The Wanton Seed

Mad Shak Dance Company at the Marjorie Ward Marshall Dance Center of Northwesetn University, January 17 and 18.

Loosely structured around Anthony Burgess’s 1962 novel The Wanting Seed, Mad Shak’s creative, robust The Wanton Seed, shown at Northwestern University, offers an intriguing glimpse into artistic director Molly Shanahan’s creative process. The result of a three-year collaboration between Shanahan and Mad Shak member Kevin O’Donnell, this evening-length dance intersperses large segments of Burgess’s text with a vibrant, haunting score composed and produced by O’Donnell and David Dieckmann, weaving together sociopolitical commentary, the story of a love triangle gone bad, and tenacious, morally ambiguous fertility rituals. The work’s greatest achievement–as well as its greatest flaw–is its reliance on Burgess’s disturbing, eccentric novel about the repression of love and heterosexual sex in a society of the future that enthusiastically promotes homosexuality to control overpopulation and tacitly encourages cannibalism to feed its citizens. The novel itself is straightforward and conventional in its structure, by turns intelligent, humorous, delightful, perverse, and horrifying in its treatment of these lurid themes.

To their credit, Shanahan and O’Donnell have the courage of gamblers–they’ve cannibalized Burgess’s text to fit their intuitive understanding of the story’s emotional development and resolution, successfully condensing and transforming the novel into two 30-minute segments separated by an intermission. For minutes at a time the result is nothing short of spellbinding, but they’ve also underestimated the difficulty of deciphering the show’s thematic nuances if the viewer hasn’t read and meditated on Burgess’s novel the way they obviously have. The full impact of their production is dissipated, for example, by the recitation of bizarre, seemingly disjointed textual passages in the show’s first half, passages that are never fully reconciled or explained by the piece’s development in the second half.

Yet the concert is often haunting, beautiful, evocative, terrible–in some ways even more powerful than Burgess’s novel, which seems almost staid by comparison. The heart and soul of The Wanton Seed is its minimalist score, which blends understated, guttural electric-guitar rhythms with a sensuous drum and keyboard. Waxing and waning with eerie vibrancy, the music conjures an emotional landscape of ambiguity, uncertainty, and imminent cataclysmic transformation, a futuristic world that simultaneously recalls the half-remembered distant past. It is an artistic achievement that stands on its own.

O’Donnell and Dieckmann’s composition is given extravagant–and exquisite–physical form by Shanahan’s inspired choreography, superbly executed by dancers Dardi McGinley Gallivan, Margi Cole, Jane Ledford Adkins, and Jenny Stang. This quartet–which performs in a variety of solos, duets, and trios as well as in full ensemble with Shanahan, O’Donnell, and Dieckmann–gradually asserts itself as the wellspring of the piece, literally emerging from the shadows to ritually repeat movement that eventually overwhelms the disembodied textual recitations and dialogues.

Initially relegated to the background by the lines O’Donnell stoically recites, the quartet repeats and recombines movements that finally coalesce into a language paralleling Burgess’s text and O’Donnell’s score. The most dramatic example is a folkloric step, kick, and lateral hop that, through the thumping of the dancers’ feet on the floor, adds an impromptu percussive counterpoint to the piece’s textual and musical information. The “folklore phrase,” which is speeded up and amplified on several occasions to great dramatic effect, is the aesthetic and thematic foundation of the piece. Its raw, explosive vitality recalls the atavistic reference in The Wanton Seed’s title to an ancient fertility rite in which participants have sex in the fields in order to ensure an abundant harvest.

The choreography also includes more athletic movements, such as long, slithering slides, high-spirited pirouettes, rotating shoulders, undulating pelvises, and much unpredictable mutual pushing and lifting across hips. The dancers alternate these vigorous sequences with more delicate movements, such as drawing a half circle swiftly around their own foreheads with one arm as if stripping off a visor. Other recurring phrases include one dancer stroking another’s head, arms, and shoulders in a kind of reverie, and one dancer biting another’s neck, perhaps a reference to the cannibalism that spins out of control in the nightmare society of Burgess’s novel.

The end result of Mad Shak’s wide-ranging, eccentric display is a sense of being transported into a disorienting, morally ambiguous world rich with sights, sounds, and (sometimes conflicting) ideas. In order to conceptualize and choreograph this demanding, exotic, enchanting piece, Shanahan has embraced a cornucopia of sensations and reflections on social organization, interpersonal relationships, sexuality, and creativity. These are big themes, and she induces us to engage them in a serious, compassionate way.

But I’m left with the nagging feeling that something has been left unsaid, some larger, more ambitious task ignored by this brash, talented company. After watching both performances and reading Burgess’s novel, I came to feel that the narrative frame provided by Burgess’s excerpted texts may have detracted more than it added to The Wanton Seed–mainly because it diverted attention from the willowy, athletic eruptions of the female quartet, focusing the audience instead on spoken words and dramatic actions whose richness and meaning could be fully appreciated only by those well-acquainted with Burgess’s work. I left both performances eager to see more of Shanahan’s artistic vision, not Burgess’s. Perhaps The Wanton Seed could have been even more spectacular–and meaningful–if Shanahan had relegated the novel to a footnote and trusted her own choreographic judgment to re-create its tone and values.

I’d also like to see O’Donnell and Dieckmann focus on what they do best, which is to write and perform music. Both turned in credible performances, but neither is a true actor or dancer, though their courage and willingness to test their own limits by taking the stage are admirable. Ultimately, however, if Mad Shak expects to be taken seriously and have a lasting impact on dance in Chicago, more proficient male performers will have to be found to match the vigor and grace of the women in the quartet.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by Kirsten Sorton.