‘The Rambler’ celebrates a male archetype and the women he leaves behind


In Joe Goode Performance Group’s “The Rambler,” the men are wanderers and the women (with one notable exception) are frustrated about it. (RJ Muna)

The rambler: He’s a cowboy, a drifter, a marriage-phobe. A migratory species, called to move along at regular intervals. And, as one of the acerbic women in Joe Goode’s dance-theater piece “The Rambler” observes, he’s always a he.

Maybe this is why the women — goodbye girls left stewing in the wake of their rootless Romeos — were the most interesting characters in this deeply absorbing hourlong work, which Joe Goode Performance Group brought to the American Dance Institute this weekend. Like many of the well-crafted pieces that the San Francisco-based Goode has performed here over the years, “The Rambler” centers on an icon of the American West and locates the echoes in contemporary times.

We know the rambler from countless spaghetti Westerns, country-and-western songs and romcoms. But “The Rambler” pinpoints him in ordinary life, as he wriggles out of relationships and sputters vaguely about non-plans.

“When I get there, it’s gonna be awesome!” exclaims one of the seven cast members, though the boast sounds less certain each time he makes it.

Like monarch butterflies and salmon, the rambler is simply looking for his freedom, we’re told. But if the scenes of quietly agitated dancing spoke what words could not, he isn’t quite the self-reliant smoothie he makes himself out to be. The movement sequences were all about partnering and support, with powerful lifts undergirding soaring flights through the air. Deep down, these restless roamers really need someone. They’re just serially needy, that’s all.

Is that so wrong?

A woman sitting in a chair, alone onstage, so embittered you can almost hear her teeth grind, spits out an answer. “Have you ever thought about what this room would feel like after you closed the door?” she snipes to the emptiness.

“For every rambler, there’s somebody who’s been rambled,” observes Goode, who ambles (rambles?) onstage every now and then in a cowboy hat to dispense a jocular nugget of truth.

Though rambling is largely a man’s game, there is one ramblerette in the show. She’s a French cabaret singer who, in a bit of simple and magnificent stage magic, stands two stories tall in cascades of white satin — until she clambers down from the two men she’s been standing on. (Wendy Sparks handled the costume design, and Basil Twist the scenic creations.) As we soon discover, they’re her metaphorical scaffolding as well: Her ego towers according to her sexual conquests. “Fidelity is for children,” she sneers, before charming us with descriptions of her voracious and insatiable appetite.

Goode offers an even-handed, 360-degree view: How can we judge this seductress when she’s so enviably free-spirited, so compelling? Everyone in “The Rambler,” the loners, the lovers, the haters, is treated gently.

Kindness is a trademark of Goode’s works, especially so here. As an artist in a niche field, he has spent his career on the road, continuously traveling to seek new audiences. So what has 30 years of rambling taught him?

Compassion is the only message. Because there’s no use fighting it: Some boots were made for walking. “I care,” cries one of the men, gripping his head in distress as he fends off accusations otherwise. The curtain opens behind him, revealing a brilliant blue sky. Puffs of smoke billow into a giant cloud formation. “I care,” he repeats, backing up, allowing the cloud to swallow him. “And then I go.”

Sarah Kaufman received the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Criticism and has been The Washington Post's dance critic since 1996. But after logging serious sit-time in opera houses, church basements, fairground tents and lawn chairs, what moves her most is seeing grace happen where she least expects it.
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