There's the meeting of the eyes, the meaningful look. Breath catches and eyelids flutter shut. Finally, the kiss: unique, simple, extraordinary. Like snowflakes, no two are ever alike.
That's why Ondine and Company's Kiss, a sensually minimalist dance-theater piece exploring the many sides of kissing, works. Under the direction and choreography of Gabrielle O. Mertz, Kiss carves out space and time to examine the stuff human relationships are made of.
Featuring performances by Douglas Campbell, Tammy Dunsizer, Adam Fristoe, Lisa Hamburg and Phaedra Siebert, the 70-minute work examines time, place and sexuality, drawing parallels between heterosexual and homosexual relationships to challenge preconceived notions of what's in a kiss.
Mertz' choreography remains true to its minimalist roots, using pedestrian, everyday movement such as walking or gesturing to make her point. Timing is altered to heighten awareness of the body and its movement through space. A simple step, then, becomes an exploration of the floor against the sole, a transfer of weight that implies weightiness, marks transition.
Individual performances are strong, but Campbell's performance -- especially the clarity of his facial expressions and gestures -- is especially notable. Fristoe, too, brings a unique style of character interpretation to the stage, with a charming awkwardness invoked at the appropriate moments.
Though the slate gray costuming recalls the 1980s fascination with androgyny, there are no mixed messages here. Men kiss men, women kiss women, and men and women kiss each other. In this work of interconnected vignettes extracted from daily life, the art of kissing has a lot to do with being in the right place at the right time.
The central moment of Kiss occurs when the two male characters meet, shake hands, hug platonically then more erotically, and finally kiss. The moment is both hesitant and determinedly sensual; the sequence is repeated a second time. Afterward, same-sex couples begin to dance together as though in a bar or social setting, with the female couple slow dancing and the male couple affecting moves adopted from swing or shag dances. Each couple's movements are performed against opposing walls of the performance space, resulting in a split focus for the viewer. The scene is at best vaguely reminiscent of anything I've seen in a gay bar, but the simple point is made: Human relationships between individuals of any sex or sexual orientation are essentially human.
The use of body language to make a statement about relationships is particularly effective and provides a spot of humor in the otherwise serious piece. Body language, smiles, meaningful looks, a turn of the head -- these make the difference between making out or missing out. Gestures, such as the crossing of legs or placing a hand on another's knee, take on additional significance when the five individuals, sitting in a row of six chairs, continue to change positions until the cycle of behaviors is complete.
Mertz collaborated with jazz composer Eric Reed (The Neville Brothers, Kate Simpkins) on the music, which is performed live by Reed and Clark Vreeland on guitar, drums and keyboard. It simmers with 1970s soul and fusion references, while incorporating abstract percussion elements such as drums and gongs.
The strength of Kiss remains its underlying sensuality. And, if the deliberately sustained pacing and movements become a bit tedious and distance the viewer from the action, the soft, curved shadows resulting from Diane Lassila's lighting design and the emphasis on the body as a medium of personal, intimate communication redeems this choice.
So, why not perform Kiss in the nude? Clothing in this case seems to obscure the point. If Mertz's place among Atlanta's leading avant-garde is to be secured, why not push the envelope just a bit further than is to be expected?
Ondine and Company presents the premiere of Kiss through Aug. 5 at 8 p.m. Thurs.-Sat. and 6 p.m. Sun. at The Performance Space, 1630 DeKalb Ave. $12-15. 404-378-5777.
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