So-Called Repetition

Mad Shak Dance Company

at Link’s Hall, through March 23

At the 1964 New York World’s Fair, the Johnson Wax pavilion featured an early, thrilling example of split-screen videography. Three young men in go-carts appeared to be shooting right at the audience, a perspective so astonishing and distorted it was impossible to guess who would be the winner. There was no effort to sell anything, no last-minute pitch for wax–just pure, unmediated experience, aptly entitled “To Be Alive!”

In the intervening 40 years, split-screen video has become a commonplace, but the wonder of that first encounter came back as I watched Esther Palmer’s video backdrop to So-Called Repetition, Molly Shanahan’s exceptional new work. The video shows a series of windows with a different dancer and single chair projected in each. It soon becomes apparent that the windows are those that run across one wall of the Link’s Hall studio, where the performance is taking place, and that the dancers’ chairs are actually a single chair, the original of which sits onstage. This alteration of perspective produces the same dizzying thrill as the go-cart video: Are the windows here or there? Which chair is real? How can the projected dancers be in color and the actual dancer seem to be in black and white? Shanahan’s multidimensional choreography, echoed and reinforced by Palmer’s video, gives visceral proof of how exhilarating it is just to be alive.

Multiplication of perspective is the essence of the piece: movements are shown live and on video using various angles on the dancer–Shanahan herself, alone onstage for most of the 45-minute running time. Her determined parsing of motion and her concentration allow the tiny Shanahan to rivet our attention and fill the entire stage. She gets indispensable assistance not only from Palmer but from composer Kevin O’Donnell, who’s recorded his score with violinist Andrew Bird. Whether in jazz-inflected segments reminiscent of Stephane Grappelli or in offhand allusions to Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherezade (whose title character, like Shanahan, had to keep someone amused for an entire evening), O’Donnell gives the dancer-choreographer music she can embody so completely that it seems more visible than audible.

The piece opens with Shanahan stretched out on the floor, awakening to the music as if from a dream. The early moments are full of traditional steps, including a figure on tiptoe that might have come from any ballet or folk dance. But unlike most conventional dancers, Shanahan draws attention away from her body to her face, gazing directly at the audience as if to point out that it’s a person up there and not simply an assemblage of muscles. Her directness reminds us how courageous it is for a performer to take the stage solo, yet her performance is never self-congratulatory.

Gradually the music’s pace picks up and the beat becomes more marked, and Shanahan’s moves become more athletic. But the video is still relatively subdued: at the rear a projection of empty performance space gives way to a blizzard of abstract images while at stage left the el goes by occasionally–sometimes in fact and sometimes on film. Then Shanahan’s moves draw the audience’s eyes to something projected against the pictured el, which turns out to be her own real-time image from a different angle than the audience would have. The projection is ghostly, like one of those hologram messages in Star Wars, but defined enough to make her point: what dance audiences see from their seats is only a sliver of what there is to see. Her work suggests that some of dance’s limitations as a means of communication are limitations of perception rather than execution: a movement appears awkward or inconclusive simply because we’re not seeing it all. (Busby Berkeley had a similar insight–that’s the point of showing all those routines from impossible angles–but could deliver it only at the top of his lungs.) Some of Shanahan’s movements, however, are deliberately incomplete, like the repeated gathering of herself to do a leap that never comes. I wish she’d let herself be airborne, but her work is so grounded that the absence of flight must be deliberate.

Midway through the piece Shanahan leaves the stage (presumably to catch her breath), and the video comes into its own. The split-screen projection of five dancers doing solos works better when Palmer keeps the action at its real-life pace instead of speeding it up, but this unconventional chorus line ably consoles the audience for Shanahan’s absence–and when it winks out one dancer at a time, we’re delivered smoothly back to the world of the solo.

When Shanahan returns she’s wearing elegant black evening attire. Though the earlier dancing couldn’t be described as tentative, she seems to move now with a new confidence and fluidity. The choreography becomes bolder and takes up more space, as though determined to reveal itself from all angles without the help of video projection or mirroring by a second dancer (at the opening performance, videographer Palmer). In the evening’s final figure, Shanahan’s arms reach to their full span, then she pumps them in a gesture of momentum as she moves forward: choo-choo! Though it embodies the rhythm brilliantly, it’s the only move whose timing is misjudged: Shanahan circled the stage perhaps five times doing it, and midway through the fourth, the audience began to shift in their seats. Perhaps she didn’t know exactly how to conclude–that’s the problem with doing a piece about repetition–or perhaps the point was to show that reiteration can exhaust the watcher as well as the doer. Overall, though, there’s a lot more exhilaration than exhaustion in So-Called Repetition.