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Dance Brigade

'Cavewomen... The Next Incarnation!'

by Karen Hildebrand

February 1, 2003 -- Dance Mission Theater, San Francisco, CA

More theater than dance, “CaveWomen... The Next Incarnation!” is a rousing combination of satiric verse, taiko drumming, martial arts, and dramatic storytelling that makes a biting statement about the cultural effects of U.S. and male dominance.

Dedicated fans of Krissy Keefer's feminist, leftist political point of view may find themselves less rocked by this show than expected. Not that it isn’t well-conceived and produced -- it is. It’s just that Keefer, who's been stirring things up in the San Francisco dance scene since the ‘70s, isn’t doing anything new here. Though billed as a sequel to "Cave Women 2002," this isn’t "Cave Women II." Rather, it’s a repeat of last year's show -- albeit with some modification/revision -- various parts of which had been shown prior to the opening of the full production in January 2002.

Even so, Keefer's message is just as timely and necessary as it was a year ago, and there are likely a fair number of Keefer/Dance Brigade neophytes who will view her work for the first time over its month-long run. Judging by the standing ovation of opening night," CaveWomen" still raises pulse rates.

The evening begins with Keefer and the Dance Brigade of brazen broads in leather miniskirts and boots who call themselves the Art Liberation Army, brandishing weapons and crowd-rousing rhetoric in the alley adjacent to Dance Mission Theater on 24th Street. Their mission? To “liberate all sentient beings by whatever means possible. . . .We would like to respond with a handshake and a smile, but sometimes that just doesn’t work....We study Kung Fu.”

After watching sword dances and a cat woman who rappels off the roof, the audience files into the building where several vignettes are staged along the entry way: in one, a woman shrieks and rips newspapers; in another, a woman keens and chants. Yet another features a bare-breasted female swathed in white netting.

In a segment entitled “The Cavern,” Keefer introduces the 10th century yogini women of India and Tibet: lady of the rainstorm, lady of the knife, lady of heaven, etc. The dancers are dressed in bustiers adorned with sequins. They whip their wild hair, utter primal cries, strike martial arts postures, and eventually take their places behind drums.

This may be the best part of the evening. To watch seven strong and beautiful women deliver some wailing good taiko drumming is truly liberating. They hold nothing back and if this doesn’t make your blood boil, you might want to consider electric shock treatment.
Following some martial arts-based movement (the program credits Lingmei Zhang with wushu choreography), the dancers don brown cloaks and chant a haunting verse in unison, “...we tear the flesh of lies/we have no fear--to die....You can call us **** , white trash, or chink/we’ll wrap you in the noose of truth before we die.”

When Keefer motions, the audience follows her through a door to “The Slaughterhouse,” a space where iron railings, ladders, plastic dryer exhaust hose, and orange hazard netting hang from the ceiling. (The set is designed and constructed by Lynda Rieman with Mary Williams and George Matthews.) The air is foggy and three suspended tv screens project the image of burning grounds and, later the scene of a tongu- flicking reptile ripping the hide of another animal. The performers now wear black pants and vests and hang from a trapeze, wave swords, and dance the frug. Keefer enters in spike heels, black satin jacket and blue silk gloves. She sits with her back to the audience and, in one of the most compelling of the evening’s narrative segments, relates the story of a carnival knife throwing act from the point of view of the female assistant as she’s strapped to a spinning disc with knives coming at her rapid-fire fast.

For the final scene, the audience again moves, this time to “The Temple,” where the room glows saffron with eastern religious images projected on walls, ceiling and floor. The dancers now wear white slips and we hear Yoko Ono speak of losing her self-confidence: “I started to stutter.” Debby Kajiyama becomes a whirling dervish as a rising crescendo of movement takes place so close to the audience that one could easily take a foot in the face. The floor shakes. The women become the target of a public stoning and eggs filled with red coloring smash against the wall like gun shots leaving spatters of blood everywhere.

As the piece ends, we’re surrounded by gold-leaved trees on the walls and the women lift Lena Gatchalian who then loops a hand and foot onto a dangling rope. The group winds her up like maypole, and when they let go, she spins, crouched into a ball, in a circle of light. But perhaps more poignant is what follows. The piece has officially ended, but before taking their bow, the dancers encircle Gatchalian to protect and support her while she regains her balance and orientation.

Keefer and her ensemble of Tina Banchero, Sarah Bush, Karen Elliot, Gatchalian, Kajiyama, and Kimberly B. Valmore are solid, muscular, and fierce -- not to mention multitalented. Acting ability, martial arts, dance training, and endurance are all called for in this show, as well as the aforementioned drumming skill. The entire ensemble is onstage for the duration of the evening and with nary a falter, they make it look easy. Keefer, who wrote much of the narrative text, is better in her acting role than as a member of the dance ensemble. But this is a small quibble with an ambitious entertainment that celebrates women and denounces their persecution.

Edited by Mary Ellen Hunt

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