Joe Goode's dance troupe has a puppet who can partner

Joe Goode's dance troupe has a puppet who can partner
REHEARSAL: Joe Goode, left, with company members Jessica Swanson and Andrew Ward and the puppet created by Basil Twist. (Randi Lynn Beach, For The Times)
It seemed like an ordinary shopping expedition: two gay men wandering the aisles of a San Francisco Baby Gap in search of a neo-preppy look for their tousle-haired tyke. An adorable attention-grabber, the little fella with the thin neck and long arms didn't prove the easiest of fits, however.

That's because this wide-eyed boy with asymmetrical features happened to be . . . well, a puppet. Dubbed Wonderboy, he is the offspring of a collaboration between veteran San Francisco choreographer Joe Goode and New York-based puppeteer Basil Twist. The 40-minute show, also called "Wonderboy" and featuring the six-member Joe Goode Performance Group, will receive its Southern California premiere this week at UC Riverside and the Irvine Barclay Theatre on a bill with Goode's 1996 piece "Maverick Strain."

"I never worked with a puppet before," Goode explained recently by phone from his home in Berkeley, where he is a tenured instructor of choreography and performance at UC Berkeley. "I thought the puppet was going to make the piece more theatrical and less dance, but it's the most dancerly piece I've made in the last 10 years. There's something liberating with the puppet that allowed us to move very extravagantly, even romantically, and come to a new place with the body."

That reversion to movement drew raves when the work premiered in the Bay Area last June. On the website Voice of Dance, Allan Ulrich wrote, "The news, praise be, is that real, unambiguous, sinew-stretching choreography has returned to the center of Goode's creative universe."

Now 57, Goode founded his company in 1986 and for the two decades since has been tackling some of his generation's hottest-button issues, including AIDS and drug abuse. The San Francisco Bay Guardian once dubbed him "the poet of anxiety, pain and uncertainty." Over the years, though, his highly personal works had grown increasingly theatrical and text-driven.

Which should come as no surprise: Although he studied dance while growing up in Virginia, where he graduated with a theater degree from Virginia Commonwealth University, he moved to New York in his 20s to become "a star -- an actor slash writer slash dancer."

Discovering a niche

Celluloid and Great White Way fame eluded Goode. But he did find a niche -- in experimental theater -- and in 1979 he relocated to San Francisco. "I thought I was going to write the great American play, but somehow I slipped back into the studio," he recalled. "I took some of my writing and experience as a dancer and started putting it together in a way that made some sense."

The result was a solo show, "Yukon, Oklahoma," that was an immediate hit and launched Goode into a dance-theater career. The Joe Goode Performance Group now tours regularly in the U.S. and abroad. For the troupe's 20th-anniversary season in 2006, he collaborated with the music director of the San Francisco Symphony, composer Michael Tilson Thomas, on "Stay Together" -- a work about a midlife crisis.

Now, with the autobiographical "Wonderboy" -- whose moves were created in partnership with his dancers -- Goode spins a coming-of-age fairy tale focused on the artist as outsider. It incorporates bits of text from playwright Sam Shepard, novelist Christopher Isherwood, poet Thom Gunn and philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti, but Goode also found an inspiring figure in Twist.

A third-generation puppeteer and native San Franciscan who is probably best known for his 1998 underwater extravaganza "Symphonie Fantastique," Twist initiated contact with Goode several years ago by inviting him to choreograph Paula Vogel's play "The Long Christmas Ride Home," which Twist was directing at San Francisco's Magic Theatre.

"I didn't know him from Adam," Goode admitted, "and I thought, 'Puppets. Ooh, I'm not so sure.' But I was told I would just be choreographing humans, so I allowed Basil to sweet-talk me into it."

In fact, Goode was immediately smitten with Twist's puppetry; the two decided they would create something together. "Not a play exactly," Goode said, "but something based on a character -- and the character would be a puppet."

And thus was born the über-sensitive, enchanted Wonderboy.

The duo conferred about Wonderboy's size, how he would be operated and what sort of incidents would occur in the narrative. His sartorial style was also part of the discussion. It eventually included a vest, long-sleeved shirt, jeans and saddle shoes.

And although Wonderboy could be seen as possessing a gay spirit, his is, according to Twist, universal. Reminiscing recently in the cafe at HERE, a New York theater where his collaboration with drag artist Joey Arias was completing a sold-out run, the 39-year-old puppeteer seemed nothing less than a proud father.

Puppet grows up

"I tried to make Wonderboy look like Joe -- I asked for pictures of him when he was a child and a young man," he said. "First I made a crash test dummy puppet -- something you could throw on the ground. Then I sculpted a mold out of clay and cast it in plastic. Over six months, he slowly became Wonderboy. The way he moves, he has an integrity in his body. We really consider this puppet our child."

Twist said Wonderboy's eyes don't move but gaze to the side, as if following the dancers' movements.

"Doing a puppet piece with nonpuppeteers is interesting," he added. "As dancers, they have to think and move in a different way but still let it be organic."

Easier said than done. "It's like scratching your belly and tapping your head at the same time," Goode said, "because the dancers are in conversation with the puppet, reacting to him and dancing with him. All their concentration has to be on the puppet to make sure he's really reacting and staying alive."

There were days, the choreographer remembered, when the dancers "paled from exhaustion. But they came to really love the little guy. He became a member of the cast, so much so that dancers would say, 'I don't think Wonderboy wants to do that -- it doesn't feel right.' "

Felipe Barrueto-Cabello has been a Goode dancer since 1996. He says learning to handle Wonderboy also took some doing: "When you're the one manipulating it and interacting with it, you can't overwhelm it. The gestures need to be small, and a little action goes a long way."

Goode's actions have also gone a long way, especially in the dance world. L.A. choreographer Victoria Marks says she's been following his work for 25 years. "I'm moved by his sense of humanity, generosity and the way he champions both great things and the small and ordinary. He also takes an activist stance -- inviting all who come in contact with his work to consider their place in their communities."

Said Goode: "When Wonderboy discovers his power as an artist, he can share those insights in a way that is illuminating and helpful to other people."

That's also "something puppets do -- they allow you to go into that place of make-believe, and yet there's a very real story with real issues."