First, there was lip-syncing to a Christina Aguilera song. Then the first dancer skated on stage, her gushing snarl followed on its heels by a riotous chorus of five others, all smizing in provocative black underthings and gyrating madly. The slinky, goofy burlesque of this brief scene wasn’t anything like what followed it, or much of anything after that. But throwing a few hints and conjuring the wild and weird spectacle of the kingdom of pop culture built on the joy found in watching people pretend to sing was a pretty good place to begin Dat Nguyen’s Will the Sheep Come to be Cleaned? The new work, presented at Sugar Space Arts Warehouse, was a raucously fragmentary and finely tuned pinball game of emotional complexity and spectacle.
With an approach based on the chopping, blending, obfuscation, and scrupulous arrangement and rearrangement of visual collages, Nguyen ricocheted between nearly a dozen wildly diverse and splintered stories, both masterfully and delightfully. Citing his own feverishly overstuffed brain intersecting with anxiety, depression, and life in a culture that jerks us from one disorienting and performatively manipulative spectacle to another at lightning speeds, Nguyen explained that his work was meant to be a multi-dimensional experience and deeply personal reflection of his multi-layered self. These refractions eschewed narrative but were richly infused with distinctly-felt character and setting, transmitted to the audience through dance but also through music, words, monologues, photography, sculpted visuals, and technology.
Following the flash of the overture, the show pivoted to a monologue by Emma Sargent, explaining a time she danced for a very “Jesus-y” company. While she told us how many times a day they prayed and about her clashes with the director over Gaga, the others roamed about, rotating through slow-drifting weight-sharing exercises. With deft comedic timing, her voice cut out at key moments. This culminated in a bit that had the audience rolling in their seats in which she mimed a tirade given by her director, the silence punctuated only by an intermittent “...Gaga…..Gaga….Ohad Naharin...Gaga…” as the dancers in the background exploded, flailing in mocking mimicry.
From there we bounced to a third segment, and one of my favorites – a duet between Nguyen and Nora Lang. I’d seen a working version of this section at Mudson earlier in the fall which I loved; it was even more breathlessly moving to watch it here. This movement focused on a more physical energy than previous sections, with a kinesthetic intimacy developing between their two bodies in swift and unending motion. Paired with sounds of rain and splashing, lapping waves layered under the circling carousel of a waltz as Nguyen and Lang moved in sync. Their bodies became cresting and crashing waves that turned back again into bodies as they came up against each other, fluid and spilling over the edges of themselves. The choreography was aerobic and sweeping yet riddled with small clever delights.
Interrupting this couple, Emma Wilson appeared carrying a large roll of what looked like shiny silver wrapping paper. The light shifted to cool blue as they took over the space and began speaking while rolling out the paper across the length of the stage, going through a halting cyclical reasoning about “purpose in life” that didn’t seem to get them where they wanted to go. The water couple did the sheep shuffle down the silver path – wait, sorry… let me back up and explain.
All the different expressions of Will the Sheep Come to be Cleaned? were abstract and unconnected, without an overarching narrative. But they did form what felt like a story, packaged neatly together by layered and excellent transitions, recurrent patterns, and of course, the sheep. Afterwards, during a Q & A, Nguyen explained how he borrowed from a moment in an earlier work to create the title expressly for a grant application. From there he applied his process of collage and brought ideas and emotions to the studio to explore and improvise upon. Nguyen noted that in creating his work, the integrity of its personal meaning was most important to him, as well as the process with his dancers. But he also touched upon (both in the Q & A and in press material, including an interview with Salt Lake City Weekly) finding a way to thread his many ideas together and creating an engaging experience for an audience, and how that is... well, kind of the point of sharing it with people, and the more interesting artistic challenge.
Nguyen was successful in not compromising the integrity of his clouded, shifting creation, which was explicitly designed to avoid straightforward articulation. And he found a way to select the arrangement of his collage and add subtle motifs to impose a loose conceptual through-line for the purposes of securing time and space to create work and appeasing an audience. It was incredibly satisfying and exciting to watch this done so masterfully and, as a very jumbled-up artist myself, I will probably carry it around with me for a long time.
Which bring us back to the sheep. Throughout the show, one of the devices used to pull it together involved the dancers bending over to grab their ankles and doing a little hoof-like scuffle around in a flock. A sheep shuffle. It looked as silly as it sounds and was so simple that it shouldn’t have worked. But it was so funny and perfectly effective at tying the far-flung emotional spectrum of the show together.
So, the sheep shuffled off, and the light plunged to a deep blue. The vocal track of a drill sergeant came on, or maybe it was an overzealous fitness bootcamp instructor, and Wilson performed a few casual feats of superhuman strength and agility. Rolling, bending, beating, and twisting their body, they propelled it in every direction with a force and control that sparked both a viscera-deep emotional as well as blood-racing somatic reaction. The dance was punctuated by their grin, at times equally sheepish and wolfish. They ended the solo by rolling themselves up in the wrapping paper to rest, a shining silver lump.
Each part of Will the Sheep Come to be Cleaned? was meaningful and densely layered. It’s hard to give a short summation of what was important, because it all felt important. And at this point there was still a huge range of things to come: a girl wearing a pink sweater decorated with tiny sheep who read from her cell phone a technical description of how and why and to what standard sheep are to be cleaned for slaughter; the Emma sheep, who lost their footing and spiraled into violent Gaga-esque spasms; a pair that danced a series of slow, stilted gestures to the melodramatic power pop, disco frenzy of ABBA; a fake ending that fooled everyone; the return of the water couple, who swayed cheek to cheek before falling out of sync. There was a woman who instructed a fitness class by talking about pet ownership and death and her apathy towards her grandmother. The pinkest sheep waltzed back in and began a glassy-eyed, floating dance to “Ave Maria” while the lighting turned dramatically baroque and the others Army-crawled around her. She picked up the silver wrapping and vogued with it before tossing it over the group, who gathered together and moved out, writhing in the shadows.
A shoutout belongs here for the great lighting and technical direction by Peter Larsen. The Sugar Space stage is small and bare, with a seating arrangement close to the action - it can make or break a show depending on how its elements are handled. The design and direction throughout were excellent: no element, not even floor work, was lost and the complex production moved seamlessly.
The final scene was heralded by the chime of an echoing clock tower. The ringing turned into a mechanical tick-tock and the dancers fell into a walking pattern that somehow conveyed “nursery-rhyme-crossed-with-dystopian-slaughterhouse-conveyor-belt,” traversing right and left in pairs, intermittently breaking the pattern. A harsh mechanical scream stopped them and the light blinked to sickly chemical green. Headbanging forcibly before reversing the movement, they ended by throwing their heads back, necks exposed, in a slow, deep arch backwards. Returning upright, they coalesced and heaved Nora Lang onto their backs, her limbs and eyes splayed wildly. They dumped her, then she Army-crawled to the edge of the stage, throwing back a curtain as the clock struck again to reveal a galvanized silver tub. Pulling herself in and standing, she cast off her blouse and skirt to reveal the black lingerie that had been underneath since the beginning and began to pour water over herself, her face that of enraptured delight as the light faded.
Speaking with one of the dancers a few days later, they made a comment along the lines of, “It was so cool but also disorienting and odd to perform - we spent so long trying everything a million different ways.” Challenging the idea of narrative as we commonly conceive of it, maybe a collage is the closest way to tell the story of a life - everything all at once and following and preceding and repeating until it’s over, some of it real and raw while other parts get dried out or hidden. And that’s what it feels like, doesn’t it? Nothing makes sense when you’re in it.