Cadaver. Photo: SB Dance
While most of Utah was honking about Sundance and parking, the real event in Salt Lake this weekend debuted not on any screen but instead on the stage of the Leona Wagner Black Box Theatre of the Rose Wagner Center for The Performing Arts. For three days (January 27 - 29), The Stephen Brown Dance Company presented The Beast of SB Dance.
While companies such as The Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company and Repertory Dance Theater may have received more attention than other local dance companies, this most recent show by The Stephen Brown Dance Company announces the group to be entirely on a par with all competing companies—that is, if Stephen Brown seeks to compete at all. From the opening of the first number, set to a seriously groovy mashup of Led Zeppelin samples, SB steps forth to occupy and dominate its own choreographic niche. “Table” (the first section of a larger suite, Steel and Flesh), like so much of the show, employed an incredible economy of means with regard to the use of props. In this case, a simple aluminum hospital gurney allowed dancers to explore not only their considerable expressive and athletic capacities, but also the audience’s capacity to take pleasure in morbid good humor.
The second section of the suite, “Bucket,” toys not with the boundaries between life and death but rather normal and pathological anatomy. This piece places a pair of dancers within an ordinary tin washtub. The tub functions not unlike a horse costume for two, awkwardly fusing two bodies into a single creature. With minimal props and costuming (said tub and several yards of mesh lace), the dance creates a hilarious and at times vaguely disconcerting parody of Swan Lake, here staged as if in a bubble bath. The portion of the four-piece suite, “Body,” brings back the gurney, only to burden it with the seemingly cadaverized body of a dancer (Juan Carlos Claudio) who is soon tossed about and subjected to a variety of poses and indignities by other members of the company. Not only does the posturing at times defy the audience to believe its own eyes, but the piece pushes the boundaries of dance itself by revealing unexpected powers in pure bodily passivity.
Indeed, much of the evening’s delight derived from SB’s cheerful willingness to tease and probe an array of ticklish cultural boundaries and ingrained sensibilities. These include dabbling, sometimes to hilarious excess, in misdemeanors such as nudity, profanity, lewd posturing and liberal politics. Most significant however was SB’s unerring instinct for combining serious artistic dance with popular entertainment. While other local groups have been wonderfully successful at integrating contemporary music and design into their choreography, no other local group can approach SB when it comes to dancing unselfconsiously and joyfully on the narrow rope that divides high culture from mass spectacle. Without detracting in the least from the great intelligence and competence of the SB company, one cannot help but observe Beast’s generous borrowings from musical theater, the circus ring and carnival sideshow, and even Hollywood’s current obsession with comic book superheroes. In Fight Da Power, the second suite of the evening, the dance “Ninja” (featuring Jenny Larson) displays this last fascination quite dramatically, using bungees and blocks to create a spectacle straight out of Batman or Cirque du Soleil.
The last suite of the show, In Trust and Treason, is a sultry, provocative and prolonged (three-ways, four-movements) act of seduction (featuring Liberty Valentine, Juan Carlos Claudio, and Stephen Brown). As an additional tease, this suite is billed as a preview of a longer work to be premiered in June. The music draws drawn not from big band or cabaret so much as the lush world of Billy Strayhorn and famed tango crooner Carlos Gardel. Here, again, minimal props, this time two wooden crates, are transformed by the dancers’ transitory employment of them from soap boxes into auction blocks, pillars and pedestals, trap doors, hotel furnishings, and even abstract dance diagrams made solid. The dance involves moves adopted from popular American and Argentine dance. Various examples of precarious balancing not only display literal instances of daring and trust on the part of the dancers, but also serve as powerful metaphors for the emotional and physical hazards of bodily intrigue.
With numbers such as this, The Stephen Brown Dance Company easily held captive a sizable audience throughout the full length of a show which, however brief, nevertheless proved entirely satisfying, intellectually, aesthetically and culinarily. The show’s finale, which recapped highlights from all previous dances, completed the transformation of modern dance into a full-fledged stage extravaganza. The Beast provided a highly compelling and wholly enjoyable, indeed hugely fun, evening of dance for all in attendance. A modern dance performance of such high quality is not likely soon to appear again in Salt Lake—at least not until The Stephen Brown Dance Company returns to the stage this summer.