Shannon Gillen at Incubator Arts Project

Before Thursday night’s performance of Shannon Gillen + Guests CLAP FOR THE WOLFMAN at the Incubator Arts Project I was having a chat with a friend of mine. We were talking about how in ballet and some modern dance pieces there are “roles” that are created within the work and it is interesting to watch how specific dancers take on those roles and interpret them. And then we discussed how in some contemporary dance it is not about roles, it is about finding the unique, individual movement vocabularies of the dancers themselves and meshing them with a choreographer’s vision. These are two distinct ways of approaching the creation of dance and the effect is very different – in one form we are looking at the virtuosity of the dancer as expressed in interpretation, in the other we are looking at the intersection of the dancer’s individual expression and the choreographer’s vision – how does this choreographer work with the innate material the corps of dancers brings to the work and shape it into a coherent whole?

In this context, CLAP FOR THE WOLFMAN is an interesting balancing act in which there are moments of improvisation, spontaneity and play juxtaposed with tightly structured choreography. The piece suggests a tension between the civilized and the wild, control and chaos, the primal and the refined. As an ensemble the dancers – Genna Baroni, Xan Burley, Frances Chiaverini, Janna Diamond, and Kristin Swiat – work together to create an ever-shifting web of alliances and confrontations balanced with moments of individual expression.

The piece starts with the dancers arrayed onstage and then goes to blackout, followed by a series of tableaux of the ensemble against the wall, as if they were on the run. They are all wearing hoodies and their faces are essentially covered, which establishes a sense of urgency and being hunted, that carries on throughout the work. During the darkness of the first sequence there appears to be a sixth dancer, which is soon revealed to be a Man Made of Many Balloons – which I thought was pretty funny. Not sure what it meant exactly – but it was an interesting trick.

From there we move into a sequence of various groupings in which the dancers perform with intensity and focus, broken up occasionally with moments of levity and play. They change costumes onstage and all the tech is on display. They perform to a score of found sound and use a live microphone as a key element of the design. At different points in the show the microphone is used to amplify the rustling and noise of movement and it adds an interesting, rough layer of texture.

The microphone is also used as a control device. In one sequence the dancers take turns giving instructions to each other, they also strike poses and self-narrate, things like: “This is what I look like when I’m praying” and “This is how tall I was when I was seven”. It seemed like a bit of a spontaneous improvisational contest. It came after a particularly rigorous sequence of movement and was a nice counterpoint to the intensity of the preceding choreography.

WOLFMAN started out a little disconnected – the sequences seemed somewhat random – but as the work progresses it builds momentum, the disparate choreographic elements come more into focus and we start to see patterns emerge, vocabularies repeat. And though it started out rather dark and moody, it lightened up over the course of the evening – it was as if the performers were settling into the world of the piece and the brooding tension of the beginning gave way to a sense of exploration.

It seems redundant to say that a dance piece is intensely physical, but the dancers in WOLFMAN were really present and expressive without being too self-serious. They brought a wonderful attention to detail and an exuberance to their physicality that was exciting to watch. They obviously enjoy working together as an ensemble and Gillen’s choreography took advantage of that. And while I generally don’t like to call out individuals in ensemble work, you couldn’t help but be intrigued and amused by Janna Diamond’s occasional impish grin. It was contagious and at times the whole ensemble seemed like they were going to bust out laughing – not in a bad way but in a “I can’t believe how much fun I’m having” kind of way.

And I assume Gillen, as choreographer, is responsible for creating the structural framework in which the dancers have the freedom to express themselves. She has placed conceptual and choreographic layers on top of the dancers’ natural inclinations, found a way to contextualize their vocabularies and built a house for it all to live in. Gillen is definitely a choreographer to watch. She has a lot of ideas both conceptually and choreographically and obviously has a good rapport with her dancers – who she can trust to help her deliver her vision.

WOLFMAN is a good beginning. I know Gillen has been making work for awhile but I feel like she’s really onto something with this balance of seriousness and humor, formal and informal choreography. The question is how she will edit and refine her vision as she moves forward. I, for one, look forward to finding out.

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