FLUID MEASURE PERFORMANCE COMPANY
at Randolph Street Gallery, April 9 and 10
Imagine that you're having dinner with your wittiest friends and they're telling you what they've discovered about their families. Your friends use wit as a scalpel, but since they love their families despite the problems their stories are humane and moving. Now imagine that your friends are dancing nonstop at the same time--leaning against each other and falling, throwing themselves at each other and being caught, making tender, caressing gestures--and that the dance tells half the story. That doubled experience is many things at once: entertaining, moving, funny, painful, and thought-provoking.
The three members of the Fluid Measure Performance Company are actually friends of mine, but they need not be to produce the impression described. The storyteller of the group, Patty Pelletier, lives down the street, and we both patronize the video store that she describes in The Yogi, the Midwife and Me. From its long row of pornographic videos her three-year-old son Liam plucks a tape whose cover shows a naked woman with huge breasts. Momentarily confused about whether her son is prematurely sexually aware or whether he simply wants to suckle, Pelletier is thrown into a crisis of doubt about how she's raising her children. Should she still be nursing Liam? Should she follow her liberal ideas and allow him to masturbate, even during a PTA meeting? Pelletier never really answers her own questions, but her portrayal of a liberated family is as entertaining as the costume she wears throughout: huge, drooping breasts that are "a badge of motherhood" (constructed by Nancy Melvin).
Since the work's premiere two years ago Pelletier has added new sections in which a character called Zeus (Martin Stewart) is introduced to represent the male nature; unfortunately these sections are too didactic. Pelletier's timing was slightly off throughout. Perhaps the intervening two years have made the questions she asks herself seem less urgent.
Although Kathleen Maltese trained at the School of the Art Institute as a performance artist, she primarily dances now. Her works are the most conceptually sophisticated in the company, going furthest in combining text and movement. Her premiere, Fidelity, initially seemed to be about jealousy. Maltese seems drawn to a rotund man (Steve Rosen) holding a fiddle: she keeps glancing over her shoulder at him and turning to him as if to say something. Between glances, she runs one hand down the inside of the opposite arm until she reaches her biceps, when she clenches her arm and body into a tight, compressed form. She repeats this movement, slowly and luxuriously at first, then accelerating the pace until she's in a frenzy. She stops moving and starts telling us about a man holding a violin while standing on a Chicago street corner in 1925. As she tells the man's life story, it becomes clear that the man is her father. She brings the story up to date, to his recent death, then circles back and says that what she doesn't understand is why her father always wanted to live someone else's life.
Through the rest of Fidelity Maltese re-creates her parents' courtship. Rosen and Donna Mandel (the third Fluid Measure member) play her parents well, capturing their conversational rhythms; a mimed game of tennis stands in for the pleasant competitive games the family played. When Maltese locates the cause of her father's bitterness, she goes back to the frenzied clenching of her biceps that introduced the dance, as if to say that her own anxieties can be traced to her parents' ultimately failed courtship. Maltese keeps the pacing of her story tight and her straightforward movement interesting, changing the floor patterns and using other devices to vary it.
In Necessary Steps Mandel, like Maltese in Fidelity, finds the root of her current suffering in her parents' lives. While the stage is still dark we hear the sound of dripping water. When the lights come up they reveal Mandel standing center stage while four other performers (Glenda Baker, Lauri Macklin, Maltese, and Laurie Lee Moses) dip their cupped hands into glass bowls of water and let the water slide back into the bowls. Mandel--the most accomplished dancer in the company--performs a solo that keeps her rooted in one spot even while different parts of her body initiate the rounded, weighted movement. One of the other performers gives Mandel a knife, which she looks at wonderingly for a moment; then she repeats the solo with the knife in her hand. This gives the solo a dangerous quality, and when Mandel swings the knife toward her belly suggests self-destruction. Mandel seems to have a nervous breakdown, grunting and lunging with the knife until the other performers persuade her to drop it. Macklin comes forward to explain to the audience that Mandel has lost something important to her. Then Mandel explains that it was her mother, who "first gave birth. Then she took her life away from me. Then she reappeared as a droplet of water that fell from the sky." Mandel leans on each performer in turn, and when each steps abruptly away, Mandel falls but catches herself. This succinct dance ends with Mandel dancing alone, falling but catching herself, to the sound of droplets of water falling.
The company's collaborative work, Escape Velocity, combines falling and weighted movement with spoken text about not fitting into simple categories. Although it's as entertaining and visually pleasing as the other works, it's more loosely structured and doesn't have the transitions that would push the story forward. Their stories of their families, honest but not lacerating, are much more compelling.