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Dancing Fool

[whitespace] Joe Goode Joe Goode's hapless antics

By Apollinaire Scherr

In private, so as to preserve their comfortable diffidence and not appear too worshipful, SF performance artists tell before-and-after stories about Joe Goode. Before they saw his group, they felt torn between using the methods of traditional theater, on the one hand, and hauling onstage the mess of their undigested experience, on the other. Afterward, they could see how to work like a collagist, creating characters and conflicts from whatever was close to their urbane West Coast hearts, without the obstacles of a story's through-line. They could see how to break into lush, partnered dancing without its resembling a corny interlude from a musical; how to speak powerfully, without being an actor, and sing like a diva, but a different kind of diva making a different kind of art, where the rude phenomena of millennial life--convenience boys, unavoidable personal and geographic catastrophes, enlightenment in the pool at the Best Western in Ventura--could command center stage.

Given the sophistication of his methods and admirers--and every year for the last 15, there's been a new crop of both--it's surprising how much Joe Goode loves the simple, what he calls "the childlike part of me, naïve and beautiful." In last year's avant-garde musical Deeply There, the protagonist introduced himself as "Frank, a name I like because it means 'frank,' which is something I aspire to."

For its current season at Intersection for the Arts, Goode's company of five dancer-performers, joined by four actors from UC-San Diego's graduate program, takes its theme from its own penchant for simplicity. At the center of Hapless is the archetypal simpleton, the fool, doing what he does best: mocking and embracing and blasting folly--here, our stupefied obsession with happiness.

At Boogaloos one afternoon, Goode talks about his plans for Hapless over lots of eggs and coffee. "I'm very interested in the unlucky, undirected, unchosen outsider: the oaf, the fool, the lunk. The fool character--the birdash in Native American history and the fool in medieval culture--is always on the outside. He's revered as a shaman, as having special insights and wisdom, but also scorned for being not normal. All my characters are an emanation of that fool."

Goode played one such fool in The Disaster Series (1989). In a worn tweed coat and a matching hat a couple sizes too big, and with an old-fashioned watering can in hand, he flooded a little model landscape, toppling its tiny white house. Alternately magisterial and stuttery, he offered insights into the absurd: "Anything can happen. You can be born soft and sensitive, like my uncle, and grow up driving a truck for Coca-Cola. You can have a whole singing career on one lung. You can spend all afternoon watching the wallpaper move around, feeling the cabinets, the sun creeping up your leg into your underpants. In-n-nappropriate. T-t-too big."

A dumb big-haired blonde, as weightless as a guardian angel, was the foremost fool in Remembering the Pool at the Best Western (1990), asking stumpers that the beached protagonist took the whole show to answer: "Have you ever stood outside yourself, only it wasn't you? Have you ever felt a quiet so quiet?"

Goode's fools are often out of scale. Deeply There opened with a duet between tall, big-boned Goode and a kid, Willis Bigelow, whom he twirled like a baton. "I have a lot of images in my work of being so huge that I couldn't possibly fit in," Goode says. "That comes from being big, but I think it also comes from being alienated. The great tragedy of [gay] childhood is that we are essentially other. It's a huge, huge realization." In conversation, as in his work, Goode inflects peculiarly gay experiences toward the universal. "I think very few people feel, 'Oh, I'm just the right scale for what's going on here.' We either feel too small and clearly overwhelmed by the velocity and speed at which things are happening or too lethargic and slow and bloated to get in sync with it."


Goode words from Joe.


According to Goode, we feel especially hapless about happiness. "The times I've posed the question to myself 'Are you happy?' haven't worked out very well for me. The answer always comes back 'Well, the glass is half-empty. Well, I'm sort of happy. I'm not doing this, I don't have that ...' There's something backwards about the question. And the more I practice meditation and my art, I'm beginning to understand that it's not about being happy, it's about being present with what is."

I think, "Present with what is?" There's Zen in the air: the anything-can-happen refrain in The Disaster Series; the protagonist's out-of-body experience in the pool at the Best Western; even the title, Deeply There, not to mention the notion, as paradoxical as a Zen koan, of a wise fool. Joe Goode: the postmodern Buddhist performance artist?

I know plenty of dancing Buddhists. It's a particularly fruitful combination, given the wakeful thoughtlessness dance requires. Plus, when you're a dancer--as broke as a holy fool with no way out any time soon--it helps to enjoy being present with what is. But Joe Goode is talky, campy and flip--qualities "Buddhist" doesn't readily bring to mind.

When I tell Goode my difficulty imagining him on a meditation pillow, he manifests Buddha nature by not swatting me. "There's a wrong-headed idea," he simply points out, "that Buddhists are all little monks, bowing and scraping, very quiet and unobtrusive. I think there are other ways to practice the Buddhist principles that are very dynamic, very energetic and fun-loving. Believing life is an illusion, you look at it from a lot of different angles. And that's the great fun of making art for me. You get to go into new territory, and under the umbrella of art making, you can be as odd as you want."

The Joe Goode Performance Group presents Hapless at Intersection for the Arts, 446 Valencia St. Performances run Jan. 21-24 at 8pm. Call 626-3311.

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From the January 18, 1999 issue of the Metropolitan.

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