Bay Area dancers to premiere intimate performance at David Ireland House

Johnny Huy Nguyen and Megan Lowe’s “HOME(in)STEAD” at the David Ireland House in San Francisco. The site-specific performance is meant to reimagine the idea of ​​a home. “We all have memories and associations with the kitchen, the dining room, the bedroom, how,” Lowe asked, “can we break those open, interact with them differently and create spaces that feel supportive and nourishing?” Photo: Henrik Kam

It took dancer Megan Lowe less than a minute to do just about everything a body can do on the flat portion of a wooden banister. She stretched one leg to full extension along the surface, pressed her torso down above it, bent over the rail to hang upside down and waggled her hands between the spindles before darting off to a nearby door frame.

There, joined by her fellow dancer, Johnny Huy Nguyen, Lowe hopped up on the frame’s adjacent narrow chair rails for some gravity-defying partner work. Entangled then coming apart, they rolled along a wall, like upright barrels, and slipped away into a bedroom.

All that action was playing out on a warm Saturday morning at the David Ireland House on Capp Street, where Lowe and Nguyen were rehearsing “HOME(in)STEAD,” their co-created site-specific performance work — with music by Peekaboo, a San Francisco experimental cellist and composer — about the nature and meaning of home, that premieres Friday, June 24.

Johnny Huy Nguyen and Megan Lowe use the architecture of the David Ireland House as a non-traditional stage. Photo: Henrik Kam

Barefoot and sweating in rehearsal clothes, the dancers roamed the space, making use of any wall, ledge or piece of furniture they encountered. At one point, Lowe seemed ready to launch herself through an open window, pulled back and went out after all, onto a slender roof above the building’s front door. Nguyen followed her out.

Grinning and wincing a little as they came back inside, Lowe noted how hot the roof was on her bare feet. “I think it will be cooler out there when we open,” she said. “At least I hope it will.”

Creating a new site-specific piece carries all sorts of risks and potential rewards. Marrying movement to a space, with all its possibilities and constraints, takes dance out of the boxlike confines and context of a stage. In “HOME(in)STEAD,” an audience limited to 10 will follow Lowe and Nguyen around, observing the performers at close enough range to hear their breathing and feel the immediate presence and momentum of their bodies.

That it will happen at the David Ireland House, a legendary creation and onetime living space of the eponymous conceptual artist, gives the piece a particular charge. Ireland (1930-2009) turned a run-down Italianate building in the heart of San Francisco’s Mission District into a compendium of his quirky and compelling sensibilities. He sanded and painted interior walls and coated the burnt-orange surfaces in glossy polyurethane. He left flaws in place and exalted them — wall cracks, degraded window casements, floor divots — and filled the rooms with spindly wire light fixtures, a salvaged and dismembered TV, a tree stump and more.

Each performance is limited to 10 audience members, as viewers will follow Nguyen and Lowe around the house. Photo: Henrik Kam

Selected from a field of more than 60 applications, Lowe and Nguyen won a 16-day residency to create a new work. On a mid-rehearsal break, the two discussed the importance of the Ireland house to their project.

“Imperfections have been a big theme in what we’ve been exploring,” said Lowe, 33. “They open questions of what we think art can be. What can dance be? Does it have to be virtuosic?” She referenced a slab of cement and a mason jar of nuts and bolts Ireland collected. “Art doesn’t have to be precious. It can be as simple as taking this drink of water or leaning against a wall.”

For the artists, a sense of what home meant growing up forms some of the backdrop and resonance of their work.

“Both of our homes, in different ways, were unstable,” said Nguyen, 38, the oldest child of Vietnamese refugees who left their country in the late 1970s and met in Canada. “My parents were doing the best they could. There were different traumas — the trauma of displacement, the trauma of war, learning a new language and working jobs in a new place to support a family.”

Nguyen was raised in Alberta, then moved to Toronto and New York City before settling in San Francisco seven years ago. Despite some challenging living situations — including sharing a place with 23 roommates — he feels “very settled here.”

As for Lowe, she said she comes “from a background of family members with pretty extreme mental disorders.”

Beginning in third grade, she had responsibilities caring for her mother, who died in 2014. Her sister died this year. “When you’re in a home with volatile energies, you don’t realize how messed up it is until you leave,” she added.

“HOME(in)STEAD” will feature music by Peekaboo, a San Francisco experimental cellist and composer. Photo: Henrik Kam

Lowe, who has her own dance company and has performed with many others, has worked in the past with Nguyen, whose dance vocabulary springs from street dancing, modern dance and martial arts. Before they got back to rehearsing, Lowe framed a central question “HOME(in)STEAD” poses. Observing that “we all have memories and associations with the kitchen, the dining room, the bedroom, how,” she asked, “can we break those open, interact with them differently and create spaces that feel supportive and nourishing?”

In a tender scene they were working on, Lowe and Nguyen seemed to be seeking one kind of answer to that multilayered question. Perched on a bedroom windowsill, Lowe spoke-sung some lines: “Oh, oh, I’m so sick and tired.”

Seated behind her, bent at the waist on a chair beside the bed, Nguyen had his head in his hands. As she slumped down, he came to life, levering himself on and across the bed, as if being in motion might narrow the psychic space between them.

“I’m searching,” Lowe mused, “for the joy that’s in everything.”

“HOME(in)STEAD”: Performance work created and performed by Megan Lowe and Johnny Huy Nguyen. 5 and 8 pm Friday-Saturday, June 24-25, and July 1-2; 4 and 7 pm Sunday, June 26, and July 3. $20-$150, no one turned away for lack of funds. Audience limited to 10 per performance. The David Ireland House, 500 Capp St., SF 415-872-9240. 500cappstreet.org



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