Fog Beast - Photo by Jessica Swanson

Levity and Loss in One Pounce: A Review of Fog Beast’s THE FOX AND THE DONKEY and BAD HERE DAY

by Jai Arun Ravine

OUTFOXED

“The Fox and the Donkey” starts almost accidentally. While the audience is still milling about, chatting, getting drinks at the bar and finding their seats, Danny Nguyen (The Donkey) separates himself imperceptibly from the crowd at the front and stands unassumingly in the corner upstage. About 30 seconds later, Andrew Ward walks from the back of the space to stand behind him. Then from the audience follows Melecio Estrella with his guitar, and Mo Miner (The Fox). Now it’s clear: they’re all waiting in line.

This image evokes a host of cultural expectations and rules of social etiquette around how we’re supposed to interact with other people while waiting in line, including how much distance is acceptable between yourself and the person in front of you. Polite ignorance is custom. Contact is expressly forbidden.

Each person waits with a distinctly different tone. Nguyen is very patient, quiet and still, arms crossed in front of his body. Ward is the non sequitur of the group, the one who takes a very loud phone call. Estrella minds his own business with his guitar. At the end of the line, Miner fidgets with visible annoyance and impatience. Ward nudges Nguyen with “Hey, don’t I know you?” and starts talking about doing a manual labor job together. At the end of their conversation, Nguyen squats and Ward jumps on his back and they lumber off, transforming the image from two people waiting in line to a man on a donkey.

Miner’s interaction with Estrella is much different. It starts with Miner’s curiosity; she touches the side pocket of his pant leg, then nuzzles her nose into the back of his knee. At each moment of contact Estrella is immediately angered and on the offensive. Miner responds nonverbally, defending herself with a kind of nonchalant confrontationalism, almost like a teenager but not only that. She starts with a series of defensive (So what? I don’t know! Whatever) facial expressions, but then starts to take those expressions into the physicality of her neck, collarbones and arms, so that her whole body responds texturally in that way, melding her human demeanor with her fox one.

She is obviously crossing Estrella’s personal space boundary, but it becomes clear that she does so because she is someone who communicates through touch. Unfortunately, Estrella does not. He shouts at her to get away as he would to a dog, excessively, violently. Miner still doesn’t verbally respond, and after she leaves Estrella calls her a bitch, which seals the gendered dynamic of their interaction in an uncomfortable way.

The lights change to two long panels, one white and one dark. Nguyen dances within the panel of light, embodying The Donkey. He runs limply in a loop, his arm absently slapping himself, softly banging his feet against the wall when he jumps. He alternates between this loose, mechanical work horse and expansive, tenuous movement, while Miner does a quick series of flicks and muscle flexions in the dark, crouches and waits.

Then Estrella and Ward enter the space both wearing camouflage shirts of the type typically worn by deer hunters. They embody a kind of animal masculinity that rustles through the trees. Their duet alternates between bro-ing out and weighted movements that seem to mimic undergrowth and old growth forest.

Next, Nguyen crawls on the diagonal on hands and feet, his head released toward the floor. Miner executes an intricate sequence of creative strategies and experiments in which she tries to figure out how to utilize and fit herself through the structure of his body. Sometimes she hesitates slightly, waiting for the right moment. Many of her exquisite movements happen so quickly that they take me by surprise.

I recall my image of her as a defensive teenager from before, and small hints of her beginning movement evoke a complimentary sense of self-conscious yet grandiose presentationalism, but it becomes so much more than that. Her leaps and brushstrokes across the space are broad and joyous, interspersed with very intense knots of detail in the gestures of her head, wrists and toes. She achieves a specificity much like the arctic fox who, sensing and tracking its prey three feet underneath the snow, listens with the tension of its whole body.

Then she builds a tableaux—an outdoor hunting scene—with the men. She positions Estrella with his guitar seated on Nguyen’s tabletop back, and Ward standing to the side with a rifle, grabbing pelts of fur hidden underneath audience members’ chairs and a roll of blankets. The lights come up on them and like a painting come to life they start singing. As she dances, anxiety slowly overcomes me as I realize what the men are singing about. One of their final lyrics is “we’ll kill her to death,” but that that won’t be all, and that “the hunt is ever calling.”

“The hunt” begins in earnest with all four dancing together. The three men move as a group while Miner sifts and slips through their paths, evading them, still using the extent of her length and wrapping the space with her limbs.

In a dramatic and literal moment, all three men stand pointing their arms at her, mimicking rifles, and she dies. In a grossly disturbing series of snapshots, the men pose for photos with their dead fox, moving from one frozen tableaux to another. Horrifically, the men pick her up and position her limbs, so that she becomes a hollowed out, taxidermied trophy. After all four join in a darkly comic “victory dance,” the men haul Miner off draped over one of their backs.

As they leave I’m left with the weight of gendered violence and troubling questions about what it means to “be an animal.” I thought about the very direct relationship between hunting and war, which are both rituals central to how men are socialized and how masculinity is culturally constructed in America. Sexism and misogyny, and the desire to kill what you do not understand or what is more powerful and cunning than you, are actually integral components of that socialization and construction, in a world in which man sees nature not as something within himself, but as something he must distance himself from and dominate.

Indeed, the two dude-bros behaved more like animals than The Fox ever would.

BE HERE NOW

The setting for “Bad Here Day” is a kind of eulogy for a person referred to as “The Gingerbread Girl.” She is described as a sort of “be here now” figure, the kind of person who is always the only one dancing at a party. She has helped the others cut through the deafening “noise” of life to be able to hear (and be “here”) and showed them “how to get along” and create meaningful connection.

One of the sections features another effective use of tableaux. Here, one dancer (The Gingerbread Girl) is always in motion, undulating through the scene with an ecstatic expression. The other five dancers sit around in chairs holding fixed poses, but continue to talk all at once over each other. They shift together, moving through a series of poses, ignoring The Gingerbread Girl and the plane of reality to which she’s attuned.

Another interesting section features The Gingerbread Girl making sounds that mimic whale song. The others respond to the song by taking the texture into their bodies, literally brushing the sound onto their clothing and skin and then taking it even deeper into their spines. In yet another group section, something similar occurs texturally and tonally. The group shifts from one kinesthetic state to another, the lines between them subtle and overlapping, each person expressing the state slightly differently. When one person shifts, the shift ripples across the group, and suddenly everyone is expressing a new state—from leaning and lunging to brushing to slapping to elbows and shoulders jarring.

Fog Beast’s punch line is the way they juxtapose and code-switch between the “dancey” and the pedestrian. Their joke rests in the moments they choose to punctuate heavy tension with a release into lightness, as well as the moments in which that lightness drops out into a quiet still.

As the piece concludes, the lights of the disco ball return, but we’re no longer at the same party from before. The lights bring attention to the edges of the space—a levity now dented. The Gingerbread Girl leaves, and the remaining five dancers stand in a wide arc, arms out to their sides, their wrists crossing, hands fluttering, pulsing.

As the disco lights flare and go out, I’m left with a sudden weight, a deep sense of grief I didn’t expect to feel.

Fog Beast’s production of “Bad Here Day” and “The Fox and the Donkey” continues at the Joe Goode Annex in San Francisco on November 21 and 22. Go to Eventbrite for tickets and more information.