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Here’s a Guy Who May Take Your ‘Breath’ Away

Holding his breath, the 6-foot-6, 300-plus pounder waddles and glides across the dance floor in a clunky wooden hula skirt/torture device and squeaky plastic booties.

Uh-oh. It must be hazing season at USC again, right?

Not quite.

The surreal Fred Astaire-cum-Babar is none other than Martin Where-Was-He-When-Your-New-Year’s-Party-Needed-Him? Kersels, paragon of hope for those who’ve had it up to here with runty anorexics in tights and tutus.

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After recently finding out he has sleep apnea--which makes him gag, gasp and sputter like a VW Bug when he should be catching zzz’s--Kersels decided to make hay out of sawing wood. His dance-performance “Breath” takes him from perky to pooped in 12 minutes of deliberate oxygen deprivation.

“Breath” is part of the Odyssey-Pipeline co-production “Firewaves,” opening Tuesday at the Odyssey Theatre Ensemble as part of the “Jugendstil Fest: Young Moderns of 1900.” Also on the bill are original works by choreographers Gilberte Meunier and Betty Nash.

“There are whole schools of thought about breath,” Kersels, a 28-year-old L.A. native, explains while breathing easily in a relaxed tete a tete near his downtown studio. “I wanted to stop breathing and yet force myself to do movement. I knew I couldn’t hold my breath for 10 or 15 minutes, but I can hold it for periods and then breathe again.”

After all, Martin Kersels isn’t the first to abuse himself in the name of conceptual art. So if Chris Burden can have himself shot and crawl over glass, if Gina Pane can slice and dice her extremities and if Stephen Taylor Woodrow can hang people on the wall and call ‘em living paintings, why can’t Kersels ride himself hard and sweat up a storm for the sake of art?

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As with these other practitioners of body art, Kersels considers himself as a canvas. And as on tabloid TV, the line between real event and dramatization is fuzzy.

The difference is that Kersels adds more of a dollop of theatrical fiction to his experiential ordeal than did most of the body artists of the last two decades.

His performance verite about exhaustion has a subtext about mind-body struggle. “I’m going to wear down,” he says. “The body-as-machine (won’t be) tearing itself apart, but the big behemoth does slow down to a crawl. It’s my will over what my body’s telling me.”

Kersels does, however, show a bit of restraint when it comes to self-damage. “I’m not going to be hard on myself,” he reassures us. “It never gets to the point where it’s masochistic, just tiring and cathartic.”

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Nor is this enigmatic funambulist bound by precise choreography. “I may miss a movement, because when you don’t breathe your mind gets foggy like when you’re drinking too much. If I don’t hit this mark or that, it’s not going to affect the main idea of wearing down.”

Influenced by funny guys from Gleason to Keaton, Kersels, who is the building manager at LACE (Los Angeles Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions), is out to squeeze the hot air and prejudice from stodgy dancegoers. “Because I’m a big man, people have preconceived notions of what I can do: football player, wrestler, bouncer, loan shark, thug,” he explains.

“But I want to show it doesn’t have to be that way. I can do a spin, a pirouette. I know I’m no Baryshnikov.”

Instead, he gets his point across by proving he can do more than people expect. “The tension for the audience is in seeing a big body do (these movements), especially at the Odyssey where you’re so close to the audience. I sweat. I let it be known that this is not easy, not pretty.”

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And “humor,” he asserts, “can make you think as much as someone lecturing or preaching at you.”

“I do things that are funny: The audience expects something and you give them something completely different,” he explains. “Where they’re expecting drama, collapse or a scream, you act like a chipmunk.”

But if the thought of watching a large man push himself to enervation still sounds like the stuff of which nightmares are made, you’ve just got to trust Kersels’ promise that he’ll “leave the audience in an up state.”

“That’s why I do performance,” Kersels maintains with quiet, measured breaths. “I’m not just an entertainer. I want to leave people with something to think about.”

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