Anna Marie Shogren’s “Human Anatomy” @ Vital Matters
I was catering the opening night of the Vital Matters Festival of Dance at the Southern Theater, so between arranging plates, slicing bread, instructing assistants, opening jars, and fluffing tablecloths, I tiptoed into the back of theater to watch Anna Marie Shogren’s Human Anatomy. I am a dancer and choreographer myself, and have always adored Anna Marie Shogren’s work—so I watched with eager attention.
My impression of her past work has been simplistically profound, or perhaps so profound because of her simplicity, free of drama and politics. The first work I saw was her skating around the stage in a winter sweater and hat, as if on ice, just sweet and beautiful, clean of complex signifiers but full of enough connective tissue to allow my mind to wander through the webbing of my own neurological connections. In another video piece, I saw her rolling and sliding down a brick or stone staircase in New York’s Central Park. This work again was simple, but visceral, joyous in her ability to undertake the choreography with ease and pleasure. One of my favorite works of Anna’s was a piece she performed on the small stage of the Bryant Lake Bowl in Minneapolis. The stage light was dim, and in the low glow of a single focused back light was Anna dancing to T Rex’s Cosmic Dancer, dancing like she would dance alone in her apartment, or at a party with good friends, lacking in the conscious awareness of performance. Her energy and precision contributed to her presence, as she fully inhabited her body and filled the music.
I sat high in the back of the house, and with the Southern’s steep rake, I was able to look down onto three women standing in a tight, short line in the backstage right corner, behind the proscenium arch of the Southern Theater (an artifact of the original turn-of-the-century building turned into a unique stage feature). The women moved downstage and formed a circle center stage. They began to move in an informal unison with ritualistic repetition and focus, rocking side to side in releve adorned with a quick coupe that almost eluded detection, then went back to the rocking in releve.
The space was warmly lit and conspicuously without sound, as a percussionist sat silently perched at his drum set facing the circle of dancers from stage left. The dancers began to move through a slow evolution from one movement to the next, a crossfade from one action or expression to another. They created a blur of new vocabulary in the passage from each movement proposition to the next.
Soon after this pattern was established, the metered and steadied rhythm of the drums began—unemotional, a stalwart supportive spine providing strength within and throughout. The lighting gently pulsed from bright to dim, having no seeming effect on the drummer or the dancers.
The dancers were dressed in homemade, tunic–like towel dresses that reminded me of the shower robes my mother made out of bath towels for my sisters and me in the 70’s. These three performers in action speaking to a sisterhood.
The dance broke away from the evolutionary vocabulary to a fast paced round, the dancers falling and tumbling face first onto all fours. Another dancer would reach for the fallen dancer’s folded pelvic haunches, in order to lift and swing them gently back into the cycle. Falling and pulling in turn, the dancers folded into and out of the canon of action. I drifted as this cycle played out, moving between soft transitions with interstitial moments of solid imagery.
For me, this image recalled Trojan women or Amazonians, a sisterhood of resilience against external forces. Though Anna’s work usually is unpolitical, the three performers appeared to me as women specifically, not just the default casting in a historically feminized field. Presenting a dance of kinesthetic empathy that I could hold on to, identify, a “human anatomy” that drew a connecting line between me and it.
Now and again, the drummer would alter the rhythm, though never shifting pace, or volume, and after each alteration, settling back into a mono-rhythmic pattern as the lights ebbed low, high and low again. He was able to maintain, to pulse evenly, to weave throughout making no profound statement—just the beat, monotonous in nature, strictly monotone with only the slightest of human variance, an absolute beat for these women. The dancers’ actions shifted, as all the elements of this work continued to function in perfect autonomy. Like the dancers, the lights and sound formed a round, having no effect on the leader or follower.
The drummer, dancers, choreography,, and direction keeps the piece pulsing forward until its last steady sound and image. Anna Marie Shogren presented again a work of subtle, simple beauty, profound in its pacing and its strength. It provided me with headroom, so I could go wherever I wanted in my drifting mind.