Mad Shak at the Dance Center: When the Process is the Product

Columbia College’s Process v. Product Festival kicked off Thursday, a collection of workshops, lectures and performances to cap the 2017-18 presenting series at the college’s Dance Center. Process v. Product is aimed at illuminating the choreographic process and its relationship to concert dance, a commodity consumed by the public.

Perhaps no artist could be a more perfect selection for this subject than Molly Shanahan and her company called Mad Shak, who, for decades, have used the stage as their research lab. I’ve always marked 2007 as a point of departure for Shanahan’s career, with her Chicago Dancemakers Forum-sponsored “My Name is a Blackbird” signaling a new and intriguing line of investigation relying heavily on the personalities and movement idiosyncrasies of each cast member. But in all honesty, it was then that I first became aware of Mad Shak, and have really known only Shanahan to be mining this particular aesthetic. Her bio marks this shift as occurring in 2004. “Of Whales, Time, and Your Last Attempt to Reach Me,” running through Saturday at Columbia’s Dance Center is her latest movement foray, a quartet with familiar faces, Jeff Hancock and Kristina Fluty, joined by Shanahan and new company member Megan Klein.

Sometimes I feel as if that’s all that really needs to be said about Shanahan’s work. The first few times, her dances feel glorious and so, so gratifying. They are unapologetically raw and beautiful to witness. Shanahan’s liquid movement quality is infused with just the right wave of staccato and humor infuses the work as she tugs on the strings of human interaction. She takes movements and gestures we make in our daily lives and laboriously distills their kinesthetic essence in other words, to be human is to dance. 

A decade later, though, it’s beginning to feel a bit same-same, which harkens back to the idea of the Process v. Product Festival itself. Does it have to be different each time? How many waterlilies would Monet have to paint before it was one waterlily too many?

And in truth, there was something quite different about “Whales” than previous works, and I think it has to do with these Shanahanian utterances on human nature, most in close proximity to those who are watching. Shanahan and her dancers routinely involve us emotionally, if not physically, in the journeys their bodies take onstage. By contrast, the expansive Dance Center stage, made even bigger by pulled-back soft goods and a gorgeous white floor, plus our relative distance from the performers, created a barrier between us and them I’ve rarely, if ever, felt from this group.

Maybe this distance was intentional, since they seemed focused on keeping this work frustratingly internal. Even in a very long stretch of downstage slow-motion walking, with hands outstretched, hips turned sideways with chests out to the front like Grecian frescos, they looked toward us, but not at us. Obvious and deliberate, I couldn’t tell if this was an act of self-service or self-preservation. That doesn’t matter so much as the dissonance between what was happening then, and what happened just before this: a walk straight downstage with an ever so subtle change of expression, alternating between “This is my real,” and “This is my fake.” The second pass felt like a genuine fake.

And in this walk across the lip of the stage, Joshua Paul Weckesser’s light isolates them on the lip of the stage. They stand at the edge of the white marley floor – not a toe dares to cross it. They are as close to us as they will get all night. They are being seen, but not seeing us. Earlier in the piece, each dancer fluctuated between put-on personas (most often that of a southern, gentile belle making all the right moves as a woman out in society) and a real, authentic self that, though not literally naked, is clearly a vulnerable state for these four dancers. I wanted to feel that too, but was never truly invited in.

I considered the title – “Of Whales, Time, and Your Last Attempt to Reach Me” – and I don’t know what any of this has to do with whales. If I had to venture a guess, I’d express wonder toward the concept of echolocation: the sensation of sound waves used by whales to locate their position relative to objects and other animals. I don’t know anything about whales, or echolocation, but I’m aware that some humans can do this too. It is an acquired skill of some blind individuals to locate and identify objects based on the timbre of their environment. Indeed, when one sense is impaired, people often exhibit hypersensitivity from the others, using brain centers that are otherwise committed to sight to heighten their awareness through sound, taste, and proprioception.

And so maybe part of “Whales” is an attempt to experience this kind of heightened awareness of the body, the self, and its location in space by turning off certain senses and tuning into others. It is a common exercise in dance to use peripheral vision and proprioception to guide you onstage – particularly useful when you have to perform out toward an audience while staying in unison with other dancers, or when there are bright lights shining in your face.

But when this exercise becomes the thing, I wonder what we, the audience, are meant to glean. Having been a dancer, the thing I most often take from Molly Shanahan’s work is how good it must feel to do. How does it read to someone who doesn’t know that?

Lauren Warnecke is the dance writer and critic for the Chicago Tribune