The Exploded House

Mad Shak Dance Company

at Link’s Hall, February 17-19

I usually go to the comics page in the daily paper for earthy wisdom. I needed some Saturday morning after seeing a performance by the Mad Shak Dance Company, made up of bright young people filled with ideas. The performance was articulate and engaging–and also heady and out of control. The Cathy strip had my answer: “The curse of youth–all the language skills, none of the judgment functions.”

Mad Shak’s The Exploded House is anchored by the image of a house trailer the artists saw in rural New York: the trailer’s contents seemed to have exploded out into the yard; mangy dogs and a goat wandered through the rusted-out cars, old rags, and scraps of rubber and furniture. The meaning of this image becomes clear in the middle of the piece in a monologue by Mad Shak’s artistic director, Molly Shanahan: “The first thing you notice is the chaos. Then you notice the order.” Later she says, “Entering a room, you know its boundaries. Entering an embrace, you know its time limit. Entering your body, you know your limitations.” Still later she says, “Many days I grasp and just miss the ledges of order. Some days I am tired and just walk along the ledges.”

Mad Shak is fascinated with the chaos inside the mind–the way ideas bubble up in profusion, pushing everything else aside. They also seem to recognize that unchecked creativity will eventually choke the mind the way a garden can be neglected and overgrown, but they cannot quite make themselves prune the bushes.

They try though. The movement vocabulary is fairly tightly controlled; an array of gestures, like flicking sweat from the back of a neck and tugging an earlobe, are mixed with flung arms and bodies and with simple, quirky phrases like holding arms above the head in a circle while walking with slightly bent knees forward and backward. These are introduced in a series of duets and solos, and return at the end in ensemble movement. But this postmodern pedestrian movement is not interesting in itself, functioning mainly as a rejection of modern dance and ballet; in one short section, Shanahan and Dardi McGinley parody modern dance. The dancers frequently start a phrase, then stop halfway through; a duet with many lifts between Jenny Stang and David Dieckmann is repeated later, but every lift is aborted. What the dancing mainly communicates is “I refuse.”

To refuse to dance and to be fascinated with looking inward are not bad choices in themselves, but the combination seems dangerous to me; I don’t see where it can lead. But Mad Shak have darted from one style to another before; after their evening-length work about suicidal depression, Glass Slipper Totem, they created the lighter Shiny Happy People, in which the best thing was a simple but passionate dance called “Another Tale From the Wolf’s Closet.” In its two improvised solos Shanahan and Stang are each trapped in a corner of the stage, pacing and hurling themselves against the wall, trying to somehow break free.

Mad Shak use fierce metaphors–the rapacious hunger of the wolf, the self-entrapment of suicide, the allure of surrendering to entropy–to paint a picture of their experience. It’s a youthful picture, one that I recognize and remember. Its deepest risk is self-absorption. Mad Shak’s portrait seems to be autobiographical, because their rather limited stagecraft and choreographic craft suggest self-absorption. They seem more eager to express their experience than to make us understand it.