July 11 2014 06:55 PM

Collaboration between So Say We All and San Diego Dance Theater puts trauma on stage, bringing together words and movement

Justin Hudnall (center) tells his personal story about PTSD while Jean Isaacs San Diego Dance Theater artists interact with him.
Photo by Kinsee Morlan

Comedian Brian Simpson is the kind of exuberant guy who immediately energizes a room, typically by making people laugh. At this moment, though, he's standing in the middle of a dance floor and, as the true tale he's telling draws closer to the moment when he grabs a gun, the handful of folks watching the rehearsal aren't even close to giggling. They're rapt.

A plane rumbles over the White Box Live Arts performance space in Point Loma as Simpson recounts the vivid, tragic story of his life as a foster kid.

"It started at the age of 5," he says. "My mom disappears, leaves us with her mother. A year later, my brother and I are taken away from our grandma for being left home alone. We moved in with our aunt who couldn't take care of us. We were then put into foster care."

In rapid fire, Simpson lists the homes he was moved in and out of; meanwhile, three dancers match the solemn mood with quick, sharp movements that convey the chaos and coldness he experienced as a child. When the story reaches important points, the dancers often freeze, which brings the attention back to the storyteller.

Choreographer Jean Isaacs of San Diego Dance Theater sits behind a small table, taking notes on a clipboard as Simpson and the dancers do their thing. Justin Hudnall, executive director of So Say We All, a literary performance and education troupe, is making mental notes.

"Brian, stop moving so much," Hudnall says during a break in the rehearsal. "You're just pacing. Just plant; move with purpose."

Isaacs agrees and works with her dancers to slow their movements to better convey a sense of unfolding nightmare.

Isaacs and Hudnall are just weeks away from their upcoming "Damaged Goods" performance—happening Friday, July 18, through Sunday, July 20, at White Box. The collaboration stems from Isaacs catching Hudnall and artist Margaret Noble's performance at last year's Live Arts Fest. Isaacs was impressed by the quality of the piece and approached Hudnall to talk about working together. Those conversations ended up focusing on the idea of intense, personal trauma.

"We just decided, you know what, instead of just trying to dance around it, why don't we just challenge ourselves and make an entire show based around stuff you're not supposed to say in public?" Hudnall says. "STDs, PTSD, foster care."

"This is a naughty show at times," Isaacs adds later.

"Damaged Goods" includes So Say We All storytellers Hudnall, Simpson and April Ventura and San Diego Dance Theater artists Liv Isaacs-Nollet, Zaquia Salinas, Trystan Loucado and Rachel Holdt. Holdt is also creating a video component. Each storyteller takes center stage as the dancers and the video work to convey the emotion behind the stories. Every so often, the dancers interact with the storytellers.

Damaged Goods8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, July 18 and 19; 6:30 p.m. Sunday, July 20
White Box Live Arts · 2590 Truxtun Road, Suite 205, in Liberty Station· $20
sosayweallonline.com · sandiegodancetheater.org

"I said my genitals looked like Flaming Hot Cheetos," Ventura says during her rehearsal as the dancers behind her frolic with an industrial vacuum, using the phallic hose to further sexualize the piece and eventually blow air—Marilyn Monroe-style—up Ventura's skirt.

"Movement suggests something while words are real concrete," Isaacs explains. "So, we try to get the feeling, you know? Otherwise, we're just pantomiming—musical theater does that. For us, it's about figuring out the mood and the temperature and the texture and the restraint."

The video and the dancers' movements are subtle when it's important for the audience to listen. For fans of dance, Isaacs and Hudnall have allowed for a few moments to highlight just the movements.

Combining dance and text is nothing new, but Isaacs is quick to note that the combination can sometimes be horribly cheesy, particularly when the dancers are reciting the lines. Isaacs and Hudnall have worked hard to make their art forms merge in a way that seems less forced.

"Ira Glass was doing a collaboration in New York with a Los Angeles contemporary-dance company, and his sound bite about his show was, 'Storytelling and dance: two art forms that have no business being together,'" Hudnall laughs, employing is best voice impression of the host of the public-radio storytelling show This American Life. "But we always use visuals in VAMP"—So Say We All's ongoing performance series—"to extenuate rather than compete... So, we've learned to be symbiotic with visuals. Now it's like stepping back and allowing the narration to happen while the dancers essentially tell the emotional content of the story. It works."

Near the end of the rehearsal, Simpson approaches Hudnall with an excited burst of thoughts. The performance has him working outside his comfort zone, he says, but it's awesome and he's digging it. He tells Hudnall that he's been flabbergasted by watching the creation of an original dance piece unfold in front of him.

"The dancers don't realize how brilliant they are," Simpson says. "Watching them work, it was like they have one brain... They'll say something like, 'You know that twist—that one where you move your right leg? This time, move your left leg." And they know exactly what they're talking about. They remember every move."

The dancers, too, have gained insight into the craft of storytelling. The new appreciation for the disparate art forms among the performers is something Hudnall and Isaacs hope transfers to the audience, possibly expanding both their patron bases. Hudnall and Isaacs themselves have each learned a lot about the other's world.

"Dance is so much more intense," Hudnall says to Isaacs. "Storytellers get away with so much shit as artists; we're just judged for so much less."

"Well, we have nothing to work with aside from our bodies," Isaacs answers.

"Dancers are constantly breaking themselves down physically," Hudnall says. "And we're breaking ourselves down emotionally, trying to get to that one true sentence."

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