Photo: John Brandon
On January 21, the Steven Brown Dance Company presented The Sugar Show at the Rose Wagner Blackbox Theater. This was the latest in a series of annual exhibits of local talent. The show took the form of a competition between choreographers, each responding to the same prompt. This year’s prompt was ‘story and narrative,’ and the show featured five different dances meant to exemplify and explore that theme.
For a number of reasons, the entire show proved consistently confusing. In no small measure, this resulted from the fact that the program failed to list the different pieces in order of presentation. Because these works were brand new and each sought to bring something innovative before the audience, the lack of even a title contributed to the general sense of bewilderment. Still, the greatest source of confusion was the apparent inexperience of the audience with respect to modern dance in general. Incessant chattering and fidgeting—to say nothing of audience members having the audacity to exit the theater during performances in progress—proved a great distraction to those attempting to pay any attention. Nor was anyone’s critical judgment aided by different contingencies’ instantaneous whistling and cheering, in support of specific friends and family members on stage, at the end of each performance. All in all, the effect was more that of a high school assembly or popularity contest. I wouldn’t bother to mention this if recently excellent and critically astute choreograpy by Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company’s director, Charlotte Boye-Christiansen, hadn’t elevated audience response an object of inquiry and made the audience, through the canny placement of mirrors and other devices, an active participant in the dance performance. With this taken into consideration, any informed observer would have to declare the overall show last Friday to have been sloppy, disappointing and embarrassing.
Leaving the audience out of the equation however, the majority of pieces presented in The Sugar Show still left something to be desired. The overall show did not want for any effort at innovation. If anything, the choreography erred on the side of an excessive pursuit of novelty, one resulting less in a genuine exploration of what might or might not be viable and successful in the medium of dance, and more in flights away from dance into the realm of performance art, theater and standup. Not that this sort of experimentation hasn’t been employed recently and with great success in other local dance performances, but here such violations of the accepted norms of modern dance seemed to derive from a determination to instruct or immediately delight in ways which crossed out of the realm of aesthetics and into either didacticism or mere entertainment. Along these lines, many of the pieces presented seemed excessively self-conscious, indeed almost narcissistic, staking their power to intrigue and compel conviction almost exclusively on whatever gimmicks they employed. Such violations of audience expectation might well be excused and justified through a recourse to language and concepts borrowed from postmodernism. Without much doubt, this is precisely how at least a few of the various choreographers conceived and considered their own work. Nevertheless, postmodernism, now decades old, has become its own set of conventions (direct audience address, meta-commentary within the work of art, the return of overt political content, the foregrounding of the materiality and density of the human body, the acceptance of everyday space and situations as artistically relevant, the incorporation of popular culture within serious art, etc.). And if this is so, then the most recent Sugar Show consisted primarly of works which played basically according to the book.
Ashlee Vilos’s “Wake Up!” combined elements of dubstep and political oratory to produce a work altogether reminiscent of Janet Jackson videos. More successful was Efren Corado’s “TRANSCIPTS.” While perhaps emotionally self-indulgent, this piece, a combination of dance and spoken personal narrative, managed, through its sheer length, to foreground the strain and fatigue of the performer’s body, something most modern dance, either more or less successfully, labors to conceal. Consequently, the performance felt quasi-athlectic, like actual labor, bringing to mind key concepts from the “epic theater” of playwrite and theorist Berthold Brecht. Leah Nelson’s “fourfive” was the piece which most aggressively sought to erase any boundary between art and daily life, employing mundane responsibilities, technologies and actions (including telephones, televisions, child rearing and Facebook) as its basic matter. All this was potentially intriguing, though soon enough the total effect appeared entirely reminiscent of a situation comedy. For all this piece might have sought to interupt and critique the conventions of modern dance, it achieved this end—irrespective of any bid at ironic distance—only by reaffirming the normalcy and inevitability of bourgeois life.
Nell Suttles’s “August and The Cherry Plum Test” featured some moments of genuine musicality and humor. Particularly successful was a vignette in which two dancers engaged in a battle, at once aggressive and erotic, for possession of a piece of lingerie. This constituted the evening’s most successful display of a postmodern sensibility. A scenario familiar to anyone who has ever shopped at Nordstrom Rack, or a similar retail space, is here decontextualized and set onto the stage in a way which, like slowmotion cinema or closeup photography, reveals unexpected and startling beauty hidden within the most banal actions. The most successful piece of the evening, however, was Joni Tuttle’s “To Mouth Something.” This piece’s greatest strength—to my mind anyway—was the personal confidence it displayed in choosing to eschew the gimmicks employed elsewhere during the Sugar Show and stick relatively close to familiar techniques and staging. Where the dance did appear exploratory, and successfully at that, was in its attempt to map choreographed motions not only onto the torso and limbs, but also onto the faces of the dancers, in the forms of broad smiles and grimaces. If the work of celebrated choreographer Bill T. Jones has turned the dancer’s body is an extension of the vocal apparatus, making the entire body a kind of mouth and dance a form of oratory (something best scene in his work treating the life of Abraham Lincoln), then Tuttle’s work might well be seen as the opposite of that, mapping the expressive work of the entire body onto the face and turning the face into a hieroglyph of the entire anatomy.
The foregoing critical marks not excepted, the 2012 Sugar Show still offered those in attendance much to enjoy and one would like to believe that the audience did indeed understand and appreciate the different merits of each piece. Still, the overall effect of the evening fell short of genuine professionalism. What bodes well for local dance is the fact that these choreographers were, to one extent or another, willing to take risks. These were artists interested in innovation, in keeping modern dance an art on the move and not simply a bland recital of familiar expressive gestures and humanistic themes. No doubt these artists will continue to grow in their capacities and one looks forward to seeing what further they will bring forth.