In Give a Woman a Lift, the six admirable female dancers of Jo Kreiter’s Flyaway Productions give each other an occasional lift, but for most of this 50-minute piece they’re each going it alone, negotiating personal obstacle courses. I am told that this company usually performs outdoors: rappelling down billboards, or the sides of derelict buildings in San Francisco’s notorious Tenderloin district, performing on construction sites, merry-go-rounds, and the last remaining hand-operated crane on San Francisco’s waterfront – often calling attention to the problems of urban blight. This week they’re climbing the walls and swinging from the rafters of the interior of the former premises of the American Can factory, a lofty industrial space now repurposed for dance and theatre.

Give A Woman A Lift (Dancers: MaryStarr Hope and Lisa Fagan) © Kegan Marling
Give A Woman A Lift (Dancers: MaryStarr Hope and Lisa Fagan)
© Kegan Marling

The piece opens in the dark. A single light bulb, shining in a glass globe draped with chains, descends mysteriously as if from outer space – part of the ingenious rigging of winches, pulleys, cables, ladders and other industrial hardware, a triumph of minimalist design by Sean Riley that blends seamlessly into the factory setting. The flying lantern pauses to illuminate Christine Cali, who is lying on her back on the factory floor, apparently catching some hard-earned sleep. Her arms stretch upward in supplication, and her body is racked with gentle convulsions that gradually increase in force until she is ricocheting off the floor, all the while remaining prone.

A rhythm runs through the entire piece that is both soothing and jolting. Whether stepping up onto a short section of I-beam, or taking a running leap onto a tightly strung guy wire, or clambering up to a platform way above our heads, each sequence involves many iterations, climbing then retreating, then climbing again, and, in between each return to earth, a brief, lovely moment of suspension in the air. The women don’t seem frustrated by their slow progress, but calmly intent on mastering every tedious or impossible movement. Their unforced musicality keeps us enthralled. When one dancer hurls herself at another, the interaction is brief, matter-of-fact and craftsman-like: looking out for one another, without drama.

While the extreme physicality of the movement requires enormous strength of the core, back and arms, as well as exquisite timing and control, Kreiter’s choreography largely spurns the extreme-action philosophy behind Elizabeth Streb’s POPACTION, which celebrates speed, impact and near-death encounters with heavy equipment. Kreiter’s dancers tend to fall gently, resisting gravity, with the elongated body lines, sweeping port de bras, arched insteps and foot articulation of dancers trained in ballet and Graham technique. The impulse – as in ballet, with its emphasis on rising up on pointe and jumping – is skyward.

Kreiter claims to have been inspired by tales of girls and women who’ve carved their own, often lonely, paths, or struggled against some form of oppression. The original score for Give a Woman a Lift, by Jewlia Eisenberg and Laura Inserra – a hypnotic composition for harmonium, electronic instruments, and percussion, including hang drum, tongue drum and cajón – includes two plaintive, child-like folk songs: “Sally Go Round the Sun” and “Rise Up Fly Girl.”

We didn’t need program notes. Had we not been aware that Kreiter operates “at the intersection of social justice and acrobatic spectacle,” and had the dance been left untitled, we would still have understood this to be a reflection on the lot of women in societies that condemn them to forms of servitude, that deny them the upward mobility that men are afforded. The dance does not trumpet the point, though.

The repeated scrambling and failure to reach higher ground does recall the searing images of women with their children struggling to escape rapidly rising waters on the Philippine island of Leyte, victims not only of a deadly typhoon but of a corrupt and inept government that for generations has failed to provide the basic infrastructure for survival.

That this work is performed in the former premises of a factory that employed thousands of workers in the early and mid 1900’s – mostly women, because women were known to be better at cannery work than men – was probably not lost on Kreiter. Her airborne paean to resourceful women unearths the poetry in their daily attempts to make do, to conquer the machinery of our so-called civilization.

Daredevils Cali, Patricia P. Jiron, Jennifer Chien, Lisa Fagan, MaryStarr Hope and Becca Dean all shine in quietly heroic moments, some mournful, others playful. Jiron in particular conveyed impish delight as she explored a narrow platform just under the ceiling, grabbing a barely visible guy wire to steady herself, her arms and legs sweeping lyrically through space.

Two dancers clamber onto a rusty I-beam, suspended horizontally from the ceiling by three cables; they set it swinging in a huge arc, enraptured by the smooth motion. As they stand, squat, sit and pull on the cables, they could be fishermen piloting a sailboat.

Essaying a vertical ascent, dancers take shelter momentarily between the flanges of two massive I-beams before grabbing onto pieces of thick plumbing pipe strategically clamped to facilitate the climb. One of many arresting images from this piece is the sight of women nestled cozily between two plates of rusting steel.

****1