coda’s starter kit at Sugar Space

If you become a member of coda, Sugar Space’s new professional dance company, you’ll find yourself in a situation much like Repertory Dance Theatre is said to have been in its early days. You and your comrades make dances on each other and you pool your knowledge to provide each other classes and choose a guest artist. Every few months, there’s a new audition and the process repeats.

I just came home from watching the first iteration of this cycle. My initial takeaway is that it read like a real ensemble evening. Diverse interests were explored, but it didn’t feel like a grab bag where a half a dozen people had been chosen from a pool of random, opportunity starved dance artists applying by mail. Care had been taken in putting a show together, in a more than idiomatic sense.

Molly Heller’s work, which was split into three, provided a narrative scaffold for the rest of the evening. In these “acts”, placed between other dances, Heller explicated her relationship with husband Brad Heller. Each vignette was also a performance of (and to) Rod Stewart’s monster(ous) hit “Da Ya Think I’m Sexy” [Rod’s spelling, not mine]. In part one, Heller (in golden stretch pants and a flouncy green top) gave her husband (purple tights, peasant ruffles up top) what might have been post modern prelude to a lap dance, while matter-of-factly telling him to periodically adjust the volume. Act II saw Brad and Molly coyly singing the song to each other while Molly slid herself across Brad’s passive form. She crept slowly, giving choice attention to certain curves, arriving in unison next to Brad just in time for the second or third chorus of “If you want my body and you think I’m sexy/ Come on honey tell me so/ If you really need me just reach out and touch me/Come on Molly let me know”. “No. It should be sugar.” Singing this line lying face down next to each other earned a healthy laugh from a crowd that had been gently giggling the whole time. The final number was a giddy romp through the space for Ms. Heller and non-dancer Brad. The song was finally playing at full blast, which was quite satisfying, when all of a sudden the dancing devolved into a slide show of Googled images of Rod himself on the back wall. The piece ended as choreographer, husband and technical director struggled in turns to disactivate of the projector and diminish the specter of Rod.

As light, fun and self-effacingly hip as this all sounds it did leave me with a few lingering questions. How was I supposed to feel about the relationship between “trained” wife and “untrained” husband? Was this just a big joke or is this really “their song” in some serious, if sentimental, way? If I am being invited into an inner joke space of their relationship, why and how? And if not, what was the aim of making it seem so?

Nancy Carter’s Hold me tight if I love you left me with many similar questions about form and content. The work was a modern dance trio, mostly, thought it began with each dancer choosing one audience member with whom to slow dance. They did this a few times at the very beginning, with a tender awkwardness that left me wishing they would make everyone in the audience dance at least once and then that would be that. What ensued instead was an exploration of formal themes such as how a trio  functions, how Shira Fagan could stay in unison with Jane Jackson with Anne Marie Robson Smock attached to her body etc. The varied musics, notably a spoken word piece about hearts “bruising but not breaking” provided an unexpected modicum of contrast.

I am pretty sure that the it in Everything is Nothing Without It was dance itself. Jane Jackson’s ensemble piece was a melange of fast paced dialogue and introspective group dancing. The six women fought over a cupcake (“That’s not really dancer food!”), went to a “showing” within the dance, and argued about the primacy of the left vs. the right brain in dance making. There was some serious unison dancing, and then we returned to the image the dance started with, the heart of the dance really, choreographer Jane Jackson trying to decide how to start dancing. Standing there twitching with indecision, is something everyone who makes dances (and probably everyone else as well) can identify with.

Particularly in Everything is Nothing, but in everything else I’ve discussed as well, I noticed one recurring issue. Though each was an excellent first draft, all of these pieces seemed to be looking for a kind of high drama, something surreal, possibly even operatic. And yet none couldn’t quite get there because they were held back by a commitment to a certain idea of dance-theater “realism”.  There’s nothing “actorly” or “real” about the way most dancers talk and emote on stage- and that’s fine- we’re not actors, at least not in the same sense. What would it look like if we embraced that and became the strange, unique creatures that we are? In doing so maybe we could learn a little bit more about ourselves than the fact that we’re afraid of food and that we don’t know our left from our right.

Guest artist Shannon Mockli demonstrated commitment to a ballsy idea in her solo A Space Between. A slow, contemplative solo, almost too dramatic, happens in front of a video where slipping focus is an obvious metaphor for the areas between states of consciousness, life and death. There’s a recorded text of Mockli discussing an ambiguous experience of “being between” that caused her to reflect on mortality and the life of the body, as it is and as it is imagined. In other hands, it could have been a tragic failure of a piece, yet Mockli is so committed to doing things because she feels them, that we feel them too. She transcends trend and conceit, working in a format that is reminiscent of a great essayist. She lays out several co-existent threads that can only be tied together by holding them inside ourselves all of them at the same time. Her dancing is so strong it can’t be overpowered by other the other media- and that’s rare.

Mockli’s group piece Vital Rein did similar things for each of its performers. Annie Robson Smock in particular danced in a way that I’ve never seen before, her length bridled and released with a sense of timing I didn’t know she was capable of. Mockli and dancers never lost interest in the realness of the task, nor in the responsibility of holding each moment’s metaphoric capacity.

Samuel Hanson writes in this blog often, makes dances, makes coffees and makes videos.