by Karen Macklin
photos by mOrgan

Joe Goode's got a way with his hands. As the graceful and acclaimed, San Francisco-based choreographer speaks, he makes the most intriguing gestures; the animated expression of his thoughts form a fascinating conversation in itself. Yet the words Goode speaks beckon entry into his mind, a fertile breeding ground for insight and creation. Sitting just outside his performance space at Dance Mission Theatre, waiting for his dancers to arrive for rehearsal, Goode chats thoughtfully—the only way he knows how—about

"Sometimes it's safer to keep our heroes at a distance," says Goode, whose latest work, "Undertaking Harry," calls into question who our heroes are, why we choose them and how we view them. The piece is constructed of 13 poems, and pays homage to Goode's own hero, Harry Hay, who founded the first gay civil rights movement (the Mattachine Society) in 1931 and shaped the way the entire country continues to view homosexual rights. Hay had a profound influence on Goode's own life, especially during his teenage years, when he felt plagued by the inability to adhere to stereotypical gender roles and found difficulty in accepting his own sexual orientation.

"It was so huge to think about Harry and his achievements, to grapple with the size of it," says Goode. "You hate the hero. You resist the hero. You are frightened by the hero." In the end, however, Goode chose to confront the hero and to thank him for his offerings. "Undertaking" depicts "the hero" not as a superhuman but rather as a shaman, a tribal elder, an ancient role model of sorts. Goode also addresses the false perceptions rooted in the worshipping of an idol, but dismisses its importance. "I think what a hero is, ultimately, is a fabrication," he says. "You reduce the idea to what you can get out of it. I don't want to see the warts and moles of the man."

Yet Hay's warts and moles, whatever they may be, stand a solid chance of coming face to face with Goode's ethereal tribute. Although the 49-year-old choreographer has never met the now 87-year-old activist, Goode believes that Hay, who lives a relatively low-profile life (and has not been formally notified about "Undertaking") lives in San Francisco. So, they may actually meet at the theater.

"Undertaking Harry" runs in tandem with "Gender Heroes—Part I," a dance piece in which the company uncovers the roots of human perceptions about gender. Developed out of a series of interviews Goode conducted with local people in which he asked who most influenced their thoughts on being a man or a woman, "Gender Heroes" deconstructs the identity of the sexes and questions our own definitions of gender. The piece also explores the tragic life of misunderstood transgendered people, whom Goode sees as being endowed with "rare intelligence and great gifts." Society's alienation and destruction of those whose gender is not clear cut and easily explicable, says Goode, is hurtful to us as humans; someone who can intimately relate to both man and woman can provide a much-needed bridge between the sexes.

But Goode is optimistic that the winds of change are blowing in the right direction. "I don't think we're far off from choosing our own traits," he says, adding that while he would select typically "female" traits—like a gentle nature and intuition—he would not opt to change his physical structure.  

"I don't think I would choose to have anything removed," he affirms with a rather serious grin; ideally he feels that we should all have whichever traits, male or female, that we like the best. "We will overstep some of our needs to compete with and abuse the other genders this way. We'll all be a pastiche."

While Goode's thinking is forward, his work is geared toward everybody - not merely an elitist "artistic" audience. He believes that the general public goes to the theater to have its perceptions challenged, and wants his work to reach a diverse crowd.

"I made a very conscious decision to get off that high pedestal of art," says Goode. "It fostered a kind of talking-to-your-navel kind of art. Especially dance. Too much work was devoid of human interest. I've always
wanted to talk about the big issues. Life and death and gender and why we're here." And to do that, he says, it's important to see the big picture.  "I think you have to be careful of just trying to be fabulous. You can get trapped in your own virtuosity. I try and stay away from that."

Goode's respect for humanity and equality sets him apart from an artworld that often finds self-absorption in success. Yet despite the city's reciprocal love for his work and his dance company, he must face the same economic distress as everyone else in this city of exorbitant inflation. This is the company's last season to have Dance Mission Theatre as its home; the building is being bought by a developer and will no longer be a space for local dance groups to perform.

"Economy and AIDS have conspired to take away all my comrades," says the choreographer. The arts and social scenes have gradually morphed into creatures

unfamiliar to Goode, who first moved here in 1980.  "Back then, when you met people at a party, you didn't ask them what they did. You asked them what they were into," he recollects. "I don't know if it's going to be a what-you-are-into-town for much longer."

While Goode believes that San Francisco is still a hotbed of alternative thinking, he worries that much of the creativity has been muted by money. San Francisco is now artsy in a provincial sort of way, he says, where a good night out is people sitting around dinner, talking about what's playing in the theater - in New York.

A visual artist, writer and dancer, Goode himself is certainly enmeshed in the world of the arts. But he admits there is more to life than dancing. There's the 49ers.

"Football is good theater. Maybe he's gonna score a touchdown or maybe his leg's gonna fall off," he says about the game's dramatic action. "Besides, the costumes are terribly sexy." The irony in Goode's recent love affair with the spectator sport is that his father, a naval officer and macho sports fan, desperately wanted Goode to care about it as a kid. "Now, I would love to sit down and talk to him about football, but he's not interested anymore," Goode shrugs with a smile. "Odd the little turns that life gives you."