Sharks Before Drowning: Live review
There are a lot of things in this world but, before December 2, I’d be willing to bet there wasn’t a dance quartet fitting Afrika Bambaataa, A Few Good Men, Ludacris, Glengarry Glen Ross, 17th-century Bohemian composer Biber von Bibern, contemporary somatic and performance research and Whitney Houston into one heart-stopping hour. Sharks Before Drowning, the wildly unpredictable latest iteration of Molly Shanahan/Mad Shak’s Stamina of Curiosity project, is all that and so much more, the snip of a thread through mirrored beads that reflect our age both stupid and sublime as they cascade to the floor and richochet around inside a sealed rectangular box.
That box is the “Ballroom” of the Marjorie Ward Marshall Center at Northwestern University, where Shanahan teaches dance. For Sharks, she’s rolled the room’s marley panels to the feet of those seated in the front row, exposing narrow wooden floorboards that match the tan walls and a glowing parchment backdrop. Lighting designer Josh Weckesser, a longtime collaborator of Shanahan’s, does beautiful work guiding our eye around this chamber, which takes on the ceremonial plainness of washitsu. Just three dancers emerge at first, chic in purplish-grey Calvin Klein and inching toward us lip-synching an unheard tune their gestures tell us is a platinum pop hit, or at least a song that wants to be one.
But by the time they reach us, the helium has left their lungs and muted chipmunk voices have descended to a normal pitch. On the left, Kristina Fluty’s eyes have glassed over; she looks to be on the verge of tears. Shanahan emerges and instigates a room-roaming quartet that takes the spherical curves of previous Staminas and half-flattens them into Hadid-like lozenges; the dancers’ paths criss-cross like warp and weft. The right hand pinched into a beak that was Stamina’s calling card is gone; in its place is a pair of claws, held out at the ready and scratching space like a chalkboard.
I wouldn’t call it painful, but some viewers will likely be tried by Shanahan’s choice to let von Bibern’s plaintive sonata movements play simultaneously with singles like “Holidae Inn” and “Planet Rock.” (The precursor here is Paul Taylor’s Cloven Kingdom—also about the primitive desires and beastly motives of ostensibly civilized people—with its score that mixes junkyard percussion into Arcangelo Corelli.) At any rate, the dancing goes on mostly in Cunninghamesque relation to the soundtrack (which includes Alec Baldwin’s “coffee is for closers” speech) besides a couple of concise alignments and a bold finish that shouldn’t work but does.
Other than the pleasure of watching Fluty, Shanahan, Benjamin Law and Jessica Marasa’s rarified cohesion, which approaches that of Trisha Brown’s company, there’s the intellectual onion-peeling of what Sharks’s strange universe is trying to tell us. As if to highlight the fact, a new noun in Shanahan’s vocabulary looks like the turning of a key with the hand at a high diagonal or with the foot at a low one. Sharks’s score puts the dance action in limbo between past and present, cinema (our culture’s go-to for fantasy) and reality. The vitriol Mamet wrote for Blake, and Jack Nicholson’s scenery-chewing testimony as Colonel Nathan R. Jessep, are built in the template of white male assholedom responsible for, as Friedman put it in his recent column, written in the voice of a fictional Chinese diplomat, our “willful self-destructiveness…as if America has all the time and money in the world for petty politics.”
Sharks reminded me of the primary reason I enjoy live performance so much: Visible evidence of selfless cooperation cleanses the palate when the day’s news consists of tail-chasing trend-charting and pissing contest updates. Shanahan setting her intimate investigations of body and ensemble to overblown Hollywood shout-downs is brilliant and unforeseen, a paradigm shift for the choreographer, and an anticipation-building preamble to her just-announced return to solo work. One of the most daring and exciting dances of 2010 appears with just four weeks left in the year. Catch it if you can.
Encore performances of Sharks Before Drowning will be held June 2–5 at 8pm at the Marjorie Ward Marshall Dance Center on Northwestern University’s Evanston campus.