The world première of Scott Wells’ collaboration with Sheldon B. Smith, Father On, at the ODC Theater in San Francisco was billed as an “evening-length multimedia dance about 21st-century fatherhood,” performed by an all-male cast (all fathers except one, who is seriously contemplating becoming one.)

It was safe to assume there would be no surtitles.

Father On © David Papas
Father On
© David Papas

So I planned ahead and armed myself with a date who could translate for me – a 21st-century father of three, who’d grown up in America’s heartland. He turned out to be indispensable, identifying clips from a family television program called Leave it to Beaver, detailing the rules of peculiarly American games, such as freeze tag and red light/green light, that underpin certain passages, and explaining the iconic significance of a video clip on fly-fishing during a lament in which three men stagger morosely around the stage and pull their shirts over their heads to the mournful strains of Chopin’s Prelude No. 9.

There was much that needed no explication, however, in this exploration of fatherhood – a marvelous blend of celebration and satire, occasionally touching, often pointedly hilarious. The central theme of men convinced that they are blazing a brave new path through the thickets of fatherhood, only to discover that they haven’t ventured far from the trail tramped by their fathers is hardly original – film and television have covered the same ground for years. But Wells, Smith and their three masterly co-conspirators, Stephen Buescher, Rajendra Serber and Christoph Schutz, offer a fresh, quirky take on the subject, packaged with an appealing physicality.

The men grapple with grace, in a form of contact improv – they hurl themselves through the air, scale the I-beams that hold up the ceiling, tussle with furniture. In Your Move, Buescher and Serber, lunchboxes in hand, face off in a nonsensical display of one-upmanship. Out comes the heavy artillery from the lunchboxes: chess pieces, stuffed animals, plastic dinnerware. These boys ignore the counsel of Sun Tzu (The Art of War) to take the enemy state intact and avoid mass destruction. When they’re done, the stage resembles a fraternity house on a Monday morning. Upon which, all five men suddenly get the urge to “fix things,” grabbing manly tools in an orgy of drilling, screwing, hammering and tinkering with the theatrical lights, until a peeved Christy Bolingbroke, Director of the ODC Theater, storms onstage to berate them for abandoning the performance that the audience have paid to see. The men also curl up in each other’s laps during one hilarious episode framed as a sensitivity training workshop for new fathers, designed to teach them about the miracle of breastfeeding. 

Father On © David Papas
Father On
© David Papas

This is Wells and Smith’s first collaboration, though they’ve known each other since their graduate student days in the renowned MFA program at the University of Illinois. Wells, equally at home choreographing for skateboarders and boxers as for dancers, is heralded for his athletic work that often explores and challenges concepts of masculinity. Smith’s roots are in Chicago’s vibrant experimental performance community; he is known for his dance, music and video art. They play off each other nicely in this work: Wells with his ironic, laconic, slightly tough-guy demeanor, and Smith the more earnest, rambling philosopher type.

Some of the material would not resonate in the same way across cultures – notably the clever, virtuosic Pink brain, blue brain segment, which examines the snap judgments we make when watching the playground behavior of children whom we don’t recognize, guessing whether they are boys or girls based on their stances and gestures. The men holler “he’s a boy” or “that’s female anger,” drowning out the mild-mannered Smith in his nuanced attempts to describe gender along a spectrum.

Ultimately, Father On bows to the superiority of women. Apart from the commanding Ms Bolingbroke, we witness (on film) a doe and a woman in the throes of childbirth, and a clip of the lovely, pregnant Kira Kirsch in a dance atop Mount Tamalpais, her bare belly gleaming in the sunlight as she evokes Isadora Duncan, draped in floaty chiffons. We also see her image in miniature, poised delicately on top of Serber’s head as he sits, daydreaming, on the mountaintop. He conjures woman up as a deity, an unattainable goddess.

Meanwhile, down around sea level, the dads perform a daffy Sperm Folk Dance, with vague gypsy overtones, that celebrates their tiny contribution to the mystic creation of life. And, despite their professed acquaintance with modern-day parenting theories and techniques, our heroes appear rattled by the simple challenges of neutralizing a toddler’s tantrums, and putting a baby to sleep.

The inventive score incorporates bits of John Philip Sousa, Hungarian folk tunes, a children’s lullaby rendition of Led Zeppelin’s Over the Hills and Far Away, and Don Giovanni – the latter chosen, according to Smith, because it was written during a time when Mozart was mourning his father, and because it is “another messy tragicomedy like our own.” The film and television clips, however, could have been integrated in a more sophisticated and imaginative manner – the use of a handheld remote control was a little clunky, and robbed the production of some of its alchemy.