writers on dancing

The DanceView Times, San Francisco Bay Area edition


“Monk” by Sara Shelton Mann
Yerba Buena Center for the Arts
October 2, 2003

by Ann Murphy
Copyright ©2003 by

Twenty years ago I was wildly irritated by dance experts who said dance was dead. How arrogant, I thought. Cycling, yes; dance, like history, has cycles, and in the 80's it was leaving its phase of full houses and hot tickets—part of a dance mania that accompanied the spandexification of America—for a more desultory, confused period. Life is like that. And yet, it's also true that certain dance styles can die, trends turn moribund, eras come to an end.

Monk, Sara Shelton Mann's multi-year choreographic project, which opened in its final form Friday at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, was an evening of dance composed of serialized fragments I feel I've already seen dozens of times in dozens of places—and never in the same place twice. With Monk Shelton Mann reaches for something epic, something to encapsulate our age, but instead comes up with a dozen threads that together never find their weave, never enlighten, and never lead us to that underground river, whether of the unconscious or of time, on which all the flotsam and jetsam of life flows. She believes in the river and she doesn't, and in the end it is her inability to trust that something transcendent binds life, which leaves us with the same kind of undigested fragmentation that constitutes life's daily grind.

Twenty years ago it made sense that dance was in a downturn. The slow recession followed 20 politically tumultuous years in which culture, race, gender, nationalism and internationalism had been sometimes violently deconstructed, redefined and slowly reabsorbed, or, at least, newly pondered. In the mid-80's Merce Cunningham was driving fewer people from the theater. The great highs of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater were over for nearly 20 more years. Pilobolus had morphed into triter versions of itself. ABT was falling apart, and the experiments of the 60's had become the new cliches of younger dancers.

Dance fragmented, and as it did, community became an important watchword both to artists and funders, as though dancemakers might find meaning in the exigencies of the particular and local structures of society that was otherwise missing, and funders could rationalize serving art because of its pragmatic, social purpose. Underpinning community-directed dance was a spirit of returning to "the people," the way college educated political radicals of the period took up trade union jobs to help mobilize the masses. It was pragmatic utopianism reminiscent of the 1930's, even if "the people" in fact consisted of fellow travelers.

Naturally, not everyone went local. Some dancers climbed building facades or turned high tech. Others cleaved to a pure modernism. Some put on dresses and showed off their penises, while others put on rituals, hoping to exorcise the demons of capitalism or to fight conservative revanchism, embodied by snarling old rightwing codgers like Jesse Helms, and slithery new rightwing faces like Trent Lott and Newt Gingrich's. A few choreographers, like Shelton Mann, combined these elements. She went local and political, she put on ritual, and she embraced the new spiritualism that had evolved from the hucksterism of Werner Erhardt and Guru Mahara-ji to the efforts of sufism, buddihism and the Esalen based human potential movement to reassert the immaterial and transcendent amid an almost messianic materialism..

Shelton Mann cut a broad swathe across the dance terrain, with her Cunningham training, Nikolais/Louis experience, her Civil Rights era Southern girlhood and her embrace of eastern mysticism. Before nearly anyone here knew of Pina Bausch, she was importing Bauschian ideas in her early experiments, feeling around for a form to contain her busy impulses. When she hit on her supermarket of ritual with chant, drumming, song, agit prop, gymnastics, fire, nudity, water. Goddess worship and vague assertions of transformation, she helped create a social movement of dancers and nondancers alike who oohed and ahhhed at the happening-style events that were as much about a lifestyle as about dance. The scene vaguely echoed cultural events two decades earlier when ten of thousands of people at rock concerts collectively and simultaneously gasped in wonder as the sun popped through dark clouds or the rain fell. But that which drugs had once induced was in the dance scene brought about by earnest conviction and youthful yearning.

The dance company Contraband, as in illegal and dangerous, was neither illegal nor dangerous as a dance troupe. It was full of sophomoric social and political ponderings, sensual contact improvisational movement, mediocre singing, good drumming, cool decor with refrigerators and dry ice, and allusions to the divine that bordered on the sappy. And yet, Contraband became the conscience of the Bay Area dance community, marking its outer edge with an anarchistic contempt for the mainstream, a link to dadaist subversion and a commitment to sex as a bridge to the divine. This was Contraband as a social movement, and always the point of its shows was its call to others to come into the happening. Hundreds followed.

Monk has none of the wet, puppyish quality that early Contraband, which disbanded in 1996, had when Shelton Mann shared her authorship with Keith Hennessey and Jess Curtis, and it's a relief that the gooey tribal love fest is over. Times have changed, and trusting the heartbeat, or the gonads, to be the answer to global warming, AIDS, international terrorism or the rise of fascism seems a tad ridiculous and self-indulgent right now. Monk, in fact, is more elegant than anything Shelton Mann has done in a long, long time. The video and lighting design by Matthew De Gumbia are clean and beautifully potent. But elegance can't necessarily deepen intellectual and movement cliches. Nor can it undo the feeling of randomness in every vignette-an accidentalness that has nothing in common with Cunningham's mystical sense of chance, but a randomness that results from unplumbed depths. Images abound—a healer, a boxer, a crap shooter, a loner leaping from box of light to box of light, a woman under a lace shroud, men dancing, women grappling (all to a collaborative score by Norman Rutherford and Peter Whitehead that has many penetrating moments). Elegance may make all this better organized, but it doesn't make it any less aimless. And that aimlessness brings it too close to dance as neurosis-the unconscious repetition of old patterns with the conviction that it is new.

The dancers—Yannis Adoniou, Ramon Romos Alayo, Kathleen Hermesdorf, Jose Navarrete, Marintha Tewksbury—are quite wonderful in their idiosyncratic way, each moving with resolute individuality, each competent at what he or she does, as well as limited by his or her singularity. This is one of the work's strengths, creating an air of community through the diversity of its dancers' styles and technical backgrounds. But like the images, it really takes us nowhere and results in nothing other than itself, and that is not enough.

Shelton Mann is clearly moving away from the model of the happening. But she hasn't yet edged away from what has become a serious liability in Bay Area dance creation—relying on the dancers to develop the material (which is one reason it's dance we've seen a dozen times before) without sufficiently shaping it into a freshly organized and authoritative whole. After Bausch sends her dancers out to find ideas or dig into the caves of their hearts, she spends months kneading, distending and refurbishing this raw material until she has produced a Brechtian, irony-laden story which she then links to other tales to create a variety-style whole. She imposes her creative will on the work, and it's the unfolding of that will that interests us. Although in her program notes Shelton Mann says the hour-long work is the story of "one person's journey lived through different bodies, memories, and experiences." she never convinces us that the threads all belong to one person or that it is ever a single mind remembering. She has found no shape through which to tell us so.

Perhaps she could. In a period in history when raw, unmediated experience vies with the slickest, most cynical simulacrums, Shelton Mann has access to the raw and unmediated as few dancemakers have. We need her ferocity and her sensuality, as well as her willingness to experiment. She also has a sense of theater that doesn't undo her appreciation for geometric form. But the era of dance in which "everything and the kitchen sink" assemblage made sense or had legitimacy is over. It no longer reflects contemporary history or our shared reality. It doesn't even organize the personal but merely describes its, and rather chaotically at that.

My sense is Shelton Mann keeps searching for a formula she can't quite find, calling on higher powers or dreamed-of goddesses to offer form they are in no position to proffer, asking collaborators to contribute to a work's shape while she in the meantime busies herself scattering ideas across the stage like bird seed onto park gravel. In the age of Terminator, that is simply not enough. Dance will never die, but it can lose its muscle. Now, more than ever, it needs new strength to tell the tale of who we are, and where, other than Armageddon, we might be going.

Originally published:
Volume 1, Number 2
October 6, 2003
Copyright ©2003 by Ann Murphy




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last updated on October 7, 2003