Into the "Not Done"

The Dances of Jean Fogel Zee

by Dave Cook

Jean Fogel Zee wants

to show you glimpses of God. The Austin artist wants each member of her audience to feel the glow of God, not only in her but, through their response to her performance, in each of themselves. To do this, she does not elevate you with ethereal dancing, polite poetic patter, gentle music. She disturbs you with discordant dancing, harsh riffs of phrasing, incongruous images. She knows that God can best be viewed through the sudden cracks in perception that usually occur only by accident, but which she sets out to create deliberately.

Case in point: In her show Wood Over Water, Zee aligned herself and three other dancers on a bench while she repeated a short associative poem like a chant: "There's a push coming from the crack in the wave." The dancers wobbled as if tossed underneath some sea of insanity, one by one drifting off, only to be pulled back by the others, leaving the impression of four dreamers floating in darkness, pulling each other back to sleep. Zee calls the segment "The Prayer." She's not sure herself what it means -- "When I say that piece, I experience all kinds of different sensations in my body, and I feel I'm touching on cultural and social difficulties that plague me as a creative individual" -- and she doesn't expect her audience to be sure, either. "My work is about creating a dimensional experience that's not linear. So whatever people experience is very full and based on sensation and emotion, but you're not going to come away having a clear [idea]."

"The Prayer" has been popping up in Zee's preparatory work for her new show, La Femme de la Croix, premiering this weekend at The Electric Lounge. Inspired by the book Sex and Other Sacred Games, by Kim Chirnin, the work explores "sexuality and how it plays out in society." But Zee says it also draws heavily on issues raised in her childhood: religious upbringing, moving around a lot, attending 11 different parochial schools. "I just had a typically dysfunctional Fifties family situation," she says.

The one constant for Zee as she was growing up was dance: She studied Russian ballet from age six to 16. But then Zee quit dancing due to family problems and "sort of a coming-of-age crisis; a lot of things went by the wayside." This was followed by a sudden family of her own; at age 18, Zee was married with a baby son. At 21, she realized her marriage had been a mistake and moved with her son to the West Coast to study modern dance. She devoted seven years to it -- the last four in a dance troupe -- but although she lists modern dance star Twyla Tharp as an influence, she cites musician Laurie Anderson, jazz music, and the poetry of Rilke and T.S. Eliot as equally important forces in her work.

The turning point for Zee came when she began exploring "Theatre of Life" with Ruth Zaporah as well as "contact improvisation" during the mid-Seventies. The freedom of the form released Zee from what she felt were the sometimes stifling methods of modern dance. "We would do things like create a relationship to the room, have a dialogue with objects," she recalls. "We worked with movement and sound. Sound from a nonlinear point, sound for the sake of sound, for the sake of listening. A lot of observing, learning how to watch, learning how to be in a situation and not make something happen." Her growth as an artist through this experience, as well as the dissolution of her dance troupe, encouraged her to move elsewhere and explore solo performance.

Thus, some 10 years ago, Zee moved to Austin, which "was close to where I grew up," she explains, and near where her mother lives now. Still, she says it was "kind of like jumping off a cliff and not knowing where I was going to land." She had never done solo work, and she had to survive by that artist's staple: waiting tables. "I worked as a waitress three days a week for six, seven years," she says, "and I worked a lot, with anybody and everybody." Finally, she began to get arts grants from the City of Austin, which enabled her to concentrate on performing full time. Highlights of her work since then have included Earth Angels with C.K. McFarland ("more purely theatre than anything I've put myself into"); Divine Lunacy with Heloise Gold ("We call it the `human cartoon,'" she says, adding that the pair will reprise the show next month in New Mexico); and solo shows both in New York at Skidmore College and here in Austin with the Performance Art Church and at her own studio, which she opened five years ago.

Through it all, Zee has continued to jump off cliffs. She brings that sense of danger even to rehearsals, risking her physical balance with every precisely precarious dance step, risking her touch with reality as she spins into the never-neverland of her psyche with episodic, introspective chanting, risking that which many artists aren't willing to: appearing foolish. This is part of her concept of an artist, being "willing to look like a fool, like an idiot, and try something new." When it works, it comes across as tension-relieving humor and makes Zee's shows unique, even in a town where performance art is often served with a healthy dose of comedy. "The humor is the antidote," Zee says, "the best release for all the heavy, serious stuff."

Now, Zee rehearses a humorous sequence in which she rises from a chair to announce that she has found a perfect metaphor for woman: "Woman of the `ring.'" She grows expansive, blustery, boasting of the perfection of this image, slipping into different ridiculous accents and genders, only to be told suddenly by an unseen entity that the metaphor is wrong, at which she plops contemplatively back into the chair, only to leap back up with a new and better metaphor ("Woman of the...`wing.'"). It's clear that, along with her natural abilities in the areas of writing, dancing, and improvisation, Zee has the sense of timing and presence of a stand-up comedian.

Zee's willingness to look foolish also manifests itself in the improvisations she includes in each performance. Her study with Ruth Zaporah taught her to work in the moment, in the immediate, to trust what is going on right now and respond to that. She believes that the fear and tension this creates pushes her to some of the most powerful moments in her shows. "I used to go out there with nothing and it was just terrifying," she says. "I still get terrified because I insist with myself that I want to leave a certain part of it open -- so that I can let other things come in, let [in] the influence of the audience and the particular energy that's being developed between myself and the group of people that are there."

Still, realizing this as an audience member -- or indeed as a dancer in one of her pieces -- does not mean that one can tell when the moment of total spontaneity is taking place; every moment looks sudden and spontaneous. Even the dancers performing with Zee in Wood Over Water did not know what she was going to do at various points in the show. And as I watch her rehearse, I can't tell when she is trying something new. Perhaps it is when she duckwalks gingerly with a makeshift cross, dragging it across the floor with ecstatic, jerking, worried movements. Or when she plays with the traditional dance notion of swinging one's balance from left to right, instead moving in-between, in the area of no-balance, no-control. Or when she breathes sudden words out as she moves, letting go of the semantics of language and feeling the sounds out in her body, sucker-punched by some and slurping others deliciously up from her toes. I can't really tell. Whenever that moment comes that Zee feels the energy of the audience and simply decides to react, that is the time she hopes to shock everyone into a sense of the God in themselves.

Zee says that she can't wait to get La Femme de la Croix out before an audience, because "it's not about `I', it's not about my experience vs. your experience, it's about the energy that exists between, that's going on all the time." Zee calls that energy the unseen, the unspoken. There is something of that in Zee all the time, something of the blind-womb fear in the way she jerks and worries her way across a stage, hand thrusting out for balance, for help. And yet she is always in control. She can be graceful as a swan melting along a surface of a placid lake. More often, however, she evokes a swan out of water, the clumsy creature to which Rilke compared the course of our lives in his poem "The Swan":

This clumsy living that moves lumbering

as if in ropes through what is not done...

Rilke attributed the glorious clumsiness of our lives to the fact that we are constantly moving into the unknown, into the "not done," comparing the smoothness of the swan entering the lake to our moving into the smoothness of death. The joy of Zee is that she is always moving into the "not done," even leaving part of her show incomplete, moving away from death and toward those happy accidents that allow us to see God, if only in flashes. n

La Femme de la Croix will be performed Oct 26-28 at The Electric Lounge.

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