Where there is futility and restlessness, there can also be hope, depth, love, honor, and plenty of humor—this emerged as a thesis of “Loose Gravel,” a collection of more than thirty vignettes of dance, movement, theatre, and absurdity. It was the ambitious first performance of Frank Wo/Men Collective, a new group of Austin- and New York City–based artists, most of them alumni and students of the Department of Theatre and Dance at the University of Texas at Austin. Contemplative, skilled, inventive, and often hilarious, the two-hour performance, collaboratively developed by the seven-member collective, was a heartening beginning to 2017.
Headed by producer and artistic director Kelsey Oliver, a cast of six arresting, versatile dancers appeared in various groupings and wildly different episodes: A man-cat taunted his kerchiefed owner and clawed walls made of bubble wrap (designed, along with the rest of the spare set and warm lighting, by Chris Conard). Two dancers in vintage swimsuits, swim caps pulled down over their eyes, performed acro-yoga to a soundtrack of patchworked foreign speech. One dancer toyed with a saxophone while two others “helped each other stretch,” all three emphasizing the ridiculously sexual appearances of those actions. Despite its theatrical prowess, the show looked to dance for much of its sensibility, as well as for absurdity, which was often underpinned by reverence. Alexa Capareda’s cheeky drag performance of Basil’s Act III variation from “Don Quixote,” complete with macho flourishes and a finger spinning in the air to mark the pirouettes, rivaled the performances of Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo.
The duets, mesmerizing and sensuous but incorporating the mundane, deserved a serious look. In one, Oliver and Mario Alberto Ramirez entangled their bodies while eating (and doing other things with) carrot sticks and beef jerky, and in another, Oliver and Dannon O’Brien applied, and stripped off, body waxing strips. (This riff was bolstered by Oliver’s apparent personal stance against hair removal, first displayed as she slowly lifted weights over her head in an opener identified, in the set list, as “Bearded Lady.”) Oliver also danced two duets with Capareda. In the first, they wore white T-shirts and black pants—each was a modern-day, gender-fluid Everyman—moving shoulder to shoulder to a lilting aria. In the second, they exchanged lifts while each recited lines from a traditional recipe, exposing a desire to savor tradition but exasperation at its irrelevance. “Why is this so specific?!” Oliver demanded. “Pork butt!” Capareda announced gleefully.
The ensemble held their right hands up in an oath and then proceeded to recite the Pledge of Allegiance. In the process, they slapped each other’s cheeks, mistook the works, sighed, and interrupted each other, but they completed it. As it was just two weeks before Inauguration Day, the show could’ve ended there, but in fact, life continues, and the recitation was followed by several more episodes. In all, the performance was two hours long, without an intermission, but despite a small number of the less-funny episodes that ventured close to the didactic, the audience was packed and rapt, albeit cold and uncomfortable. Austin is suffering from a dearth of affordable performance venues, and “Loose Gravel” took place in a sectioned-off area of an unheated, seemingly uninsulated warehouse that serves as a workspace for visual artists, with half the audience sitting in mismatched chairs and the other half standing. While this environment certainly contributed to the novelty and memorability of the performance, it was far from ideal, especially since the performance weekend saw a rare snap of below-freezing temperatures. Costume curator E. L. Hohn incorporated coats, charmingly, into as many costumes as possible.
And since the two patio heaters that burned throughout the show did little to take the edge off the cold, one couldn’t fault the cast, really, for the onstage, sing-song request for donations at the end of the show, as they literally shivered in their leotards and waited to jump back into their coats. From an analytical perspective, though, it takes guts to avoid this kind of self-effacement—“We’re just silly young artists; won’t you support our fun?”—but when the artists to whom we devote our evening and our emotions indulge in it, we feel sort of like dupes. Nothing much about the performance, however, confirmed that we were duped. Our needs were symbiotic. Here’s to spring.