Mad Shak Dance Company

at Link’s Hall, April 6 and 7

By Laura Molzahn

Molly Shanahan, like all choreographers worth their salt, has a distinctive way of moving–hers reminds me of the saying “The best defense is a good offense.” Her dancers often take a low stance, legs planted wide, but they don’t stay there. Instead they might swing one leg in a wide arc from back to front or wind their torsos into a spiral and soar into a whirling kick, like Bruce Lee on a delicate day. Their arms might be thrust in opposite circles like two windmills, or one arm held high might be dropped only to snap back into position, as if redressing a momentary lapse in attention. This is the bedrock of Shanahan’s choreography, but “These Teeth I Sink Into”–a performance by the six members of the Mad Shak Dance Company, of which Shanahan is artistic director, plus three additional dancers and one musician–showed the sometimes pointed, sometimes aimless things she’s done with this style since 1991.

Goodfellow’s Easel, premiered earlier this year at the Next Dance Festival, and the 1992 A Conference of My Ghosts are both quartets and both exemplars of the Shanahan movement style. But where the earlier dance has an obscure subtext about grief and loss, revealed mostly in voice-over lyrics (“My baby lies cold,” “Words seem so cold”), Goodfellow’s Easel follows a purely musical progression. At first Kevin O’Donnell coaxes from his trap set cut-off bursts of percussion–feints at meaning–then finally a long, drawn-out line like a strong wind with sudden gusts and lulls. Though their movements don’t change substantially, the dancers seem buoyed by this wind, urged into longer and more satisfying motions. (This dance worked better, however, at the Dance Center of Columbia College last January than in Link’s smaller space, where it didn’t achieve the same momentum.)

Two solos on this program also suggest that Shanahan is moving toward abstraction, away from literal meaning. Both are accompanied by an onstage musician: David Dieckmann on guitar in the 1991 Out on a Limb, Andrew Bird on violin in the 1995 In the Absence of A. Company member Jenny Stang does a fine job dancing Out on a Limb, but the choreography is standard-issue Shanahan with a few bits thrown in to underline the precarious position of the title: Stang pulls her hands up into little paws, cautiously moves a toe forward, and sometimes falls–though she tends to bound back up immediately.

In the Absence of A, which Shanahan performed herself despite an injury, doesn’t denote any particular situation yet is a much more meaningful dance. Relying mostly on the arms and torso, this nearly stationary sculptural work is a refreshing change from the usual quick strength, even violence of Shanahan’s other choreography. Lit by a single spot from below, In the Absence of A has a natural drama that comes partly from the chiaroscuro lighting, partly from Shanahan’s provocative poses: she begins with both arms overhead, her torso and head dropped to one side, her hair falling over her face. Whereas the arms in her other works are often suggestive but almost careless, here she attends studiously to the upper body: the vulnerable underside of the forearms, a hand curled tenderly at the shoulder, arms wrapping the torso and tying it up like a package.

Significantly, In the Absence of A was created under the auspices of the Hedwig Dance Lab (in the program Shanahan thanks Hedwig’s associate artistic director, Sheldon Smith, specifically). Though Shanahan is passionate and prolific–in her bio she notes that she’s choreographed “over 30 works”–apparently she needs an outside eye, another point of view, to give her dances structure and focus. The other piece she created with Hedwig’s aid, Hive, is top-notch. It offers the best of Shanahan’s natural forcefulness and adds some quirky movement (mostly for O’Connell, who does a series of hopping push-ups and flashes a victory or peace sign over his shoulder) and imaginative uses of language: the explosive recitation of words beginning with B (in alphabetical or reverse alphabetical order) and the dancers singing folk-song lyrics backward, in tones so mournful the refrain seems a lamentation in an archaic tongue. Hive’s weirdness alone makes it intriguing, but it’s also well constructed: repetitions and variations tie it together.

Shanahan’s premiere on this program, These Teeth I Sink Into, reveals the influence of Hive but lacks its depth and coherence. This piece for seven begins with some tableaux lit by bright flashes and separated by blackouts; but if they’re meant to tell us something about the rest of the dance, they’re too quick to be useful. The voice-over text alludes to problems with identity (“When I am who I am”), fortunately with tongue slightly in cheek. The opening ensemble section is chaotic; later the choreography sometimes evolves into unison. But what stuck in my mind were the quirky gestures, perhaps because they reminded me of Hive: some might refer to identity issues (tapping one’s own cheek or eyes), but others are so casual as to seem unintentional (looking down, scratching the head or belly). The piece, which is rather short, ends abruptly and with no sense of closure.

Shanahan’s step backward from the work she produced under the influence of the Hedwig Dance Lab suggests that if she can’t have someone else look at her dances, she should refine her own approaches and sensibilities. She needs to slow down, to think: In the Absence of A and Hive show that more thought means more coherence and more feeling. Hive in particular, with its quasi-humorous tone and underlying emotion, is the kind of complex work that can be seen several times and still reward attention. Part of that interest comes from the passionate dancing by the five performers–Dardi McGinley Gallivan, with her combined strength and lyricism, is particularly astonishing.

More important, in Hive Shanahan sets up parameters that, when violated, produce meaning. From the opening section–O’Connell playing a snare drum–Hive has the feeling of boot camp, with its punishing push-ups, occasional duck walk, and the spit-out B words. That paramilitary atmosphere makes the sudden appearance of the word “yearn,” repeated near the end by three or four dancers, significant: it has a softness found nowhere else in the piece. In this dance Shanahan the martial artist becomes Shanahan the artist, simultaneously herself and her own observer.

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