Disorienting Play: “Thanks” at the Red Eye

Lightsey Darst reviews Anna Marie Shogren’s dance performance “Thanks” at the Red Eye Theater (June 29-July 1). Shogren’s mysteriously funny work can be puzzling but seldom bores. Look for more from her.

from thanks

Anna Marie Shogren is a modernist. This is not a term used in dance, so let me explain. “Modern,” in most other arts, suggests a focus on formal properties (the components of the artwork, the possibilities of its medium—let’s forget about the rest of modernism for the moment). “Modern,” in dance, describes a type of dance that in other arts might be more correctly termed Expressionist.

The preoccupation with formal properties did appear in dance, but a little later on, and by then it was too late to reapply the term “modern”. In fact, the current dance movement that is utterly without a name (its proponents like to call it “dance,” while the critics sometimes misname it “postmodern dance”; I call it “avant-garde dance”) has a large streak of this formal preoccupation in it. Now, who cares about this terminology? Generally, not I, but in this case it’s useful. Think of Shogren as a modernist and you will be inside the puzzle of her dance.

I say this because the surface of the puzzle is tough to penetrate. Shogren makes people laugh. I’ve been watching her work for a while, sitting in the midst of howling audiences, secretly wondering what was so funny as the same time that I laughed along with them. With “Thanks,” possibly because the very funny Shogren herself is not performing, I was able to understand this a little better. Yes, the costume changes are funny (bike helmet, waiter’s apron, poncho, sheet with holes for the eyes, gold dress, chicken outfit), yes, the music is funny, the whole aesthetic is funny in a thrift store what the hell is that kind of way. But most of the laughter actually comes from Shogren’s formal explorations, her disorienting play.

Shogren likes to play with focus. Take a movement, make it specific, then make it vague. Flip back and forth between the specific and the vague, the precise and the out of focus, the expert and the pedestrian. One minute the dancers are just walking; the next minute one of them is etching out paths in the air with her arms. One dancer is going full-out through some side-contorted jumps, while the one behind her just jerks her head and one arm along with the first dancer, and the dancer behind her only inclines her head gently. We generally see dancers going along at the same level of specificity, so it’s odd to see the alternation of sharp and fuzzy. Does one matter more than the other? Why is it that in the vague we tend to see character, whereas the specific is always more impersonal and more impressive?

Shogren likes to mess with form and its potential neuroses too. Okay, here’s a dancer standing with her legs spread, toes turned out, arms akimbo. What if she starts jerking her knees rapidly—what does that do? The heroic form turns neurotic, silly. The seven dancers execute a sort of hula, each one going at a slightly different speed, each with a different degree of hip-wiggle, so that you have one dancer doing a rapid graceless twitch, another barely moving, and another doing a lazy summery shimmy. What does it mean to unfold the neuroses of a form? You learn that the form itself is a neurosis—a selected one, our favorite neurosis. The other variations we’ve somehow excluded, but it’s Shogren’s pleasure to discover them again.

Shogren also likes to poke at the gaze. Sometimes the dancers aren’t aware of the audience; then they turn on, slowly, their eyes uncovering the audience, their faces gradually assuming a conscious look. Interior and exterior: Shogren’s moves are either private or public, with no soothing middle ground, none of that suspension of disbelief in which we look in on people having deeply personal moments. Modernist that she is, Shogren is not about to lie to us or herself about the nature of the medium: looking in performance is deeply odd, and she explores the oddity.

And Shogren plays with expectations. Nothing much is happening, you might think, and it’s an accurate description, but it doesn’t convey the experience. What does it all add up to? you might ask, but you can almost feel the mischievous Shogren echoing that “add up”: what adds up? what does math have to do with it? So much is allowed to pass purely away in this piece that you might wonder how you are supposed to watch “Thanks”—but again the question reveals its own absurdity.

This last is pretty dangerous play, of course. Critics have observed that modernism tends to run itself into the ground. It seems that you have to take a few things on faith to get anywhere. Not that Shogren is quite at this extreme; she still has plenty of territory to explore.

What Shogren appears to love exploring is the small scale, the moment-to-moment changes of choreography. “Thanks” is, odd as this might sound, real eye-candy: you will not get bored watching each new twist, even if you don’t know what it all amounts to. This loving craft, fine as embroidery, is what shines most about “Thanks”. On the large scale the piece is weaker—not because it doesn’t “amount to” something, but because the larger elements appear not to have received the same consideration. There are seven women in the performance. Why seven? Why all women? And why all such young, soft, innocent-looking women? (Innocent, that is, excepting the sultry self-satisfaction of Emily Serafy Cox and the knowingness of Tara King.) Seven maidens is a fairy tale, a myth. The number might be an accident—so much of art is—but at present it feels like an unexplored accident, an uninhabited accident.

For much of the performance, the dancers move across the stage in a flat line from our right to our left, disappearing behind the set only to pop out again on the right side. What is this? An airport people-mover? a frieze? a parade, a bread line, a pageant? It could be any or all, but for now it’s suffered to come and go without definition. And then there’s the staged reading of a portion of The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds. It’s a good chunk, full of nouns, but what’s it doing here? How does it inflect what came before?

Still, “Thanks” is well worth the ride. And Shogren, now in her mid-twenties, is a choreographer to watch. Not only because she’s well-connected in the dance community (showing up in the work of Justin Jones and Morgan Thorson), which certainly helps, but because she’s a master of detail and a cheeky challenger of her art form.

“Thanks” appeared along with Georgia Stephens’s “Alibi Smile”.