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A son's intricate dance with Dad

Andrew Dawson explores his and his father's gulf in the solo `Absence and Presence.'

October 13, 2006|Lewis Segal | Times Staff Writer

"Absence and Presence" is a ghost play like no other, a multidisciplinary solo showpiece that lightly invokes the most primal human feelings.

Through 60 minutes of speech, mime, dance, music and video imagery on the nearly bare stage of the Macgowan Little Theater at UCLA, Andrew Dawson conjures up the spirit and style of his late father.

Dad speaks to him from a TV set, dryly criticizing his own funeral. A life-size wire sculpture evokes his physicality. His pipe and glasses inspire identity transference -- when Dawson uses them, he becomes his father. And as we learn of the gulf that existed between them, we see how memories of missed connections can leave people torn up, guilty, incomplete.

Like every son, Dawson wanted his father's approval, and it still hurts that the man saw him once in a mime performance and left early because he didn't understand it. As Dawson pores over old letters, the quiet desperation he finds in them and in the TV chat -- "I seem to live in the past," "The days are all the same," "I go on from day to day" -- mirrors his own frustration at not being able to come to terms with his father once and for all.

Every proof that the man lived a shallow existence with nothing much to say for himself is countered by remembrances of him walking with his boy, hand in hand, and other images of surpassing tenderness. So, near the end, Dawson dances a sweet father-and-son duet with that wire effigy, doing now what never happened back then.

Is it too late? Can reliving a man's life and reenacting his death take the place of all those unspoken conversations and lost opportunities? Maybe they can -- maybe it's the only way to reconcile the living and the dead.

Created in collaboration with Jos Houben, Graham Johnston and Fabrik Potsdam, "Absence and Presence" stayed resolutely intimate and unassuming at its first UCLA Live performance on Wednesday, enlisting the music of Joby Talbot to express the powerful emotional undercurrents of the piece and leaving Dawson's performance remarkably restrained and thoughtful.

His hands fluttering around a naked light bulb and then falling away summed up his sense of his father's life -- and maybe his own. But we were never told everything we wanted to know -- life isn't like that. Dawson isn't experimental choreographer Bill T. Jones, who once used the video image of his late partner, Arnie Zane, in a dance duet that virtually resurrected Zane and their love at full intensity.

No, Dawson respected his father's reticence and refused to paint his portrait in primary colors. The only moment of high drama involved sudden, overwhelming physical pain, paralysis, collapse -- the body unexpectedly negating everything in our sense of ourselves.

But "Absence and Presence" suggested that death isn't the end of anyone's story, that Dawson began truly knowing and loving his father only after the man was gone. That a relationship previously taken for granted can transform a life retroactively -- and inspire moving performance art as well.


`Absence and Presence'

Where: Macgowan Little Theater, UCLA campus, Westwood

When: 8 p.m. today, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 7 p.m. Sunday

Price: $32

Contact: (310) 825-2101 or

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