Still telling it like it is, choreographer Deborah Slater celebrates the 20th anniversary of her innovative dance company this week with the world premiere of “Men Think They Are Better Than Grass.”
Inspired by a line from the poem “The River of Bees” by two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning poet W.S. Merwin, the evening-length work uses text, animation, visual design, an original score, video and, of course, dance to explore our relationship with the planet.
“Jayne Wenger, my co-director, knows his poetry,” Slater told The Examiner. “She gave me the voice that I used to inspire all the movement.”
Slater and Wenger are using 20 of Merwin’s poems, ranging in length from five or six lines to a page and a half, and have assembled a truly extraordinary lineup of readers.
The thought of hearing Peter Coyote, Michael Krasny, Ellen Sebastian Chang, Ann Brebner, Bob Ernst, James Carpenter, Arwen Anderson, Brenda Wong Aoki, Anne Galjour, Sean San Jose and others read over an original score by Carla Kihlstedt, Matthias Bossi and Thom Blum should be enough to send anyone pirouetting to one of the company’s seven performances.
“Merwin talks a lot about our relationship to the planet and other living things,” Slater said. “We hold ourselves apart as something privileged. We seem to have missed the point that what we do to the Earth, the sky and the trees around us affects us. If we destroy an environment that has a reciprocal relationship with us, we will suffer in turn.
“As a species, everyone comes and goes. But we will probably be the first species to participate in our own demise.”
Slater began working on the piece three years ago, going on several retreats with Wenger to further shape her ideas.
Nothing about the conception and performance is routine. The company’s nine dancers, who range in size and shape from ballerinas to linebackers, also are choreographers in their own right, whose movements arise from their being.
Slater gives them tasks, to which they respond with authentic movement. She then edits, rearranges and directs, allowing the dancers to participate in a collective creative process.
“All the movement we do arises from emotional places in Merwin’s poetry,” she said. “I’m not trying to lay statistics on people; I’m trying to talk about a perspective and various ways of looking at things. I intend to give people lots and lots of images, so when they walk out the door, the world will look slightly different. If I can pull that off, I’ve succeeded.”
IF YOU GO
Deborah Slater Dance Theater
Where: Z Space at Theater Artaud, 450 Florida St., San Francisco.
When: Preview at 8 p.m. Friday, opens 8 p.m. Saturday, 5 p.m. Sunday and May 9, 8 p.m. May 6-8
Tickets: $20 to $25
Contact: (800) 838-3006, www.brownpapertickets.org