In & Out at Sugar Space

This season in Salt Lake we have celebrated the works and legacies of several great pioneers of Modern Dance, from Michio Ito to Martha Graham, as well as marked the centennial of Alvin Nikolais. We remember these artists for their contributions to defining what is Modern Dance, and work to preserve the legacy of their movement and choreography. Yet we forget that the shared characteristic of these great artists was a rejection of the status quo. This is the other legacy of Modern Dance, a legacy that has been less well-preserved. Neglected, even. As Modern Dance continues to crystallize in form and tradition, the daring to experiment and challenge norms has become dangerously anemic.

Enter Sugar Space, and as they kick off their In & Out performance series, bringing together local choreographer Ashley Anderson with New York-based Regina Rocke, they remind us that not all is lost. In fact, you can take your norms and shove them. The spirit of revolution is alive and well, at least for this weekend.

Before the show even begins, the scene is set such that it’s clear either of these artists would have been successful in the visual arts had they not been claimed by the performance arts. From the delightfully wrinkled white vinyl floor to the candy-green chairs, there is an attention to visual detail that continues throughout the evening in a meticulously messy tone.

The evening opens with a duet by Jen McGinn, set to the music of Judy Garland. The dance itself is intricately designed, yet presented in a very casual manner. The music, movement, and performance quality create a strange contrast that highlights the stranger relation between the dancers as they take turns in a dialogue of disconnection and fleeting vulnerability. Are they fighting? Making love? Discussing the weather? Politics, maybe? And who is this third person, pacing through their midst in sparkling ruby red slippers? As the piece comes to a close it may never be clear what we’re supposed to think, and yet those slippers, clicking their heels, remind us that there’s no place like home. And maybe that’s a good thing.

A duet by Ashley Anderson follows, although the two brass horns inhabiting the upstage may make it a quartet. Arranged ever so delicately on the floor, they demand to be played and add an external tension to the dance. The sound score is nothing but the sounds of feet sliding over the vinyl of the floor, and it is mesmerizing. Anderson’s arrangement of movement has a dry humor to it, offering up the occasional surprise in a very matter-of-fact way. And yes, after much flirtation, the horns have their moment. The entire piece has an understated beauty to it that is very satisfying, yet in this lies the one criticism I would level against the work. The dancers carry this energy to the point of flatness, and in their lack of expression is an apathy that dis-invites our own interest in the work.

By now, it’s clear that this isn’t your typical high-energy romp, with pretty legs, flashy spins, and big lifts. Nothing here has been made to please the crowd, and yet it does please. But the real assault begins with the final work by Regina Rocke, featuring some the best ironically bad dancing I have seen, a stream-of-consciousness monologue that is as hilarious as it is offensive, and chocolate syrup. With sprinkles. Perhaps the best explanation is found in the monologue itself: “This is a performance art piece, that’s why we’re doing this.” Don’t try too hard folks, just enjoy the ride. And if you haven’t learned every stop on the Brooklyn L train by the end, it wasn’t for lack of trying.

This is not your big-budget production, but that’s as much a reason to see it as any. Just remember, you don’t go to a punk concert and complain that it’s dirty and noisy. Don’t go to this show and complain that it’s weird and different. But do go. Because it’s weird and different, and in the end that is very, very worthwhile.

Matt Beals