“That Which Doesn’t Kill Us…”
Danny Swain Dance Company
Dance Complex, Cambridge, Massachusetts
April 24-26, 2009 [performance reviewed: April 24]
Photo: Charles Daniels
Scary Clowns, Haunted Trunks, and the Ugliest Afghan of All
When my only brother passed away at the age of 45 following a drug overdose, he had been living on the street for more than two decades. Needless to say, his wardrobe was minimal. My family asked me to provide proper clothing for the wake: a Ralph Lauren jacket, some fine woolen dress pants, a crisp white cotton shirt, designer necktie and leather-soled shoes. I’m a gay man; even though it is an obvious stereotype, sophistication in attire is a natural pre-occupation for me. A friend commented that she had never seen my brother dressed so well. “Queer Eye for the Dead Guy,” I replied, indicating myself with irony. We both laughed bitterly, letting that moment resonate with both the horror of grief and the salvation of humor.
Danny Swain’s recent concert at Dance Complex in Cambridge took me back to many such dark moments in my own life, skillfully reminding me that those experiences were hardly one-dimensional. His company’s latest performance was, in many ways, shocking. For the past several years, Swain’s choreography has been coldly formal and free of any explicit narrative. I understand now that certainly he has been working out the structural ideas he needed to frame his present efforts, namely, dance-theater pieces that seem to celebrate the best and worst of human experience. In this way, Swain has traded his boyish iconoclasm for a deeper, wiser persona. He has moved clearly into a new phase of creativity. His own history, revealed with candor over the course of “That Which Doesn’t Kill Us…” represents a compelling triumph over tragedy. These new dances are also convincing proof that insight and wisdom are evident in the most overwhelming situations of loss.
The program opened with his willfully overwrought “At Your Own Discretion,” set to an aria from Verdi’s “Attila.” An ensemble of six women (Marissa Carr, Kathryn Dunkel, Heather Emley, Rebekah Bohnet Fontane, Caitlin Meehan, and Nikki Sao Pedro) move through a series of dramatic phrases that juxtapose tight unisons with sudden episodes of chaos. One trio seems embedded in the other, as if they are fighting a battle. What becomes readily apparent is the relationship between the movement and the recitative and melodic sections of the aria itself (“Oh tutto di navicelle… Ellain poeter del barbaro!”). Dressed in rich crimson outfits, the women slap themselves and shake at one moment, stand like obedient poodles the next. In the second section, the material is just slightly transposed: similar phrases but spaced differently and shown from a new perspective. It’s a successful opener, and in this case a particularly good transition for those who know Swain’s earlier work. It appears with time, however, that Swain is moving away from this sort of “basic” dance to something more idiosyncratic.
An extraordinary solo from Swain followed, “Thanatology.” In psychiatry, it is a concept suggesting the exploration of the effects of dying, especially the search to diminish suffering and satisfy the needs of terminally-ill persons and their survivors (the word originates with “Thanatos,” the ancient Greek personification of death). This is the first time I have witnessed Swain speaking directly to his audience; though certainly not the first time I’ve seen a choreographer examine his or her responses to death. Peter DiMuro’s poignant solos of the early 1990s, as well as Bill T. Jones’ efforts in “Still/Here,” certainly come to mind. Swain’s efforts were singular, however, in that they blended humor and irony with simple descriptive statements (“I was fourteen when my mother got liver cancer”) to forge a highly theatrical and psychological atmosphere. Two chairs covered with a sheet, multiplied three times, serve as makeshift caskets. The only props are humble yet iconic: an “ugly“ afghan his mother crocheted as a gift, a bowl of cereal for his father (“he was a skeleton in a diaper”), and a glass of chocolate milk for his brother Billy, who died from lymphoid cancer and AIDS. Layered with the monologues are traveling episodes of a great, nearly reckless impetus. Usually the dancing picks up where the fragmentary text is insufficient. It’s like Swain is telling us that he can best convey the essence of this information only with his body. Isn’t that what dance is all about?
Opening the second act (the five separate dances comprise a whole work) was “In Passing,” an enigmatic, fragmentary dance with an archetypal set design: an abandoned attic strewn with trunks, old clothing and some long-forgotten Christmas decorations. Was this was happened eventually to the rhythmic personae of the first dance (one of them was missing)? Overly long, the dance suffers from a certain obsession with impressions rather than events, and Jane Wang’s languorous score contains a grating short melody repeated ad infinitum. There is a lot of running and falling. Four women fall to a cruciform position on the floor while the fifth walks around aimlessly, her hand covering her mouth. In terms of the shaping of the entire concert, one can understand why Swain wanted to explore the psychological opportunities contained in an attic, but choreographically it was the least successful in terms of organization and effect. Too much subdued lighting, usually, has a hard time sustaining itself.
And then there were clowns, three of them, with scary messed-up faces, like John Wayne Gacy on a bender after a particularly long block party. “Psycho-Active Therapy,” set to music by Prodigy, Jelly Roll Morton and The Books, is a distressing, confrontational work. Bryan Finocchio, Brendan Ledesma, and Swain wear long-sleeved shirts evoking straitjackets, rather than a trio they are amplifications of one big wave of aggression and terror. Only the first section sags due to its length; Swain is still recovering from the idea of building a repertory of short, musical-based works and moving into a more holistic theater. And just when it feels relentless, it gets shifty and mysterious, even funny.
The evening concluded with “…And Here We Are,” a skillful integration of post-World War II “nuclear family” imagery from videographer Greg Shea and lush movement episodes for six women. This is where Swain’s narrative and abstractions complete themselves and achieve unity. While “Thanatology” is a portrait and “In Passing” a still-life, the concert’s finale is without doubt a landscape. It is also a strange, apparent summation of Swain’s current state of mind: girls fighting amidst old wrecked cars, and then a flash of harmony from the ensemble, coupled with an ironic, fragmented voiceover. It doesn’t make sense and yet it suggests an eternal logic of sustainability and mobility. Yes, the performers are stronger by the end, protracted, racked with suffering but still filled with endurance and insight.
By Theodore Bale