TBA:11/ tEEth, ‘Home Made’: Oral Fixations

tEEth, "Home Made" Photo credit: Aaron Rogosin

A wiry woman stands on stage wearing a sort of ‘50s style swimsuit, bathing cap and goggles. She laughs spasmodically, keens and warbles. The audience laughs, then giggles uncertainly as her howls intensify. Slowly, a glowering, menacing man wielding an axe stalks up behind her.  WHAM! WHAM! He begins chopping the platform to smithereens as she wails on, until she’s left standing on a small wooden square not much bigger than she is.

This was my introduction to tEEth, performing their work Splinter as the concluding installment in at the 2006 Time-Based Art Festival’s Ten Tiny Dances at The Works. It was my first exposure to TBA, tEEth and 10TD, and several of the earlier acts had been so intriguing that I wondered how tEEth could top them. It was sort of like that argument between Jimi Hendrix and Pete Townshend about who would close the Monterey Pop festival. How does anyone follow either of those incendiary acts? But in its Splinter, reprised this week at this year’s 10TD, tEEth topped everything else by literally destroying the small stage. It was precisely the response I often wanted to make when confronted by some pretentious, second-rate performance artist’s attempt to match geniuses like Meredith Monk.

After that, I just had to keep checking out the group’s work, which parlayed an odd fixation on bodily orifices and fluids, disconnected behavior, uncomfortable, often spasmodic gestures and obscure, sometimes disturbing intentions. “I don’t understand what they do,” my wife said, “but I keep going to see them so I can figure it out someday.” We’re not alone. The group’s popularity and acclaim have been growing steadily, both here at home and in Seattle, New Orleans, Austin and other touring destinations. Even when I couldn’t fully grok what was going on, I knew it was more than weirdness for its own sake. I especially liked what I perceived as tEEth’s odd humor. Like the squalling woman in the swimsuit, the parts that seemed like they were supposed to be funny often wound up … not, while others that seemed really twisted inexplicably made me laugh.

The weirdness continues in tEEth’s current TBA showcase, Home Made, which has just added another performance Thursday night at their gorgeous studio called The Mouth in the artists’ building Zoomtopia. Home Made does contain plenty of choreographer Angelle Hebert’s David Lynchian bite-marks: demented, uncalled-for laughter, shouts and other wordless vocal exclamations; the contrast between composer Philip Craft’s placid music with disturbing onstage imagery and piercing sound effects; and similar contrast between graceful gestures and jerky, primal spasms. tEEth is all about contrast, between inside and out, soothing and scary, hard and soft.

Still, this is tEEth’s most accessible — though hardly conventional — creation. As it concerns a classic subject — a couple acting out their relationship dynamics in dance — many of the ideas and even some gestures will be familiar to anyone with a passing acquaintance with modern dance. But familiar subject matter and even materials don’t necessarily mean that Hebert and Kraft’s take isn’t original, even by their own lofty standards. Otherwise there would be no reason to write another love song or mystery or war story. The infinite number of permutations in human relationships always provide room for more.

The loveliest moments actually happen at the beginning, when the dancers are inside a translucent cloth within which the magnificent dancers Keely McIntyre and Noel Plemmons writhe like animate shadows, along with a video camera whose extreme close up images are projected onto a screen behind them, giving both inside and outside views of their relationship and various body parts — especially, of course, their mouths. Other choreographers might have devoted a whole dance to the beauty of those shadows, but tEEth is always more concerned with what’s going on underneath and inside. The dancers’ emergence from the shadow cloth sets the theme: we’re now going to see what’s going on between them, without the lovely comforting, obscuring facade —including, eventually, clothing.

Employing only a couple of props — the cloth and a corded microphone that violates the dancers’ mouths; both are put to other creative uses too — the dancing couple seems to proceed in narrative style through phases of their relationship, from playful innocence to conflict, anger, withdrawal, clinginess, ecstasy, reconciliation. Major episodes are signaled by light and music changes. (The group’s lighting and sound design are critical keys to their performances’ power.) Their faces are as expressive and important as their other body movements. Home Made‘s palette of neutral colors — beiges and creams and greys — accentuates the contrast with occasional spasms of extreme behavior. (They’ve done similar things with office attire.) Again, I chuckled and frowned at seemingly inappropriate moments. By the end, when the pair stand together, reclothed yet hardly “normal” (more revealing facial spasms), the comfortable image of a couple standing side by side now seems much more complicated, because we know (and more important for any artwork, feel) intimately what’s going inside and between them.

Making the familiar strange, and thereby exploring unacknowledged truths about human behavior, is a primary goal of modern art. At tEEth shows, I often feel as though I’m watching truly alien creatures, or prehistoric reptiles inhabiting the bodies of contemporary humans. Yet their superficial actions uncomfortably resemble what we see, but don’t really see, every day. The performances seem to peer back through the millennia, exposing the reptilian brain and primal instincts that underlie our social veneers.

Revealing what’s really going on inside us seems to be what a lot of tEEth is about: using movement and expression to penetrate human artifice, forcing us to confront ugliness — or more precisely, our ideas of ugliness — and to pierce the papered-over facades from which we construct our social conventions. Beneath our smooth surfaces lurk spooky, suppurating portals to our primordial progenitors, who still inhabit us and maybe even control us more than we’d like to admit. Behind the soft lips and superficial smiles, the company’s oral fixations remind us, lie something harder, and sharp. Sharp as an ax.

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