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San Francisco Chronicle
'Blood' slings crazed, sexed song and dance
Rachel Howard
April 4, 2005

It could have been a scene from an ethnically diverse Tim Burton movie. An accordion pumped and a clarinet wailed. Chains clanked. The cellist screamed. The rhythms shifted from Klezmer-like to belly dance-worthy. And in the middle of it all stood a handsome bald man crooning macabre lyrics about romantic sunsets and venereal diseases.

The experimental music group Nanos Operetta is a spectacle unto itself. But when founder, lyricist and singer Ali Tabatabai wanted to show excerpts from two long works in progress, he decided Nanos needed a distinctly theatrical presentation and invited dance companies and other music groups to share the stage. The result was a semimonthly series, "3 Drops of Blood." The fifth installment, which took over Dance Mission Theater on Friday and Saturday, proved why these showcases have drawn a loyal and enthusiastic audience.

The title "3 Drops of Blood" comes from a short story by Iranian existential writer Sadegh Hedayat, whom Tabatabai calls the "patron saint" of Nanos. The name's ritual flavor is reflected in the programming, which always includes one dance company, one dance soloist or duo, works by one living composer and a suite of Nanos songs. Dance is often combined with Nanos' performance, as when Kunst-Stoff dancer Kara Davis once tied herself to the clarinetist. But sometimes, as on Friday, the individual acts stand alone, giving the evening the feeling of a deliciously demented cabaret.

Stephen Pelton Dance Theater performed two pieces. "Not Here," set to Radiohead's melancholy "How To Disappear Completely," is one of Pelton's best. Dancer Nol Simonse stretched his arms and slowly rotated his torso in introspective agony, then curled into a ball as the chords climaxed. Simonse has danced this 2003 solo so often that every movement is a statement of feeling, all the better to appreciate Pelton's choreographic craft. A subtle swing of the leg begins to look like a step into the abyss.

Pelton also previewed a new work, "If Tomorrow Wasn't Such a Long Time ... ," a sweltering summer frolic set to Bob Dylan songs sung by folk singer Odetta. Dancer Christy Funsch's traipsing attracted the languorous flirtations of three men, among them the winningly twinkle-eyed Manfred Schaechtle. "If Tomorrow" will premiere next month at the San Francisco International Arts Festival. But the real story Friday night was in the music.

It began with a collaboration between Nanos and Indian tabla players Tabla Rasa. Nanos percussionists Aharon Wheels Bolsta and Phil Williams provided the eerie atmosphere with marimba and vibraphone, both xylophone-type instruments, first coaxing ghostly notes by drawing a violin bow against the bars, then by hammering out simple dark refrains. Tabla Rasa's Jim Santi Owen and Tim Witter supplied the rhythms, and they were fierce, segueing into virtuosic improvisations.

The Chepikov String Quartet fulfilled the "living composer" component with two works by Korea's Hyo-shin Na. "Song of Beggars" was rich and urgent, full of sudden, violent slides. "Transcription" drew its fragmented melodies from a Buddhist chant for the dead, the harsh pluckings and stately wood-block claps suggesting the action of a Noh drama.

Then there was Nanos, filling the stage with its extensive percussion, which included a junkyard-worthy collection of found objects. Songs veered wildly from a twisted rendering of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" to a piece about "syphilitic flesh." Tabatabai, who looks like he could be the shy younger brother of actor Billy Zane, took a swig from his beer and sang of "fields of confetti baked in the sun." A lulling waltz gave way to a brutal version of the Jacques Brel tune "Next." At one point, the clarinetist picked up something that looked like an old phonograph speaker rigged to a deconstructed violin.

Nanos was wild, sexy, wacky and overwhelming. It was a shame to close the evening with an excerpt from dancer Jennifer Wright Cook's "Terror Alert: Elevated: Orange," in which she mimicked jumping from a bridge to the accompaniment of a Partridge Family song. It was one of the most self- indulgent works seen in the Bay Area in recent years.

But even Cook's prattling couldn't drain the intensity of Nanos' performance. It's a good time to discover Nanos: The group will appear at the San Francisco International Arts Festival next month and releases its first album later this year. The next "3 Drops of Blood," featuring butoh dancer Ledoh, is set for June 24 and 25.