Tracing the lineage of postmodern dance through four generations of dancemakers and thinkers in one program is an ambitious concept, one that Hope Mohr pulled off persuasively and unextravagantly at the Joe Goode Annex in San Francisco on Saturday night.

Mohr premiered s(oft is)hard – thrillingly performed by Peiling Kao – and acknowledged her debt to Lucinda Childs by recreating Childs’ 1964 solo Carnation. Childs in turn came out of New York’s experimental Judson Dance Theater in the 1960’s – of which one of the movers and shakers was Simone Forti, who, now 79, performed a whimsical and absorbing improvisation she calls News Animation.

Anna Halprin , <i>The Courtesan and the Crone</i> © Margo Moritz
Anna Halprin , The Courtesan and the Crone
© Margo Moritz
Forti had brought to Judson a few radical ideas about the dancing body from Anna Halprin – an inspiration for several generations of dancers, artists and composers who have basked in the rugged beauty of Marin county while stretched out on Halprin’s legendary outdoor dance deck in Kentfield. Now 94, Halprin was also on hand to open the program with her mesmerizing 1999 solo, The Courtesan and the Crone.

It was a rare privilege to witness these two radiant stateswomen of dance in their element, in such an intimate space. Given the limitations of the solo format, the individual morsels on Saturday night’s program did not yield a bird’s eye view of the postmodern movement, but did open small and often poignant windows.

Halprin’s mysterious Courtesan beckoned alluringly to the audience behind a gilded Venetian volto dama mask and an opulent floor-length gold coat. At one point she revealed a white-stockinged leg, parting the coat all the way up to the hip, and stroked the leg suggestively. Off came one white glove, then the other, then the coat was shed. Halprin suddenly looked small and vulnerable, clad only in a plain white tunic and stockings. With trembling hands, she ripped off the mask and retreated to the back wall, shame and fear written all over her Crone’s face. A spine tingling reminder of the power of masks – physical and virtual – to free us from inhibition, to level the playing field, and to deny the inevitable process of aging.

In News Animation, Forti gave us snippets of today’s news about the Middle East, interspersed with seemingly random observations about fruit trees that are growing in her yard, in a neighbor’s yard, in Syria - all being blown by winds. Forti herself was constantly buffeted by invisible breezes: swaying, running, ambling, struggling to maintain her equilibrium while standing on one leg, at one point falling. Her demeanor remained blithe and quizzical, even when recounting a grim dream in which a group of men engage in a ritual of mass fellatio (labeled “war”).

Simone Forti © Jason Underhill
Simone Forti
© Jason Underhill
A red scarf becomes “the Arab Spring… a spring of blood” and a glancing reference to painter Francisco de Goya – who painted beheadings from Greek mythology to the Old Testament and the French Revolution – recalled how poorly served we are by today’s news media.

In sharp contrast, Lucinda Childs’ Carnation – an exploration of what you can do with a wire steamer basket, a bunch of sponges and hair rollers, a bed sheet, a trash bag, and a headstand – appears to have little to say beyond pointing out the emptiness of the life of the middle class housewife. Yet there was something deeply impressive in the formality and the determination with which Mohr tackled these found objects, the clarity with which she revealed in her face and in her posture a range of emotions, from stoic pride to anxiety and torment. Still, we missed the grand mathematical beauty of Childs’ later pure dance work.

Mohr’s s(oft is)hard springs from twenty years of journaling, transcribed into movement and illuminated by a camera system that projected occasional close-ups of the dancer. The minimalist sound design incorporates dozens of dates read aloud, but no actual journal entries. Kao’s movements start small: she seems to be exploring parts of her body, but the movements become more urgent – even angry – and involve a great deal of twisting, falling and recovery. And sewing too, with very fine motions of the fingers. The impetus for her movement was opaque; we ached for hints of what was written in those journals (though great pleasure could be had in simply watching Kao as she waits for a bus.)

Peiling Kao performing in <i>Have we come a long way, baby</i> © Margo Moritz
Peiling Kao performing in Have we come a long way, baby
© Margo Moritz
That 1968 Virginia Slims cigarette advert campaign (“you’ve come a long way, baby”) – which cynically ripped off the women’s liberation movement to sell its product – eventually ran out of steam when marketing polls revealed that the 21st century woman takes her freedom for granted and sees no reason to burn her push-up bras. 

Hope Mohr asks us to take none of this for granted, to pursue the thrill of live performance, of improvisation and movement that constantly questions its source. But in an era when we expect dancers to retire from the stage at 40, when dance and opera companies turn increasingly toward overblown narrative works (Cinderella! Alice in Wonderland! Anna Nicole! Stephen King’s Dolores Claiborne!),and when the future of the performing arts is so uncertain , this was the elephant in the room at the Joe Goode Annex on Saturday: how to stop the asphyxiation of the arts.