It’s called 'Mass' and performed in a church, but this is no ordinary sermon

On entering Ebenezer Lutheran Church Saturday, DJ Natalie Shamoun is stationed to one side of the altar spinning from a laptop as two performers, Allison Burke and Drew Lewis, are busy behind her. Burke and Lewis are dressed in hunter green basketball shorts and black tube socks, shirtless, their nipples concealed with pancake makeup. They flank the raised platform, taping flyers with either “Allison” or “Drew” typed across a crucifix to Ebenezer’s curved white walls.

The old Ebenezer sanctuary was converted into a community room when a new worshipping space was built next door. It’s been the performance home of Chicago Danztheatre Ensemble for several years; increasingly, the spot in the heart of Andersonville is used by other companies, too. As Saturday’s one-night-only performance of NYC-based choreographer Lydia Shamoun’s “Mass” began to take shape, beginning with the taping of those crucifixes on the altar’s back wall, I noticed the residual architectural artifacts from this room’s former occupation more than usual. 

That’s not to say that “Mass” is irreverent. On the contrary, it’s rather gloriously ambivalent, the title referencing the idolatry of pop culture icons and the seemingly instant fame of social media “influencers.” 

Lewis deserts the task of pasting crosses and comes to stand in the middle of a peachy dance floor laid in front of the altar, around which the audience sits on three sides. He paces in profile, sliding in his socks like a sort of stationary moon walk, for so long his bare skin begins to glisten with the effort. He repeats this motion, again and again, to the pulse of Natalie Shamoun’s set –sometimes on half speed, sometimes in time, sometimes alternating in a slow-slow-fast tempo – but always adhering to the beat like a hamster in a wheel. 

Meanwhile Burke is mussing up Lewis’s crosses, replacing his with hers or taping a line across his name. When she joins her dance partner, the two pace up and down the space or skip on the diagonal, stopping to pose, copying each other or, alternatively, competing in various displays of one-upmanship. At the hour-long piece’s pinnacle, complacency is abandoned for a full-on wrestling match. Apart from this and a few other moments alluding to duckfaced social media selfies, they are basically deadpan, expressionless despite obvious exertion from the neck down. 

Maybe the fact that they're performing in a church is just a coincidence, but Lydia Shamoun doesn’t strike me as an unintentional dancemaker. The blurring of Burke and Lewis’s nipples with makeup likely pokes at the debate about male nipples being acceptable on social media, while female nipples are dubbed nudity. Larger-than-life video (by Sierra Hendrix) of each dancer’s face projected on the back wall, particularly in the moments Burke faces upstage and stares at herself, remind us of the self-aggrandizing to which nearly all of us participate as we needlessly seek to promote our personal brands online. 

There’s a jab at dance, too, which is hardly immune from its own social media norms and icons. Shamoun’s pedestrian locomotions and copious gestures are interspersed with virtuosic dance moves, like a few honestly fantastic assemblé battus and grand jetés which, in this context, seemed rather ridiculous, and that's why I’m so glad they were there.

Through all of it, a psychedelic light show of green, blue and magenta bathes their bodies; unbalanced by natural hues, harsh LEDs make the dancers' skin glow in unflattering Pepto Bismol or extraterrestrial shades. I gathered that this, too, was intentional, nearly dehumanizing their bare bodies until, near the end, Burke steps up into a spotlight and, in a pretty bad Southern drawl, delivers a sermon on “our lord and savior, Oprah.”

A recognizable iPhone alarm triggers a switch and Lewis, whose below-the-Mason-Dixon accent is equally contrived, invokes Madonna. Alarms come quicker as they swap places with increasing frequency and fervor. With references to Britney Spears and Kim Kardashian in there, too, Oprah and Madonna are not the only icons here, representing a spectrum of generations and approaches with these various rises to fame, acheived through some combination of talent, luck, right place/right time and some stupid Internet algorithm.

Shamoun packs a lot of symbolism packed into “Mass,” but it doesn’t feel as saturated and gross as a Facebook feed. She offers a serious comment about our current obsessions with the media, subtly provoking without taking any of it too seriously. Right now, that feels about right. Can I get an “Amen”?