Wonderboy mixes original music, storytelling and dance
This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 17, 2009 - Wonderboy, which the Joe Goode Performance Group presents this weekend at the Edison Theatre, features an unexpected luminary: an ultra-sensitive little creature that is played by a puppet. Seven dancers take turns operating this three-foot amalgamation of wood, plaster and cloth, and make it become human. Together they investigate the physical, psychological and emotional dimensions of human experience.
Goode is a San-Francisco based choreographer who established his own troupe in 1986. Trained in modern dance and ballet, he performed in New York for many years with numerous contemporary choreographers, including Sophie Maslow, Twyla Tharp and Merce Cunningham. He formed his own group because he wanted to make dances that were intimate, personal and emotional.
"Dance in the '70s was the opposite of what I was looking for," Goode said. "It was unemotional, formal and abstract. I wanted to deal with the personal: real issues, real people and the fragility of being human. I didn't see anyone else making these sorts of dances."
The question that inspired "Wonderboy" is one that has preoccupied Goode throughout his career: How does an outsider find a place for him - or herself in the world?
"Most artists have only one or two things to say and we find different ways to say them," Goode said. "I'm interested in the role of the outsider, the person who is shunned or left out. We're all fragile and we try to mask our weaknesses, but it's weakness that I celebrate in my work. It's about the beauty and gentleness of humanity, things that often go unnoticed in everyday life."
Wonderboy is, in effect, a physical incarnation of Goode's reflections. He is blessed with supernatural empathy and an extraordinary ability to feel. The piece begins with the boy perched in a window, from which he absorbs the life around him. He sees, hears and feels too much, becoming paralyzed by everyday sights and sounds.
The work proves to be an artist's coming of age story. A youngster internalizes what he sees and has difficulty fitting in until he finds his artistic voice. Only then does he belong to a community.
The project is a result of a close collaboration between Goode and master puppeteer Basil Twist, a San Francisco native who currently lives in New York. Goode, who collaborated with Twist on an earlier project, invited Basil to teach his dancers the intricacies of puppetry.
The work is reminiscent of Japanese Bunraku, a traditional puppet form, in which three masked puppeteers, all of whom are visible to the audience, operate a three-foot tall, realistically scaled puppet. Wonderboy diverges from the Bunraku tradition in that the dancers' faces are revealed. The puppet interacts seamlessly with the dancers, who have learned to manipulate him while still carrying out Goode's challenging choreography.
Praised for his innovation of the modern dance idiom, Goode combines the spoken word, song and visual imagery with contemporary dance. He wrote the dialogue for this piece and incorporated core quotes by his favorite writers into the text.
"Sam Shepard, Christopher Isherwood and Krishnamurti -- these are artists or thinkers I admire," Goode said. "They're all wonderboys in the sense that they possess that precious combination of bravery and sensitivity. They're not afraid to reveal vulnerability in their art."
The music is set to an original score by Carla Kihlstead and Matthias Bossi, a husband and wife team, whom Goode inspired by asking them to create music for a silent French film about a wistful character who sits in a window and yearns to be a part of the world.
With this image in mind, Kihstead and Bossi went away and composed some tunes. The final score, partly composed and partly improvised, captures the puppet's pensive, yet joyful character. Kihlstead, a violinist, enhances the effects of these melodies by playing them on a Stroh violin, a fiddle whose sounds are amplified through an attached brass trumpet.
The second half of the performance features excerpts from Goode's 1996 work Maverick Strain, a comical piece based on the classic American movie "The Misfits," starring Clark Gable, Marilyn Monroe and Montgomery Clift.
"The strain that runs through all of my work is the funny and sad," Goode said. You'll be laughing and suddenly think, 'Oh, this isn't funny'." In Maverick Strain the ensemble plays with the gender cliches of the Western cowboy -- his machismo and rugged individuality.
"In most of these Westerns, the hero goes off lonely and mangy. I poke fun at this American myth." The songs, composed by Beth Custer, are performed live, "very much in the old country boy tradition."
Sydney Norton is a dance and visual arts writer.