Alysia Ramos and Ariane Audd face Mary Sinner's projection art at the Ladies Literary Club for Ashley Anderson's dance, dead dog song. Photo: Mary Boerens Sinner
On Friday, Sept. 6, Ashley Anderson presented three performances of a dance that she has developed into a full-stage-room piece, dead dog song, at the Ladies' Literary Club on 850 E. South Temple, in collaboration with visual artist Mary Boerens Sinner. The foyer was abuzz as I arrived, with people leaving the 8 p.m. performance and others arriving for the 9 p.m. time (the first presentation happened at 7 p.m. that evening). Given the temporal spacing, I was impressed by the turnout I saw vacating the building and by the amount of people that watched the final performance with me—Anderson and the community events branch of her nonprofit, loveDANCEmore, deservedly caught the attention of the Salt Lake Tribune, 15 Bytes and City Weekly for pre-coverage of the event.
The Ladies' Literary Club is a gorgeous, prairie-style building built in 1913 with upper and lower levels adjacent to the main floor (that I could see). Anderson called the attention of the crowd in the foyer, and apologized for the “haunted house” feel of her directing us to the next room to see the opening performance, Gretchen Reynolds’ Choreographer’s Dream, Puppeteer’s Nightmare. (I don’t know why she apologized—it was a great atmospheric element.) In the doors left of the stage room, Gretchen stood by as the audience filed in before a large, black, rotating box. As the box rotated to my vantage point, I saw that there were three puppets on a small stage inside of the box, and they began to dance to Elvis’ “All Shook Up.” The two puppets toward the box’s stage right had a Mr. Rogers’–Lady Elaine feel, but imbued with men in sweaters and slacks; the stage left puppet had on a white dress shirt, red tie and something akin to a sombrero. The puppets were a little weird in terms of their wooden visages, which I liked. The choreography for the puppets was jolty and fun-spirited, and elicited chuckles from the spectators—especially when the lyric, “I’m all shook up!” came around, as the puppets twisted their legs in a Catholic sort of libido repression, which lent the puppets a sort of high school identity. The climax of the piece came when the stage rotated around to reveal the three puppeteers: three older men in just their underwear, at which the audience laughed unboundedly (I’m pretty sure I spotted the back of Gretchen’s husband, Paul Reynolds). This also recalled the title, as the nightmare of showing up to school naked was compounded by the perversion of the youthful sentiment via age. This didn’t come off as something morbid, but, rather, a lighthearted joke. Choreographer’s Dream, Puppeteers Nightmare is a fun jaunt, and though the puppet stage looks hefty to transport, I’d like to see more dances made through this medium. The cutesy tone of the dance making was balanced out by the slight creepiness of the puppets. My limited exposure to puppetry notwithstanding, I thought this balance worked well.
At the behest of the dead dog song’s Rehearsal Director, Samuel Hanson, I took a balcony seat to behold the quaint but voluptuous contour of the main performance space, whose white and beige walls and inlay and hardwood floors created an angelic ambience. Sinner contributed to the space with her visual installment: curled ducts that shot out shifting projections to generate an opaque sense of narrative and transitions, along with correlating imagery light-shot to the walls. There were sillhouettes of a woman and a rustic house floated to create a sort of fishbowl feel for the room. Notably, there was black silhouette on white curtains at the back of the stage in a confluence of angles and curves. Dancer Erica Womack lied at front of center of the stage proper, but the meat of the performance would take place on the same floor as the ground-level audience, where Katie Meehan stood, at the center of the space. To be joined onstage later by Tara McArthur and Alexandra Bradshaw, wearing the same outfit, Meehan and Womack further confirmed Anderson’s penchant for costuming. She dresses her dancers in “costumes” that generate cohesion for her work, but allows them to wear clothes that they may actually wear about the town, which, I feel, renders her dances more relatable for the audience. (If I see another dance with the dancers wearing those tight, black, bellbottomed gaucho dance pants, I will fight the choreographer and/or costume designer.) In this case, the four aforementioned performers wore blue/grey-patterned rompers.
Meehan began the piece at the center of the floor in a forward fold to slowly come up to begin a phrase that involved pointed arms and spinning. McArthur and Bradshaw entered to close the drapes on either side of the space and to underline the glow from Sinner’s projections, then joined Meehan to lunge and lie on the floor. The trio swiveled in unison to create clock-hand-like motions with their legs, and demonstrated that they were subsumed by a phrasal system. They would regain their footing to move their hands in a vertical-breakdance windmill motion, hit the floor again, and butt scoot and collapse into snow angels. The shadows of dancers Alysia Ramos and Ariane Audd loomed on the trio as they two entered, in slightly sparkly mini-dresses, to converge with the threesome system, then walk the side stairs to the stage proper. Like the three dancers on the floor, the two engaged in a new dance system, mostly afoot, and would repeat their own phrases. Womack remained at front and center. The two groups concretely manifested the separate “layers” that Anderson alluded to in the 15 Bytes pre-coverage for the evening, and the two systems’ concurrent transpiration led the narrative focus to Ramos and Audd onstage with the trio’s system held in retrospect while still actually happening—a perceptive illusion that, I feel, solidly demonstrated the power of how dance affects our aesthetic faculties in ways that other art forms cannot.
Ramos and Audd continued in unison and stretched into Reverse Warrior–like poses and sidled into something like a modern dance Robot. The two onstage engaged an audial sense of their dance by clapping their hands, slapping their feet and stamping with their arms outstretched. This extra sensory dimension expanded with a boat-horn noise from an unknown source, which, I thought, created a great sense of anxiety for the piece. Meehan, McArthur and Bradshaw clung to the stage proper, on the floor, like barnacles, unmoving with their faces toward the structure. Ramos and Audd exited the stage to appear as silhouettes with the white backdrop onstage to show themselves grabbing the some of the angles and curves behind the white curtain that became French horns, and they blew them, suggesting that the mysterious noise was, too, a French horn. This created a bridge and a pseudo-answer to what the initial boat-horn noise was, but allowed the audience to bask in uncertainty, which I found to be an effective extension of the anxiety of the initial horn noise. A wistful piano track by Myles Reilly began and Meehan came onstage to signal Womack’s solo as McArthur and Bradshaw walked to the sides of the space to close the room’s drapes. Meehan left the stage, and Womack performed windmill motions with her arms, did strange hamstring stretches with a hand posed as a snake head, and would pile invisible sand. I finally noticed a mini French horn where Womack had lain, which responded to the “noise question” with another question: Even though this concealed horn was here beside this body to indicate the source of the boat-horn noise, what’s to say that she actually blew the horn? The French horn props operated as ways for the audience to invest in a logic for the dance that they had to invoke themselves, which Anderson and Sinner hinted at in the 15 Bytes interview. They executed this aim successfully, dipping the spectators in different dimensions simultaneously, overcoming time in our consciousness.
McArthur and Bradshaw covered the duct lights with light, white fabric to mute Sinner’s projections, and the stage proper’s drapes closed enough to create a more constricted frame for Womack’s solo, which flickered in and out of our sight. I first saw the nascent dead dog song at loveDANCEmore’s Arrivals/Departures exhibit at the Rio Gallery, where viewers were free to come, watch and leave as they pleased. Anderson has nourished this piece to where it transcends the unicity I saw in the Rio Gallery iteration: She rooted this dance into the Ladies' Literary Club structure and, once again, has exhibited that dance plays out differently beyond traditional stages. Sinner’s installation, moreover, bolstered this extra-theatrical conceit with her floating, evanescent projections that set a dreary tone for the dance that could not be replicated by standard lighting. Along with the inter-dimensional play of the dance, the six dancers translated Anderson’s systematic choreography par excellence.
I feel, however, that dead dog song is incomplete. Anderson has a very clear choreographic voice that she imparts onto her dancers, and I felt that she needed to vary from herself—specifically, in Womack’s solo. Anderson intimates patterns found in visual designs that defiantly eschew a central concept or figure; she wrenches her dances from having to be “about” something in a protest all her own. I love this about her work. I think, though, that the dancers—in each segment—struck the same note with the shapes they performed. There was a slight bend in this note as Ramos and Audd became silhouettes and blew their horns. Once Womack arose for her solo, I wanted there to be a dip into a different key, but it never came for me, and each performer had exuded the same mental/emotional disposition by the end of the dance. In sum, the dance felt like it was played safe. I’m not sure whether or not the nature of the Ladies' Literary Club led Anderson to set this dance on each performer in a streamlined way, but the plural layers in the piece and how much bigger it has become called for physical material that would wrench my gut away from each system—which I know Anderson can execute while still disregarding conceptual/linguistic themes. Also, Reilly's song was a bit too “pathetic fallacy” in relation to the space: It felt reflective of the historic space in a churchy way, which paid a disservice to the experimental nature of Anderson’s work and reuse of nontraditional dance spaces. I would have preferred something more rickety and uncomfortable. Despite this criticism, I genuinely liked the dance and thought it was beautiful to watch—I just feel that the choreography needs a final jolt.
To my discredit, I had forgotten that Mary Sauer was a part of the exhibition. I did take a glance at her figure drawing of a woman—which piqued my interest—but thought that she was using the space for her own private ends, and just wasn’t bothered by all the hubbub. I’m sorry, Mary Sauer! In hindsight, her inclusion in this showcase underpinned an eerie meta-theater in relation to the performances and Sinner’s projections amid the beautiful edifice that is the Ladies' Literary Club. To investigate this space further, visit them here, and to learn more about Ashley Anderson and the community events branch of her nonprofit, loveDANCEmore, click here.