SHAPIRO & SMITH DANCE
at the Dance Center of Columbia College
Some people have flying dreams, I have jumping dreams characterized by an astounding ballon: I crouch and spring, then float above the treetops for as long as I want. In one dream my child was lost, and I leapt to a great height and spied her in the distance; I was exhilarated all the way down.
Giving gravity's grasp the slip is a potent but sadly elusive dream. You can see vestiges of the dream, however, in the ebullient work of Shapiro & Smith Dance--in their sense that strength and momentum can be magnified but also harnessed and controlled. In fact, all the pieces this New York troupe showed at the Dance Center had a childlike quality--and sometimes, easing into a satirical vein, a faux-naif quality. Yet the group's collaborative choreographers, Danial Shapiro and Joanie Smith, are not only grown-ups--they're married, and to each other.
Rhapsody recalls that forbidden delight of childhood, jumping on the bed (especially delightful if it was your parents' bed). The six dancers (Megan Brazil, Shapiro, Smith, Elizabeth Van Vleck, Daniel Weltner, and Edward Winslow) cavort on and around five broad, low red velvet stools more elaborate than they need to be for their trampoline purpose: they're thickly gathered below the cushiony part and have little skirts, for a peculiarly sensuous look. They're good not only for takeoff and landing but also, in a lazy mood, for lolling. The dancers take mesmerizing risks with the aid of these props, bouncing on their backs or knees, soaring through the air and landing on their bellies. They run across several stools, bounding from one to another as if they were stepping-stones. The stools give greater height to battements, greater lift to jetes. They're plushy havens for handstands and shoulder stands. Sometimes, in an overflow of exhilaration, the dancers take running slides across the floor.
Rhapsody recalls the bedroom in another, more grown-up way. Much of the movement looks like sex play--motions of cuddling, caressing, and embracing. At these times there's often a trio onstage, and the left-out dancer prowls the edges of the couple's space, eyeing them and sometimes being eyed in return. Is the odd one out showing an adult's jealousy or a child's curiosity? Impossible to say, but the sense of exclusion is patent.
Two other dances on the program, Cafe (1989) and George and Betty's House (of an undefined period, perhaps '85 or '86), have a cartoonish quality that comes, I think, of taking a child's point of view on adult behavior. Cafe shows the amorous squabbles and gropings of a couple out on the town (Shapiro and Smith), watched by a naive but horny waiter (played with fastidious economy to maximum effect by Weltner, who once honed his theatrical gifts as a member of Chicago's Mordine & Company).
George and Betty's House features the same grown-up couple--Shapiro and Smith--being watched this time by a baby (Weltner), presumably their own child. As in Cafe, the movement is a clockwork approximation of naturalistic gestures. But while the couple in Cafe cartoons romantic flamboyance, the couple in George and Betty's House caricatures repression. Man and woman alike have a pinched, closed-in look, the result of narrow, dark-rimmed glasses, pursed lips, and in the case of the woman, permanently hunched shoulders that reveal the entire tragedy.
The almost mimed gestures and actions of George and Betty's House make character and story transparent: the father is a compulsive tyrant, a martinet, demanding and childish; the mother is timid and oppressed, a victim to be picked up by the collar and shaken like a puppy because she hasn't prepared a nice dinner; the spoiled son tyrannizes over both of them, manipulating them into even greater conflicts. Particularly repulsive is the "love scene" between the man and woman: they wear plastic aprons, surgical masks, and rubber gloves to the elbows; their embraces look like the action of two marionettes falling against each other; their kisses are mere collisions of the lips. The child-size furniture of the set and tinkling, toylike notes of the score make it clear that we're getting a kid's-eye view of a marriage--and it's an extremely unpleasant view. We also sense that it's limited and unfair. Though the more abstract and creative manifestations of character are fun to watch--the man's stiff-armed runs in a circle, the way the woman looks into her saucepan as if it were a mirror--ultimately George and Betty's House is too reductive even to succeed as satire.
The newest work on the program, Square Dance (to be officially premiered in New York in May), melds the reckless energy and abandon of Rhapsody with the satirical mime of George and Betty's House. The score (by Scott Killian) mimics a square-dance caller's folksy explanations and instructions; the women wear poofy full skirts supported by layers of petticoats. The bits of mime scattered here and there in Square Dance are genuinely funny. A woman falls across a man's lap, and he leers and starts lifting her petticoats one by one as if searching for the heart of a particularly complex many-petaled flower. Touching a dancer seated on a chair with one finger produces a ridiculously exaggerated response: a heaving leap and tumble to the floor.
As in Rhapsody, part of the point for these six dancers is switching partners, and the sometimes chaotic movement in Square Dance is likewise organized and shaped by the dancers' looks at each other, which suggest relationship. Shapiro has a more distinct character than the others: possessed of a polymorphous sexuality, he's odd man out, at first to his own discomfort and then, as he watches a duet, with a sense of his own privilege. Is he the choreographer observing his work? Or a representative of the audience? Megan Brazil is a wonderment of feminine strength--she often lifts and carries the strapping Shapiro. Her strength and buoyancy and musical attack propel her marvelously through the work's ecstatic closing section.
One of the things I liked best about Shapiro & Smith Dance is the gestural intimacy of the partnering--the palms on one another's necks, the circling arms. Maybe that's the result of the collaborators' offstage relationship. Whatever, it's what makes the final dance on this program, To Have and to Hold (1989), seem agreeably adult. This dance uses three polished wooden benches set in parallel rows; in the context of the choreography they're remarkably evocative, sometimes as anonymous as park benches, sometimes as enclosing and formal as church pews; as warm as beds, as cold as coffins.
As in Rhapsody, the dancers use these props to leverage their strength and ballon, but what gives To Have and to Hold its emotional resonance is the quiet concluding section. Three dancers lie on their backs on the benches: three are supine beneath them. The ones underneath occasionally reach up to touch the shoulder or cheek of the one above them, and that slight touch rouses the sleeper unaccountably--it's disturbing out of all proportion to its force. As this section goes on, one member of each pair often seems to be ministering to the other: is he or she dying? Chests arch up off the benches as if breathing their last. But if sickness and death are suggested, they're not what give this section its impact. The very quietness and delicacy of each movement, the movement's isolation in space and time, and the reverence and responsiveness of the dancers are what establish a mature subtext. Here Shapiro and Smith branch out by reining in.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Tom Caravaglia.