Molly Shanahan is ready for you.
Pegged by TOC—just below Barack Obama—as one of 20 to watch in 2007, Molly Shanahan is reviving an investigative, improvised solo she was just about to debut at that time. My Name is a Blackbird, with original music by Andrew Bird, Mark Booth and David Pavkovic, reopens Thursday 13 at Epiphany Church and, as she told us after showing a bit of what the ’bird looks like these days, she’s glad the place doesn’t have curtains.
You spent a lot of time fine-tuning Blackbird for its premiere at the Building Stage—the environment felt very tightly controlled. How will Epiphany [Episcopal Church] change this piece?
I love that Epiphany is old, and that there’s an element of decay there, and also that it’s really, really big.… It feels like there’s more suggestion of the infinite space. That sounds religious, but I mean from an artistic point of view. I didn’t want to be precious about re-creating those conditions exactly, even though I loved them, and with infinite dinero I would want to re-create them because they were so intentional. But I’ve maybe gotten a little bit closer to an original goal [at Epiphany], which was to…keep the movement obligated to describing space, or time, or emotion, without a ton of help.
What does “a ton of help” mean?
I like intentional choices about lighting and sound and costume and all that, but one of my creative goals is to continue to move toward a place where the movement is the highlighted element, period.
Does dancing in natural light force a kind of honesty?
No question. But I feel like I’m on thin ice here, because I don’t want to insult [lighting designer] Josh [Weckesser], at all, and I don’t want to imply a disregard for theatrical artistry. But natural light…has a profound effect on me. I love it. I’m stunned by it.
It impacts the work, and let’s not keep that out.
Totally. Let’s not clean it up or try to theatricalize it.
When you began your ensemble work, Stamina of Curiosity, you had specific goals for what you wanted it to accomplish. How have or haven’t you ended up where you expected?
Well, in Blackbird, I got excited and lonely at the same time, and that’s how I knew I wanted to include an ensemble. I was aware that my process can get introverted, and I wanted to break through some of that, and so I started translating aspects of Blackbird to an ensemble and, over the course of two-plus years, learned a lot about what I asked of myself and what I can ask of other people. Quite literally. [Laughs] …Through a lot of hard work and painful evolutions, I developed a courage about the unknown. I think when I started Stamina I assumed that…everybody should live like that.
Has anyone described an experience—outside of dance—that sounds like what you’re doing?
We have a board member who is an innovation consultant…which is kind of funny because you don’t wake up in the morning and go, “Today I will innovate! That’s what’s on my to-do list!” He talks a lot about the challenge of rewarding risk and… wildly welcoming the possibility of failure…and constantly reminds me that the corporate world tries to cultivate that value but faces hurdles doing so because corporate culture is so risk-averse. He’s always hearing something I’m talking about in the rehearsal process or in performance and taking it right back to that same challenge and struggle.
And within dance? What’s your relationship to the Chicago dance community?
I feel really grateful to Chicago—oddly enough, because I didn’t feel this vibe when I came here—because I’ve been able to sustain an endeavor for 17 years that has increasingly become about experimenting. I love that Chicago audiences and press and funders have let me do that. And dancers! It’s funny that you’re asking about my place in the Chicago community because it’s something that I’ve taken a hiatus from thinking about too much, and it’s been a good hiatus. I think there’s a lot of really cool stuff going on in Chicago dance. When I first started Mad Shak…I wanted to be recognized…and it’s not that it’s not important to me anymore, but I can say that this community has strengthened, big time, certainly over the last 17 years and over the last five or six in particular. It feels strong enough now that my responsibility…is just to do my work, whatever that means at the time. Now, I teach a ton, and so I also get to interact with the community through that. [Pause] I can say two more things about this—take them as you will. One is that, I think that I’m increasingly seen or recognized as someone who is offering something in movement that is distinctive and alternative, and the other is that I worry that members of the dance community think that I do something, and appreciate that I do it, but have never seen it. The ensemble talks about this a lot, and [they tell me] people are like, “Oh yeah, Mad Shak’s so great, it’s so great that Molly’s doing what she’s doing!” and so they ask them, “Oh? When’s the last show you saw?” and they say, “Oh—I haven’t seen her work.” [Laughs] I think sometimes that people think that this is a machine, that Molly Shanahan/Mad Shak is growing toward institutional status, that because we have good marketing, we have a good graphic designer, we have—
—signifiers of that.
—Exactly, and, to be fair, in Mad Shak’s first eight or ten years, that’s what I worked my ass off on doing! If I saw Hubbard Street doing a particular kind of…savvy direct-mail appeal, or whatever it is…I’d say to myself, “We have to do that, too.” But I don’t want to give anyone the impression that there is an institutional value at play here: [Mad Shak] is about sustaining the evolution of my work. [Laughs] It’s not luck. I’m not lucky. I’ve worked my ass off, and I want people to know that I want them to see the work, not because they owe it to me, but because I just want them to see it.
You’re excited about it.
I’m super excited about it! I’m thinking back, now, to some old Mad Shak dances where it’s butting up against something [punches palm], you know, it hasn’t broken through.… Now I feel like I’ve kind of broken through something and I have this momentum that’s really beautiful to me, whereas when you’re in this other stage [punches palm], what gets seen is the impact before it’s broken through. Now that it’s broken through, I feel so much beauty, and I’m like, “People, come on!” you know? Like, “Come see the beauty.” It’s not trying to prove that something can be different, or even how it’s different. These shows are a lot about hoping people come. [Laughs]
And, because you’re at Epiphany, there’s room.
That was one of the reasons, yes. We can set up for 40 people, but we can also set up for 120 people. And we prefer that there are 120 people.
You tend to set up for smaller audiences.
Did you ever choose a venue in the past because you could cap your audience size?
That’s a great question, and I think the absolute best, most honest answer is yes. [Laughs] Because Mad Shak’s first show was at Northwestern University and…there were only three people there. And, oh my God, that killed me, but…the next night, there were about six or eight people there. Maybe ten.
An empty chair looks at you.
It totally does.
If there are only ten chairs, but they’re all full, that thing isn’t in the room.
That emptiness, right. Hey, I thought about going to a hypnotist! [Laughs] I mean, I have some areas of my life that have some really good juju, but getting people to see my work is not one of them.… It’s like [telling my production manager, Rachel Damon], “You know, Rachel, I think I want to do this in a really intimate setting, because I want everyone to be able to feel the details of the work,” while that 24-year-old Molly is there going, “And, if only five fucking people come, I won’t be disappointed.” [Laughs]
How did it feel to be on a big proscenium stage last summer in Milwaukee, then?
I didn’t know how much I was going to love it. I loved that house—the challenge was that we [the dancers, and audience still] communicated and were generous, that we didn’t get lost behind the proscenium, but something about that setup…felt very safe, and I thought a lot about my great-grandparents who were vaudeville stars. I don’t think about that very often.
Yeah, my great-grandparents, and my great-aunt and -uncle were vaudeville stars.
They toured, man! They toured and made like two thousand dollars a week, back in the ’20s and ’30s. They did bits! Vaudeville bits, wah-wah-wah, song and dance—
No, this is in the United States. Actually, both of my parents are from the U.S.—they moved to Canada during the Vietnam War.
What were their names?
They were the Four Mortons. That was their stage name; the family name was Kennedy—Sam and Kitty Kennedy. Recently I’ve been…maybe more comfortable with the part of me that’s a showman. [Laughs]
You talk a lot about the “alchemy” of being watched. Is there another side to that coin—are there things you don’t do because you’re in front of people, or research that you do alone that you would like to bring to an audience, but don’t know how?
I love that question. I want the witness to feel cared for, even if they don’t like it. I want them to feel like they’re in the hands of someone who cares for them, who’s skilled. I want them to know that, if I’m gonna put shoes on their horse, I’m not gonna butcher their horse’s hooves, you know? [Laughs] That’s a ridiculous image, but: I’m not going to disregard the commitment that they’ve made, in time and money, to come and see what I’m doing. It’s up to them whether they like it or not, but it’s up to me that they feel cared for, or at least that it’s clear that I care for them. [Pause] I also think that I would be totally disingenuous if I suggested that I’ve completely jettisoned the desire to be seen as a “good dancer.” [Laughs] It’s not front and center anymore, because I feel I have so much joy in dancing now—and I know that that’s such a huge ingredient in being a “good dancer,” but, yes: I’m absolutely in dialogue about that, all the time. If it’s interesting to me, how much can I trust that…the audience will see it? I want to make sure that they understand that there’s a sentient being dancing, that I’m not just responding to, you know, whatever.
That you’re curating your thoughts.
Yeah. And I think that I’m composing with a decreasing amount of strategy and an increasing amount of trust that composition will occur.
There’s always that fear in performance work. “I just wasted an hour of these people’s lives.”
Right, and also, how will the audience see me and what do I need from them? Maybe I don’t need that validation from them, so much. I get it somewhere else now. I’m in service to them; they’re not in service to me.
You sound ready.
I’m excited. I’m happy!
Has feeling like that at this stage been difficult in the past?
Totally. It’s very new to be like, “Hey, come check this out!” I don’t know if it’s being older or just getting through some crap, but I have this appreciation that beauty is important and a big part of what dance is. Serious beauty. As a younger woman, I thought of beauty as frivolous, but now I’m like, whoa. Beauty.
My Name is a Blackbird spreads its wings at Epiphany Episcopal Church Thursday 13–Sunday 16. Stamina of Curiosity: Our Strange Elevations follows May 20–23.