Shapiro & Smith: A Crucible for Local Dance

Lightsey Darst reviews the recent 25th anniversary concert by Shapiro & Smith Dance, a company from which has emerged a host of local choreographers and dancers like TU Dance, Carl Flink, Ananya Chatterjea, Lise Houlton, Mathew Janczewski.


AS JOANIE SMITH OBSERVES IN HER PROGRAM NOTES, Shapiro & Smith Dance has featured or nurtured many notable local dancers and choreographers over its twenty-five years: Uri Sands, Mathew Janczewski, Carl Flink, Ananya Chatterjea, Lise Houlton, Toni Pierce-Sands, and Erin Thompson, not to mention the dancers on Shapiro & Smith’s roster now, many of whom perform with other companies. What these dancers and choreographers took away, they’ve improved on; what they left behind is rich.

What they left behind — what I don’t see anyone else in town doing — is fast-action slapstick, delightful lightning bolts of cause and effect, human Rube Goldberg machines that send dancers spinning or flying or knock them flat on their backs. You can see this in a section of their recent premiere, Smith’s Voices: one dancer swings, using another as a pivot, and then everyone collapses in sequence, trip, splat, plunge. Want to see it again? The dancers pop right back up, unhurt and ready for more pratfalls, like cartoon characters. As with the best cartoons, the humor here derives from pathos — grief, frustrated eros, anger simmering right under the comic surface. The sisters or best friends of Pat A Cake (2011) whip through complex slap games; it’s funny when they flub and muss their pretty party dresses, but when one finally just out-and-out wallops the other, everyone in the audience freezes. Family (1988) may be the first group piece Shapiro and Smith choreographed, but it shows the same mastery of physical comedy. A mother, father, and daughter pose, dressed in dreadful mustard and ochre prints, smiling blandly as in a sitcom’s promotional photo, but the mother keeps pushing her daughter’s head down as if dribbling a ball; the daughter bounces back smiling each time. Later, Dad dances around his easy chair; sometimes it’s the shelter for his deadpan ennui, sometimes a platform for cartwheels. He balances himself on the chair back, flails all his limbs, flops like a rag doll, holds a beat, and repeats. The entire family mugs and tics, timing their grotesquerie wryly to an Astor Piazzola tango. It’s funny because of the timing, yes, because of the costumes and the strained faces, yes — but under that, it’s funny because it’s true.

Let’s consider what Janczewski, Flink, et al took away from Shapiro & Smith — or what they might have taken from Shapiro & Smith. There have been other places to learn big, swoopy heartfelt modern movement — you can find them in more interesting forms elsewhere in town. Smith certainly has a way with stage motion, setting everything moving like a weather system: one dancer streaks down a diagonal while a trio or duo swirls on another course, and still another group sends one dancer flying up in the air, and all these points move together — a human constellation. But her compositions fall apart on a larger scale, nowhere more noticeably than in Bolero (2010), where Ravel’s famously inexorable score highlights the choreography’s lack of deep dynamic. Besides, I’m afraid Carl Flink’s Hit broke me for enjoying any sort of faux-combat on stage; thanks to Flink, I can’t view high-energy partnering (dancers hurled at each other, near-misses, cartilage-busting falls) without being aware of its actual cost.


Whether comic or sincere, Smith still gets excellent performances from her dancers throughout: full-bodied movement, spot-on timing, beaucoup flying photo ops. But watching them, I couldn’t help feeling I’d seen these performances before, because I’ve seen these dancers before.


Whether comic or sincere, Smith still gets excellent performances from her dancers throughout: full-bodied movement, spot-on timing, beaucoup flying photo ops. But watching them recently at the Cowles Center concert, I couldn’t help feeling I’d seen these performances before, because I’ve seen these dancers before. Zenon, Black Label Movement, Stuart Pimsler, and Shapiro & Smith all share dancers, and all rely to some extent on those dancers to generate movement, which means that you get to see the same great moves in concert after concert. (Concentrating all these companies at the Cowles only highlights the overlap.) I can hardly believe I’m saying this, because I love her dancing, but Laura Selle Virtucio (who’s in three of the four companies mentioned above) may be overexposed this year: her astonishing immediacy no longer surprises me the way it should.

Andrew Lester, on the other hand, I haven’t seen enough of. Changeable — cadaverous and absurd one moment, sensuous and internal the next — Lester can do both sides of Shapiro and Smith’s rep. He has the springing athleticism Twin Cities dancegoers can now expect everywhere, but where other dancers exhibit a good-student obedience that cuts the thrill in half, Lester gives the impression he’s choosing what to do — and when he chooses, he moves with feral suddenness and animal pleasure. I loved watching him make up his mind in Bolero. The choice was inevitably disappointing, as the choreography didn’t give him much to do. Still, what magic as the possibilities unfurled around him like silk.

But back to the occasion of the evening: twenty-five years is quite a landmark, especially given that Smith’s carried on the last five years by herself, after the 2006 death of Danny Shapiro. The well-earned celebration continues this June with Anytown, their evening-length work set to the music of Bruce Springsteen, which will be revived at the Guthrie.


Noted performance details:

Shapiro & Smith’s 25th Anniversary Season concert took place April 6 – 8 at Cowles Center for Dance and Performing Arts in Minneapolis, featuring Pat A Cake and Bolero and the premiere of Voices, with live music by Orange Mighty Trio.

The company’s revival of Anytown will take the stage June 21 -24 in the Guthrie Theater’s Dowling Studio. Ticket information is available here.


About the author: Originally from Tallahassee, Lightsey Darst is a poet, dance writer, and adjunct instructor at various Twin Cities colleges. Her manuscript Find the Girl was recently published by Coffee House; she has also been awarded a 2007 NEA Fellowship.