Research Meets Performance: Mad Shak at Links Hall

A trio, a duet, and a solo were on the menu for Molly Shanahan/Mad Shak’s Love With/out Trembling, Dec. 16-18 at Links Hall. There was something new (The Last Minute), something old (And We Shall Be Rid of Them: Until the Moon Has Risen), and something unfinished (Blackbird’s Ventriloquy), although the three pieces, considered together, made two long sentences, separated by a semi-colon.

The Last Minute began with Jeff Hancock, Molly Shanahan, and Kristina Fluty downstage left, hunched over, with their hands on their knees. Their backs rose and gently fell, according to their breaths, mimicking the sound score of a softly blowing wind. Sometimes they moved together, but rarely as one unit, each affording the other some unencumbered time to take a turn as the soloist in improvisations that appeared to be built on self-inflicted gestures. Hancock is the sassiest and boldest of the three, almost coquettish in his interactions with us and them. He points and darts, while the two women weave and canoodle, though not in quite the same way.  When they move one at a time, it’s glorious, but it’s hard to see the common thread weaving these solos together. So, when they danced simultaneously, I couldn’t really figure out who to look at. Maybe that’s because these three dancers are so strong on their own, but in my effort to not miss anything, I missed the point.

This piece melts away as Fluty walks downstage into the audience and takes a seat among us. Hancock and Shanahan lie on the ground next to each other, and And We Shall Be Rid of Them: Until the Moon Has Risen picks up in the middle. The duet with the long title premiered last year at the Chicago Cultural Center. Designed for that space and not this one, it’s missing a few vital touches like a few incandescent lamps and a curtain drawn across the back wall. Those who hadn’t seen the original likely don’t notice or care about this, and the playfulness of the audio – a banter of Jeff pretending to be Molly and Molly pretending to be Jeff but Molly often being Molly instead – still packs the same punch as it did last winter.

And We Shall… concludes with a fade too, with Hancock walking downstage to another seat in the audience as he leaves Shanahan to finish a pass of audible “goings” on her own, except this time there’s a blackout and a brief intermission to allow composer/musician Kevin O’Donnell time to set up for Shanahan’s solo, the in-progress improvisation Blackbird’s Ventriloquy. It’s an awkward, avoidable pause, but not unwelcome once Shanahan returns from backstage to fill the gap with a joke about her sweaty feet.

It was a moment that reminded me that Links Hall is the perfect venue for Mad Shak – both are primed for experimentation and exploration with no need for specific outcomes (from what I can tell). A Mad Shak show is not a show, per se – rather it is a chance for Chicago audiences to observe the questions Shanahan has been unpacking with movement for the past several years while pursuing her PhD out of town. Because we only get to see her once (or maybe twice) a year, her danced musings draw loyal crowds, rife with curiosity and ready to revel in her luscious movement vocab. It’s the same for me, but I also see evidence of Academia, in that the work is slow to progress, its meaning opaque. Can movement research and performance co-mingle? Should they? How long does it take to “answer” questions with dances? How long should it take? The answers are not blatantly clear, and that's probably why PhD-level dance programs exist in the first place. It’s worth noting, however, that there is something quite tangible to Blackbird’s Ventriloquy that feels different from Shanahan’s recent series of dances that sometimes feel same-same. It’s also worth noting that her movement is consistently natural, and human, and satisfying. There is no one (no one) who moves quite like Molly Shanahan, and that alone is worth the cost of admission.