Pub date June 7, 2011
WriterJulie Potter


DANCE In the sunlit studio at 499 Alabama St., Jessica Swanson affixed her blonde wig atop loose pin curls to rehearse a scene from Joe Goode’s new work, The Rambler, premiering at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Friday, June 10. She recited a line about how freedom skips a generation as Goode, clutching a cup of coffee, closed his eyes to listen. Then meticulously, word-by-word, he adjusted the script, recording each edit on his open laptop. The rigor continued to clarify every movement and tune for Swanson, who plays a character left behind by a certain rambler.

“We started very simply with the peripatetic impulse to roam in a general way, and then I became interested in what it means for the person who is attached,” Goode said. “The rambler is a romantic figure, particularly in American culture, the wanderer and seeker. So we’ve been asking questions on both ends — about being the rebel and being left.” In addition, his team explored the redemptive quality of moving forward, even without a clear direction, versus staying still. “Dancing is also that — not really about going anywhere, but about movement, feeling the body and its ability to be alive and move.”

Joining forces with Goode, puppeteer Basil Twist created a photographic lens with curtains that will serve as a moving frame to zoom in and scope out, following the action onstage. In the role of scenic designer, Twist provides possibilities for Goode to amplify certain aspects of the production with the aperture. In a rehearsal three weeks prior to the premiere, Swanson also manipulated a life-size puppet of Twist’s making, although its presence in The Rambler is still to be determined.

“We always have about 100 pieces of material and end up using about 20, and decisions really can’t happen until the end when we have all the variables,” Goode explained. Continuing to direct each detail, Goode demonstrated precise and dramatic gestures as Swanson translated the choreography for the puppet. She grasped the molded hand with her human one, skillfully performing for two characters simultaneously. Alongside the puppets, The Rambler also features an original score composed by Jesse Olsen Bay, lighting design by Jack Carpenter, and costumes by Wendy Sparks.

Goode constantly edits his work even after performances begin. “My pieces look very different three years after opening. For me, nothing is fixed,” he said. “I’m not interested in having masterworks that can be caught and frozen in the Louvre.”

The impulse to update and stay current permeates his attitude about legacy as well. “I feel at this point in my career, I want to codify that technique and find some ways to disseminate it. I’m not interested in having my works performed by people who didn’t originally make them, say 25 years from now. I’m more interested in passing along a technique of how to approach work, build it, and keep art-making an exciting pastime. Sharing that journey and discovery is a real service to provide to the world.”

His technique entails taking an idea’s temperature and acknowledging a personal perspective, then approaching the results like a collision, juxtaposing stories and ideas that don’t necessarily go together to render new possibilities.

Now in its 25th year, Joe Goode Performance Group enjoys its new Alabama Street home and dedicated facility. “One of the reasons for having my own space is that I feel in San Francisco we are a little bit bereft of international conversation about dance theater and interdisciplinary art-making. I really want to do a lot of exchange and present an opportunity for people to come, talk about, and show their work — particularly people from out of the country,” Goode said.

“I’d also like to present some kind of a platform series where more established artists can curate and mentor a younger artist and present them while trying to explain their work and why he or she is attracted to it,” he continued. “Again, it’s something you’ll see a lot in Europe — artists curating series — and I think it’s an important thing to do.”

Furthermore, Goode acknowledges the potential for installation work in the vast new space. With impossibly high ceilings, the building can be transformed to accommodate a variety of installations and sets, also of increasing interest to the choreographer: “The proscenium assumes that we’re the professional and you’re the person who gives us money. The separation of feeling and the distance takes away some of the volition of the viewer. When you think about installation work, you have to get involved. You have to make decisions and discover on your own — and then it’s much more personal.”

Mining human terrain to develop his work, Goode champions going deeply into tactile, embodied, and sensual moments. He considers the practice especially relevant in a society that tends toward thinking and technology. “I’m really beginning to understand after so many years my own values about making folk art and the simple connection of delving into material that people can understand,” he said. “I do want to start beating the drum very loudly for this kind of work — an alternative approach that really values the human experience, especially in our troubled times.”

For Goode, making art is a sort of survival technique for living in a world that’s dangerous, threatening, and bewildering. “Its a way of locating myself and understanding where I am in a given time — and hopefully providing others with a kind of perspective.”


Fri/10–Sat/11 and June 16–18, 8 p.m.;

Sun/12, 7 p.m., $19–$49

Yerba Buena Center for the Arts

Novellus Theater

701 Mission, SF

(415) 978-2787