Mad Shak Dance Company

at the Storefront Theater, June 28-30

By Kelly Kleiman

Someone once told me that the real subject of any novel is the effect that time has on people and relationships. If that’s true, then Molly Shanahan, artistic director of Mad Shak Dance Company, is a novelist of dance. Time seems to be her main interest–whether it moves or we move through it, whether its speed varies or only seems to, and what it means to individuals barely aware of it but who can’t escape it nonetheless.

Shanahan presented two meditations on the subject in her company’s performances at the Storefront Theater. The first dance shows time fragmented and disjointed while the second, a world premiere, employs fluid choreographic patterns suggesting time-reverse film and time-lapse photography. Though the newer work is more satisfying–the brain is hardwired to seek patterns–the pieces feel like variations on a theme. If Cock and Bull Stories portrays the random scattering of bits of sand and rock, Like Clouds in the Skies of Never shows those same granules through a kaleidoscope. Both are strong, intelligent works superbly danced by the Mad Shak ensemble.

Both, unfortunately, also feature music by Kevin O’Donnell, the company’s resident composer. While the score for Cock and Bull Stories is appropriate–the music stops and starts apparently at random, commenting on the text spoken by the dancers (“If time isn’t passing anymore”)–the sound is discordant; a shrieking violin (played by Andrew Bird) is more likely to inspire winces than dancing. But at least the score for Cock and Bull Stories isn’t intrusive: many of the dance segments are performed in silence or off the beat or to the rhythms of the dancers’ breathing or of the script. And when the music returns, it provides a counterpoint to the fragmented dance: just as you don’t know where to look, you don’t know when to listen.

By contrast, the music in Like Clouds actively interferes with enjoyment of the dancing. A monotonous drone of chants, it has the faintly Eastern flavor of New Age pap. The score has so little forward momentum it seems it must be the same five bars on a continuous loop. It feels as if we have to fight our way through this annoying, redundant wall of sound to appreciate the dancing and choreography.

Cock and Bull Stories, which is inspired by Sartre’s No Exit, begins with voices issuing from the darkened stage, all reciting the same text but at different times–a spoken version of a round. As the performers echo and extend the others’ sentences, they establish aurally as well as verbally the central question of whether time is passing while also setting up a rhythm for the dance.

Then the lights come up to reveal the ensemble’s ten dancers clustered on a pair of couches at the rear of the stage. Some are speaking while others gesture with their arms as if about to fly away. Those who make efforts to rise are pushed back, but ultimately some escape and begin gymnastic rolls and reaching gestures, arms extended, torsos contorted. At some point the music begins, following some inscrutable logic of its own, and soon all the dancers–each in a different costume–are in motion but not in unison. Too many things are going on at once to catch and interpret them all.

Everything in Cock and Bull Stories–the costumes, the simultaneous solos–bespeaks entropy, even the few unison maneuvers: a set of backward kicks with flailing arms graphically portrays being out of sync. But the dance isn’t a pure expression of disconnectedness: when the dancers face forward they meet the audience’s eyes, breaching the fourth wall to demonstrate how disquieting connection can be. And any contact among the dancers is painful or awkward. There are smacks and slams and strangleholds and lifts devoted primarily not to supporting the other person but to pushing her out of the way, as when two women vie for possession of a love seat. All the grappling is asexual (despite the couches), and all the sounds are sharp: occasional finger snaps sting the ear. Near the end the ensemble runs repeatedly downstage to some unreachable goal, repeatedly stopping short in disappointment. Throughout Shanahan makes exceptional use of the floor: all the rolls and bends remind us that dance, so often airborne, has its roots in the earth.

Shanahan’s occasional use of fussy hand gestures is trying–they look like misguided mime–and she extends the piece unnecessarily with a long section in which the dancers simply walk around. On the other hand, if you’re going to comment on time’s passage, perhaps creating the sense that “This is too long!” is wise and to the point.

Though the piece shares No Exit’s point of view, it feels utterly different. Where Sartre’s play expresses futility and entrapment through ennui, Cock and Bull Stories expresses them through frenetic activity. Each choice is perfect for the medium employed.

Like Clouds looks similar but is more organized–and it’s no mean trick to organize an expression of randomness. The piece shares with Cock and Bull Stories a penchant for athletic dancing, including handstands and cartwheels and a game of Red Rover. But here solos give way to duets, trios, and sections in unison. Where everything in Cock and Bull Stories seems to be happening simultaneously, Like Clouds is serial. But both dances employ reaching arms and rolled shoulders combined with flopping torsos and legs akimbo. Again Shanahan’s use of the floor is impressive, here displayed largely in half lifts. (I assume the choreographer is making a virtue of the necessity of having women partner women, since they make up most of her company.) Moreover, Like Clouds continues Shanahan’s reflections on time: leaps backward look like a film reversed while sketches of ballet arm positions are so rapid they seem viewed through time-lapse photography.

The strong, passionate dancers of Mad Shak are the ideal medium for Shanahan’s thoughtful work. If she can find music worthy of her dance imagination, the company will be unstoppable.

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