Like Tiny Birds

Mad Shak Dance Company

at Link’s Hall, June 16-18

To do things “consciously”–that is, rationally–is suspect in some artistic circles and has been for a good part of the 20th century. To some artists, it seems, rationality and creative intuition are incompatible. Take Mad Shak, a two-year-old collaborative group of three dancers and two musicians, which has this to say about itself: “Mad Shak attempts to unlearn [a] multitude of rules and traditions….We allow the external structure of our work to emerge in a stream-of-consciousness manner. …We are cautious in editing and judgement so as not to bring too far into consciousness an artform which is best created and viewed from a sensory, unconscious level.”

Mad Shak’s most recent, evening-length work, Like Tiny Birds, shows ample signs of this philosophy. The piece seems based on an actual dream that’s revealed to us in two halves, each time in a text that’s both displayed on an easel and read to us by a performer. Ironically this method makes the story as clear as possible yet emphasizes the distance between an elusive dream and the dry, logical, everyday words needed to describe it. In the first half the dreamer is directed to save the earth with her band of superheroes by diving “down and in” and turning a lever, but when she does so she somehow loses touch with the threat of destruction. In the second half it’s a year later and the team of superheroes have turned into deer, living in an odd peace until a conflict arises: the dreamer’s partner wants to follow through on their death pact, and the dreamer wishes to live.

You could interpret this dream in a variety of ways–as a descent to the personal or collective unconscious, as a hero’s quest, as salvation by a scapegoat. But I don’t think interpretation is what artistic director Molly Shanahan wants. As the choreographer, she takes elements from the dream–as well as from an unidentified text about dragonflies (“like tiny birds”) that swarm around a coast, then go inland to their “piney sleeping spots”–and expands on them in movement and other theatrical forms. She seems to want a dreamlike work that will resonate the way dreams sometimes do. The performers are even given suggestive but nonsensical names like the mysteriously meaningful words in dreams: Shanahan’s red shirt reads “Nadar” (nadir? radar?), Jenny Stang is “Lavar” (wash?), Kevin O’Donnell is “Pescar” (fish?), Dardi McGinley is “Dividar” (divide? avatar?), and David Dieckmann is “Tomar” (got me).

The first of 11 sections, “Scanning the Horizon,” features O’Donnell (who composed the music and played it with Dieckmann, who recorded and mixed it). Standing close to us, he repeats a series of gestures: circling his hand, pulling it up to his shoulder, making a fist, then scraping that hand with the other one, lacing the fingers together and combing through as if wiping something off. His deadpan yet vaguely confrontational look and precise delivery make these motions seem meaningful; they’re beautiful in themselves. But after I’d heard the text I couldn’t help wondering whether he and the others who repeat this motion weren’t catching and smashing bugs, perhaps dragonflies, then wiping them off their palms.

Still, the hand and arm movements Shanahan creates are the most evocative motions in the piece: the dancers make a square with their arms around their heads, then tip the square, for example, or wrap their arms around their heads and necks, looking like bandaged victims. But the rest of Shanahan’s choreography is unremarkable, neither inventive nor particularly musical.

In fact, Like Tiny Birds is uncomfortably at odds with Mad Shak’s “revolutionary” claims. The program note also relates that Mad Shak wants to “challenge and expand: 1. the traditional forms of modern dance structure, development, and composition 2. the traditional role of music (live, found and recorded) in the dance idiom, and 3. the traditional relationships between dancers and musicians, sound and movement.” Haven’t they heard of Merce Cunningham and John Cage? I see nothing that sets Mad Shak’s work apart from that of a dozen other modern-dance choreographers in town, who also collaborate with their dancers and musicians. True, the piece is less structured than some other dances, but that isn’t necessarily an advantage.

Perhaps because Mad Shak avoids “editing and judgement,” this is not a well-made dance. Many sections are obscure and therefore tedious (the sweaty conditions at Link’s Hall didn’t help); I found little of the mysterious meaning that sometimes arises from a dance carefully structured to make the most of obscure images. The choreography isn’t surprising or much fun, and with a few exceptions the dancing isn’t technically challenging or accomplished. And the dream at the center remained for me an irritating puzzle: my own dreams or those of people I love might resonate for me–but the dream of a stranger?

Like Tiny Birds is not without its moments. A duet between Shanahan and McGinley at the beginning of the last section–they slowly lift and rest on each other, often in silhouette–has a still poetry that recalls O’Donnell’s opening hand gestures. And a section in which four of the performers drink water from icy goblets is a genuine oasis: it offered vicarious pleasure as we all imagined those cool gulps and sips, introduced the only traces of humor in the piece, and in some mysterious fashion revealed the performers’ characters in a way the dancing hadn’t. Stang is self-contained, self-effacing; McGinley is ironic, an imp; Shanahan is passionate in whatever she does, quick and reckless; and O’Donnell is cool, standoffish, reserving judgment or judging harshly.

I’ve seen other choreographers recently who seem to be aiming for what Mad Shak aims for, though perhaps the hoped-for inspiration had some other name: “divine intervention” or “chance” rather than the unconscious. And I can fully understand the impulse to go beyond rationality, beyond oneself–overreasoning and self-absorption can be deadly traps for the artist. But I wonder at the impulse to eliminate rationality entirely: after all, God gave us minds as well as souls.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/William Frederking.