I danced and collaborated with Molly Shanahan/Mad Shak throughout 2008.
A one-night-only presentation Saturday of Molly Shanahan/Mad Shak at Milwaukee’s Pitman Theatre marked the culmination of a project begun over a year ago. I spoke with Shanahan the morning after the premiere of Stamina of Curiosity: Our Strange Elevations about the night itself and her journey to it.
Molly Shanahan spent much of this decade paring her creative process to the core. Eye Cycle (2003-2005) involved just one other dancer, and the following series, My Name is a Blackbird (2005-2009), enlisted artists in other media but in performance featured Shanahan alone. Stamina of Curiosity was a return to ensemble dancemaking that sought to keep intact the discoveries and progress she made in these chamber works; its half-dozen-plus installments, subtitled, were presented in a variety of venues – Elevations was preceded by First, This; This Parliament; Minerva’s Laugh and my answer is yes.
“When I’m teaching, rehearsing or coaching I feel really present in my body,” Shanahan explains. “If I’m pulling back on some level, I’m acutely aware of it.” The relatively-set movement scores of Stamina were a challenging reentry from the structured improvisation and live study of her solo work. “In Blackbird, I could play with risk in a zone built to facilitate that. Improvisation is flirted with in Stamina of Curiosity but, in general, this new work is much more composed. It took some time to acknowledge the fear that that brought up for me, that sense that I might crumple or fail or do something onstage that was ‘outside’ [of my goals for Stamina].”
Half an hour before the show last night, I realized how scared I was – it was like worrying a rollercoaster was going to fall off a track or something, like vertigo. You want to stay diligent about what you’ve practiced while staying alive within it. I thought, ‘Well, I’m either going to go with that, get worried and freak out, or take my own advice, accept how I’m feeling and see where it goes.’ Once the show was underway, though, I felt like we were able to tap into experiencing live performance in a way that created changes in the work without derailing it. But for about five minutes before the show, a little bit of doom definitely set in, for all of us.
The emotional bravery, encyclopedic vocabulary and inimitable imagery of Blackbird becomes a stunning force when multiplied by five bodies (Timothy Heck, Kristina Fluty, Benjamin Law and Jessica Marasa). Alverno Presents‘ David Ravel said in a curtain speech, “I avoid doing these whenever I can. The first moment of any dance performance is a fragile thing – I prefer to allow it to speak for itself.” Elevations‘ opening moments do perhaps seem fragile or reticent in a concert-dance frame, but are better understood as a viewable process of tuning. You can see physical harmonics click into place between these dancers, the soundless equivalent of an orchestra falling in line with the first chair’s A. Silence is the environment for the beginning of Elevations and many subsequent sections; five short pieces by by Icelandic cellist Hildur Ingveldardóttir Guðnadóttir bob like buoys in the quiet sea of five dancers’ breathing (deliberately audible through the use of suspended onstage microphones) and begin in precise synchronization with moments of physical contact or initiation of movement.
In conversations about the work throughout its conception, Shanahan had many questions about how to place Stamina of Curiosity onto a proscenium stage. All its previous showings had the audience’s chairs in an arc placed within the performance space; direct eye contact with the viewer was frequent and deliberate. As though there was a collective urge to dive into the house, Elevations made repeated use of the apron and little of the upstage third – the piece throughout is like a heavy rug cut too big, spilling over the edge. At one point, Fluty sits on it and the group scoots end-to-end behind her as a single mass, a face of bodies looking out at its witness. Josh Weckesser’s lighting design kept the upstage wall a million miles away by washing it in heavy blues and purples, the company pulled out of its visual ground in a bath of pink and amber hues.
The phrasework in Elevations contains most if not all of the material developed throughout Stamina‘s many stages. As a result, it’s the series’ most variable and unpredictable landscape. During a duet between Shanahan and Heck, their weight, while on the floor, is countered through a forearm-to-forearm grasp. Standing, their bodies come closer together and their connection becomes an isometric exploration on humeri and radii. Description of external, imagined shapes has been brought out more distinctly – the surfaces of small spheres, twisting planes and tubes are shown as clearly as in a rendering of a Gehry façade. The dancers’ staggered horizontal stabbing of one arm, a key image of Stamina born in its first rehearsals, ended with the men departing from the group by opening their sterna along high diagonals; what used to transition into a nuanced internal study instead becomes ascension via surrender. Heck and Law’s following duet is part improvisation on weight-sharing mechanics, part drunken wrestle (many images, initially somatic and textural investigations, were at the Pitman naturally theatrical – the inevitable narrative seed of interactions wasn’t underlined or supressed). They’re interrupted, though – the three women come barreling back into the space and sweep the men into a new system.
Elevations‘ active environment shifts quickly and unpredictably. Extended, non-locomotive structures are popped by a single mover suddenly flying by. A phrase of floor vocabulary that begins with the dancers on all fours, elbows buckling underneath them like a kid goat’s knees, houses a departure for each member of the quintet in sequence for solos written in different languages. Heck is broken and hunched like a defeated goblin; Fluty bats the space around her with tense hands and the eager gait of a marsupial; Law disappears into a fluid blur of soft falls; Marasa follows a path dictated to her by an errant thumb that’s hijacked her agency. The membrane that surrounds all five stretches here (and elsewhere) nearly to tearing, but its resilience even when sheer holds fast. Shanahan has a solo, too, before a Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber passacaglia for solo violin introduces a golden tonal shift in the work’s firmly-final moments.
Shanahan described to me how the intensive period in preparation for Elevations was marked by a feeling of culmination. “Often during our rehearsals we would talk about how executing a movement is ending it – there’s a constant string of small sadnesses as you let things go, one after another.” In line with Stamina‘s larger envelope of research, however, an honesty about that very sensation was acknowledged, owned, and made visible. “Last night, we got into a zone of just allowing and running with the experience of sadness at this being over. The energy onstage between us was just, well, loving is the best way I can put it. Support, presence and permission have been key words throughout this last leg – it was incredible to be able to simultaneously feel and maintain connections with the audience as well as inside the ensemble.”