Thursday, October 2, 2008

Review(ish): Thoughts on Susan Marshall's "Sawdust Palace" @ DTW

Though we (me, laurel, cavin, and larissa) saw the show last saturday, it's taken me some time to gather my thoughts - there's so much to be said about that piece! Two main things, somewhat unrelated, come to mind as the most forward things in my mind that can be conveyed in writing about the show. Much of it can't be, as it was beautiful and evocative and sexy and very much ephemeral, so i won't go there.

So then, two things.
1.) Susan's program note and (again) the idea of explaining/apologizing work
2.) the gender roles and relations at play in the piece

1.) I thought that this piece and program note was a great example of a way that a choreographer can give context and much needed direction to a viewer without overwhelming, "explaining", or otherwise directing their viewing experience. One of my favorite things about Susan Marshall's work (or, the two pieces i've seen - Cloudless and Sawdust Palace) is it's ability to use props and equipment (harnesses for arial work especially) in a way that doesn't feel gimmicky or trick-oriented like so much arial work i've seen tends to do. Where many choreographers have the harness dictating what happens, and often not being vastly innovative in their use of it, Marshall makes the harness work for her movement - integrating it seamlessly into the greater movement of the piece, allowing the drama and richness of the piece's non-linear narrative elements blend into the idea of harness and flying themselves.

That being said, this piece was very vaudevillian - based on turn of the century spiegletents and composer Edward Elgar - and skillfully played that line that runs between "trick" "illusion" "image" "exploration" etc.

In the program notes, Marshall writes: "In making this work, i found myself immediately immersed in the question of "popular" dance versus "serious" work in much the same way that Elgar must have been in his own day. Questions such as "when is a trick just a trick and when is it something more?" came up all the time. In a way, "Sawdust Palace" is part period piece put through the mill of my own sensibility, and part "oh, hell, let's just embrace the cabaret-like form and let it all go!" Sometimes a dance is just a dance and a cigar is just a cigar. Although, in this evening a cigar is never just a cigar - and a cup of tea isn't just a cup of tea, either."

For me, having this in mind as I watched the piece was extremely helpful, as it successfully negated any impulse i had during the show to negate or devalue a certain scene or section because it was more on the gimmicky side or because it was genuinely based on the unfolding of a "trick". Knowing that Marshall and her dancers had brought these concerns to the table in the making of the piece let me allow it for what it was - sometimes a trick, sometimes an illusion, sometimes the magic of live movement in a theater setting. Moreover - it was an investigation of these things - it was an open question to me as an audience member. Is this just a trick? What about this? Is that bad if it is? Why? To me, this set apart the piece's humor, which - yes - felt simpler and tamer in many regards that much of the quirky "down town" humor, from much of the dance going on now that is almost entirely quirk. While those pieces often bite at me though i do enjoy them and find them humorous (which, maybe is a jab more at my own seriousness than any fault of the pieces themselves), my experience of this piece's humor felt different in that it was an investigation of entertainment and performance as much as it was entertainment and performance itself.

2.) Just coming off of my post on my own gender struggles in terms of making movement for my men, watching this show was vastly interesting. I love Marshall's partnering - a great mix of innovation, flow, full body physicality, and gesture filled with the utmost level of humanity. I also love (and found myself studying enviously) her ability to switch in an out of what seems to be an awareness of gender. Maybe a better way to put it is this: at some moments, the dancers interact in very specific, societally reinforced gender roles, and at other moments the dancers partner and interact as if they could detach gender and gender context from their moving bodies. For example, many of the sections that were a) more campy and/or b) sexy (and Susan Marshall knows sexy) prominently featured a heavily erotic male-female duet. However, there were also male-male sections and sections involving the whole company that seemed to not care about the genders and power interactions as much, if at all.
Let's just pause for a second.
How does she do this!?!?

I'm a firm believer that you can never divorce the societal context and implications from a body, especially on stage, but at moments Marshall could have fooled me. After thinking about it i've come up with a few different explanations of how she's able to polarize this divide.

a.) Because the camp/erotic/sex-laden duets were so drenched in their gender interactions - often poking fun at the seriousness and intensity of this attraction and dynamic, the interactions without that tilt seemed more like a breath of fresh air. Had the "drenched" duets have been more subtle, they might have brought out more of the politics or context of the other interactions.

b.) I noticed in writing this that the gender interactions that i found most prominent were the male-female camp/erotic duets, while the male-male duets had some erotic tones, they weren't as clearly sexually-marked bodies, and even became more body as physical matter than body as culturally inscribed organism in some of the sections (especially Body Music). Because much of the male-male movement seemed less culturally inscribed (due to a number of factors including the specific performers, costumes, etc), I was previously classifying this in my head as somehow negating or ignoring gender in these interactions, whereas it was very much adhered to in the other sections. As far as I can remember, there weren't any female-female duets. So this brings up the fact that maybe it's more about the idea that women's bodies are inescapably culturally inscribed (especially on stage), while the male body (especially on stage) has a history and ability of being able to divert the gaze and escape it's very body-ness. What Marshall trying to escape gender stereotypes in the male duets and enforce it in the female-male ones? Or was my gaze simply a product of the dominant societal (white male patriarchal sexual) gaze?

There was clearly sex in this piece - one of the heavily yet subtly sexiest pieces i've ever seen - and for sex there has to be body. Where there is body there is gender, and where there is gender there is culturally inscribed meaning...Marshall was clearly thinking about gender at some level too - the heavily "normative" sexual interactions of the f-m duets were camp enough in some way to prove to me as a viewer that it couldn't just be her unexamined internalization of m-f interaction. Power dynamics were clear as well - from the submission-laced tea for two (originally seen as a solo in cloudless) to the very use of harnesses.

So what does this all mean?
No idea, but i've been having a great time tumbling it around in my head, thinking about what i can learn from it in my own making and watching practices.

All in all, a heavily gorgeous show.
I hope that video footage becomes available soon!

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