Molly Shanahan’s latest heady work is an introspective exploration for dancers and audience, alike

Whether one’s had the pleasure of meeting Molly Shanahan in person or simply enjoying her work as a spectator, it’s impossible to deny the brilliance of her artistic mind. With a BA, MA, and PhD to boot, Shanahan navigates choreography and performance with an inherently academic and somatic bent. Even by listening to the audience Mad Shak draws in, one can hear the echo of Shanahan’s intelligence as the Dovetail theater, a converted studio space, is filled with musings on the benefits of experiential anatomy and imagery. The soft premier of “Ex/Body: wake, dam, steel,” continues to promote the insightful, ambiguous and amorphic style Shanahan has worked so tirelessly to develop. 

Irrefutably, the 50-minute work is an ode to exploration. The quintet of dancers—Maria DiMarzio, Kristina Fluty, Jeff Hancock, Diana Stewart, and Shanahan—give themselves over to the study of their bodies, the space, and the energy that fills the room. For them, it’s a clear investigation of physical limitations, for each dancer is bound by his or her anatomical structure. From the relaxed, liquid-like nature of certain choreographic sections to the uncomfortably bent appendages that grace the stage in others, an innate duality is apparent as the dance progresses. It’s within this very duality we begin to see the complex layers of this piece brought to light. Riddled with captivating imagery, the repetitious unison phrase work and recognizable gestural motifs in “Ex/Body” encourage introspection for both the dancing and seated bodies in the room.

It’s within the silence, which goes unbroken for the full evening-length work, that the audience is welcomed into an investigation of their own. At times the silence is exasperating. The prolonged period of quietness breeds an ebb and flow from discomfort to comfort for the viewer. It becomes impossible not to fixate on the maddening absence of sound. As the work progresses and we allow ourselves to relax into the hypnotic flow of Shanahan’s choreography, the addition of sound would feel so undeniably inauthentic. The usage of obvious, overexaggerated breath cues are evocative of Doris Humphrey’s “Water Study,” yet the slothful movement is decidedly her own. It’s in this purposefully crafted, unsettled mindset Shanahan prompts us to create a soundtrack of our own. The dancer’s strides hitting the ground, the rhythm of exasperated breaths, and the sound of friction between skin and floor all become the music that once felt so desired.

Shanahan, in collaboration with her dancers, creates a space filled to the brim with calculated randomness. There is no obvious point to the work—no clear theme, motive, or meaning other than what the audience creates of it. At first, the choreography seems improvised in nature as they morph in and out of specific shapes through visibly structureless movement, yet this is foiled by the interspersed strict unison movement. No two movements seem to connect despite the fact their dancing bodies never stop flowing. It feels as though we never witness a transition, for in one second the movers are huddled in the upstage corner and in the next, they’re spread throughout the expansive stage. As we fish for intent within the abstruse dance, we realize perhaps we’re to make of it what we want.

Mad Shak’s work evokes questions and forces introspection. Sure, at times we might sit there asking ourselves, "What does all of this mean?" But it’s within that specific question we begin an exploration of our own. “Ex/Body” is so absolutely ambiguous that viewers get the chance to find personal meaning rather than track a piece presented with predetermined content. Shanahan avoids spoon-feeding the meaning behind her work in an effort to encourage viewers to connect their own dots. Without program explanations, without sound, and without a rigid structure, Mad Shak gives us an amorphous dance that blends one second into the next. The piece is wonderfully devoid of connotation and filled with choreographic crispness. Make sure to engage in the “Ex/Body” experience at Dovetail Studios; tonight is the last chance to catch this soft premiere.


"Ex/Body: wake, dam steel" concludes tonight at Dovetail Studios, 2853 W. Montrose Ave. Tickets are $18, available by clicking the event page below.

Meet our guest writer: A Chicago native, Emma Elsmo has been dancing since the mere age of two and has been writing for as long as she can remember. She began her formal dance training at the Academy of Movement and Music in Oak Park, Illinois, and was fortunate enough to spend summers training with both Hubbard Street Dance Chicago and Deeply Rooted Dance Theater. Elsmo graduated in May 2019 with a Bachelor of Fine Arts concentrated in dance performance and choreography from Temple University in Philadelphia, PA. While there, she enjoyed dancing with a handful of amazing artists and writing for the Philadelphia Dance Journal. She looks forward to exploring the Chicago dance scene on a deeper level.