RDT, I mean, Stephen Brown!

Stephen Brown’s SB Dance is presenting another of its “Beast” performances this weekend. I went tonight, and sat in a sold out house where everyone seemed eager to see the choreographer’s collaboration with local band Totem and Tattoo.

The piece opened with an energetic romp to the music of Art Blakey, which introduced the cast. This crew, some new faces, some old, flew through space to land on each other or on large tin foil cushions. They rushed to dress and change clothes amidst the chaos, as if to suggest that some of them had not been quite ready when the show started. It was dry, with a not-quite-slapstick clockwork. I found myself thinking an old RDT favorite many of us will have seen- Shapiro and Smith’s Dance with Army Blankets. These two works are similar in tone and matter-of-factness. They both offer opportunities for the dancers to reveal themselves in a simple, task oriented environment. The arc of the works comes from the increasing complexity of the tasks. Nothing more, nothing less.

After the first black out, actor Dan Larringa appeared alone, dressed as a cast member from the last piece. He panted and unbuttoned his shirt, expressing exhaustion while taking credit for dancing in the work that had just unfolded without him. After this ice-breaker, he proceeded to explain to us our program notes, which had many empty spaces in them. This was another opportunity to parade the dancers and learn their names. He then pointed out that naming the dances was up to us. For me this was a turning point in the evening. It lead me to expect that the program -an evidently disorganized grab-bag of short work- might turn out to be more carefully put together than it at first would appear.

What the organizing principle was here I didn’t quite figure out. If I had to guess, I would say that Brown chose these pieces, early studies of possible dances really, to show us just how lucky he was to have dancers like Rosy Goodman, Jenny Larsen and all the rest at his finger tips. (We are also lucky to have them around to dance for us.)

In one section, Christine Hasegawa stood impressively on different surfaces of Nathan Shaw’s body, while Dan Larringa, dressed in a trench coast, recited a psuedo-noir text about “a once honest stripper” turned into a drug addled urban power monger. Hasegawa’s aggression lead her through a violently sexual encounter that included repeatedly performing erotiziced chest compressions on Shaw’s helpless frame. Again I was reminded of RDT, and seeing Daniel Nagrin’s Strange Hero again recently during their 100 Years show. I wished for a little more context for how these tropes might inform a large work, but the little study was dissolved almost before it began.

Ursula Perry’s solo also put me in a historical mood, causing me to reflect on my ambivilence about how the Nikolais tradition in Utah continues to play out in choreography. Perry trudged across the space on all fours while wearing an SB Dance anti-fashion statement- a pair of tulle pants, a sports bra and oversize boots. She stopped along the way to pass through positions that looked lifted from a yoga or pilates video. At the end, the big boots gave way to tiny pink heels that had been hidden within all along. The big reveal was accomplished without much fanfare and Perry exited as she had entered, a fit, technical, if largely silent body in space.

The end of the show, which featured live music from Totem and Taboo, drew heavily on the gurney and other props from previous SB evenings. Once a spectre of the physical absurdity of human death, here the gurney seemed drained of all metaphoric value, as the dancers manipulated it with similar affect to that seen in the opening. These vignettes were also peppered with some of the inexplicable sexual agression of the Christina and Shaw’s duet mentioned above. Some of the show’s more interesting vocabulary  can be found here, and James Eccs dances it with a naturalist charm and understatedness very rare in Utah dance. But the collaboration is not to a point yet where it would be appropriate to try to give it real critical feedback. The band’s music is promising, but I think they need a real drummer for their encroachment into the dance space to feel real. The dance itself reads as series of unmediated choreographic ideas and dance verbiage.

In fact, I wonder if it is even appropriate to review a show like this, which is really in someways just a very formal, if somewhat scattered, high-stakes rehearsal with great lighting. That said, it’s clear that Brown wants us to take it seriously, and whatever you can say about the work, it sold out tonight and will probably sell out on Saturday. I’ll be interested to see what my peers think. I wonder how it compares to memories others might share with me of the earlier iterations of Utah’s self-proclaimed choreographer of the fringe.

Samuel Hanson is a dancer and choreographer living in Salt Lake City.