Delightful Aggression: Stephen Brown Dance Performs Of Meat and Marrow

Posted June 18, 2012 in ,

Photo: John Brandon

The SB Dance Company, in its recent production Of Meat & Marrow, once again tested the limits of regional contemporary dance. The show ran from June 15 – 17, in the Leona Wagner Black Box Theatre.

Reworking and redirecting key themes and apparatuses employed in January’s The Beast of SB Dance, this weekend’s Of Meat & Marrow represented further exploration of the potentially limitless expressive and semantic capacities inherent in elementary stage equipment. The production’s sheer inventiveness gave the audience more than enough at which to marvel, while an intensity of energy was maintained throughout the evening, as the entire show was staged as one uninterrupted, fifty-minute performance. Here, I will confess that writing this review proves challenging because of the scantiness of the provided program notes. However, the company’s intention seems to have been to remove any supplementary explanatory material at which the audience might grope, as at some aesthetic flotation device, in search of names, descriptions and other reassuring text. Justly proud of his company, staff and sponsors, Stephen Brown gives credit where credit is due. But to offer more information about each portion of the show would have entailed restricting the audience so that it saw and felt less. The continuous flow of untitled vignettes, on the other hand, immersed the audience – almost a full hour without once surfacing for air – entirely within a world as exotic and captivating as some subaqueous habitat, a unique milieu of Stephen Brown’s own creation.

The show began with a redux of “Table,” a dance which uses a two-tiered aluminum hospital gurney to explore the dancers’ expressive and athletic capacities, as well as the audience’s capacity to take pleasure in morbid humor. The piece begins with a single dancer stretched atop the gurney, a near-nude and seemingly lifeless human specimen. A gathering of dancers in hospital smocks and rubber gloves surrounds the figure, pressing, pulling and otherwise manipulating the body—now utterly passive, now offering uncanny resistance—into a baffling array of alarming postures. An eerie sense of automatism, which seems to reverse the laws of physiological cause and effect, is wonderfully augmented by the forsaken wail of Robert Plant in Mad Bunny Sad Bunny’s haunting “Steal Away,” a looped mix of samples from the first Led Zeppelin album.

While borrowing much from last January’s “Table,” this piece broke new ground by granting more agency to the body of the seeming patient. Here, the repertoire of dance moves drew not only upon the body’s capacity for complete malleability but also its susceptibility to spontaneous spasm, seizure and catalepsy. Unlike January’s performance, this iteration of the piece cycled a number of different bodies in and out of the role of scientific subject. There was no repressing an allusion to the psychologist Jean-Martin Charcot’s famous “Tuesday Lectures” at Paris’s Salpetriere Hospital, during which the doctor would induce in patients a variety of spectacular, hysterical symptoms, for the instruction and astonishment of the medical community. SB Dance’s performance—whose overall effect was that of the “ridiculous sublime,” a chilling combination of horror and hilarity—could only be read as wacky parody, deliberate or otherwise, of Charcot’s sensational psycho-theatrics.

A later section of the performance involved the collective deployment of a human-scaled “jack,” constructed of three intersecting metal beams. Here, individual dancers vaulted, tumbled and rode the jack’s six outstretched limbs as the rest of the company rolled this ungainly piece of scrap in zig-zag patterns across the stage. Whereas the ‘gurney’ section of the performance perilously problematized the boundaries separating activity and passivity, life and death, and horror and humor, this part of the dance blurred the seeming opposition between the awkward and abrupt movements of the jack and the graceful flitting and spinning of the dancers who swarmed the object like so many scarabs rolling dung. Or, to assume a more lofty view of the matter, one might equate this part of the dance to the performance of some mythic Sisyphean labor, at once grandly heroic and utterly futile. One of the great strengths of SB Dance is its ability to consistently and effortlessly force such impossible conjunctions between grandeur and base absurdity.

A third section of the dance suspended a duo of dancers from guy wires. Left to interact within a scarcely illuminated space, the twin figures slither and glide against one another in some form of staged nocturnal encounter. No effort, aside from the decision to dim the lights, is made to veil the sexual tones of the dance, or for that matter the necessary role played by erotic technologies in this interlude. Still, one is loathe, here as elsewhere, too hastily to apply stock labels such as S&M or B&D, for the simple reason that all interaction appears—at least to me, in retrospect—to be entirely consensual, mutual and, indeed, tenderly solicitous. Everything takes place as if making love, not in bed, but rather hanging bat- or caterpillar-like from the ceiling, was entirely normal and healthy, or even commendable—which it may well be. SB Dance forces us to confront perplexities of this order. The company’s sustained effort aggressively to confound the viewer, albeit in the most delightful way, is what makes each SB Dance performance an entirely captivating and potentially transformative event, daring its audience to see, feel and think otherwise – with regard to both dance and the human activities from which dance draws its themes and energies.

SB Dance will adjourn its performance schedule for the summer and then commence its 2012/2013 schedule with Cultural Confidential, which debuts on August 8.

Photo: John Brandon Photo: John Brandon