Shapiro & Smith Dance: Old and New Works at The Cowles

 Founded in 1985, Minnesota’s Shapiro & Smith Dance began as a collaboration between Danial Shapiro and Joanie Smith. After meeting in the companies of Murray Louis and Alwin Nikolais, Shapiro and Smith went on to create their first choreography during Smith’s Fulbright Lectureship to Helsinki, Finland. Since then Shapiro and Smith’s blend of contemporary dance and dramatic theater has been performed across the U.S., Europe, Asia and Canada and presented by festivals and venues including the Joyce Theater, Lincoln Center Out-of-Doors, Dance Theater Workshop, St. Mark’s DanSpace Project, PS 122, Festival di Milano, Teatro de Danza in Mexico City, Recklinghausen RuhrFestSpiele and the Korean International Festival.

In 2006, Danial Shapiro died of complications from prostate cancer. Smith has continued on as sole Artistic Director and choreographer. The group’s 31st season, presented at The Goodale Theater in The Cowles Center for Dance & the Performing Arts, featured company classics and new creations.

Photo by V. Paul Virtucio

First up was A Naked Man’s Shirt (2017), a trio featuring tongue-in-cheek choreography for three men and their various shirts. The dancers removed those shirts throughout the dance, tossing them in the air and onto the stage floor, bounding on, over, and around them, slipping them back on and off, sometimes several times in succession. Were the dancers playmates? Brothers? They were depicting some kind of relationship onstage though I still wasn’t sure what it was as the piece ended.

Audience members around me let out big, boisterous laughs throughout A Naked Man’s Shirt. I am a strong advocate for more humor in the concert dance world, so I wished I felt differently, but the piece just didn’t strike me as all that funny. To me, clowning on stage means opening oneself up to looking idiotic and reveling in that. It takes a special level of vulnerability that I missed in this particular performance of the piece. Maintaining one’s composure might preserve the integrity of dance movements, but that is at the expense of genuine humor.

During the pause, the house lights came up. I overheard a man in front of me speaking with a puzzled companion, who, like me, had a hard time making sense of what she just saw. This was her first time attending a dance performance of this kind. His reply? “It doesn’t have to make sense. It’s very abstract. Just let it wash over you.” I was skeptical of what he said. But I came to it by way of eavesdropping, and the house lights were dimming again, so I decided not to get involved.

Hands (2016) was a lengthy series of vignettes that mixed compact gestural phrases, varied music, recorded text, and sweeping movement patterns. Though these sections seemed otherwise detached, they were connected by one common thread – the dancers’ hands had a central role in each bit. The piece seemed to me like a collection of movement studies. Many of them were very engaging. My favorite was the “Loser, Loser, Double-loser” gestural section and the dancers brought spirit to the abstract images on stage.

Often, Shapiro’s choreographic modalities and the dancers’ movement tasks were completely transparent. I found myself transported back to dance composition class and thought, “I would want my own composition students to see this so they can have strong examples of these modalities and tasks at play.” But, I also realized that I prefer not to see all of the inner workings of an artwork. It’s nice to be puzzled about how people are accomplishing a dance.

While watching Hands, I tried to follow the advice I overheard from the man seated in front of me: don’t try to make sense of it. I had some success but, after a while, I was almost longing for meaning. I can only let images “wash over” me for so long before I wonder: why are they washing over me?  Why are those images doing the washing? And why does that washing eventually stop? I’m a meaning maker and, to some degree, we all might be. Still, a piece like Hands can work if the images and patterns are compelling enough. Then, the viewer does not need a reason to keep watching and to feel satisfied with when and how the end comes.

My meaning making had a chance to flourish as I watched Andrew Lester and Laura Selle Virtucio balance, plop, push, and pull themselves on, over, and around a small red loveseat in Later that night (Premiere). Some of their balancing feats were so surprising they made me curious as to whether the couch’s weight had been adjusted to ensure safety. Images like Virtucio eating an apple and Lester placing a plastic fish in his mouth both added humor to the piece while introducing a sexual tone to the dancers’ relationship onstage. In the end, I felt that I had some sense of how to interpret what I had seen, even if I didn’t witness, or feel the need to develop a rich narrative arc.

Last up was Bolero (2010). This piece looked exhausting and fortunately, the dancers were up to the physical challenge. I was particularly captivated by Lauren Baker’s performance. Baker is a technical powerhouse with a  nuanced, expressive performance quality keeps her human.

However, when the choreography includes virtuosic movements like diving, somersaults, and circus-inspired lifts, and the dancers perform those movements so skillfully, pedestrian elements such as running and walking need to look just as powerful. Practically speaking, the moments of running were probably an opportunity for the dancers’ heart rates to decrease. But, if a light jog is simply a chance to catch their breath, why not stillness or some other artistic choice that could be fully executed?

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