholtz' videography added its own poetry. Allen Willner designed the dramatic lighting, Laura Hazlett the fine costumes. What did not work was Mikiko Uesugi's metaphoric use of plastic sheets for chopped-down trees. *

MEN THINK THEY ARE BETTER THAN GRASS

Thurs/6-Sat/8, 8 p.m.; Sun/9, 5 p.m., $25

Z Space at Theater Artaud

450 Florida, SF

www.deborahslater.org

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