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Susan Marshall's Cerebral Cabaret

I have to admit, I was a little bit skeptical of the Harkness Dance Festival’s “stripped/dressed” theme before seeing Susan Marshall’s Sawdust Palace, the final performance in this annual series at the 92nd Street Y, on Sunday afternoon. The idea, devised by curator Doug Varone, was for each of the festival’s artists to present a two-part evening: first, to discuss the creative process behind a particular dance (to expose its inner workings, “strip it down”) and then to “dress” that piece up, showing the final, polished version, fully costumed and lit.


I went into part one expecting the kind of banality I’ve endured at many a post-show talkback (vague answers to vague questions that too frequently dilute the power of what I’d just seen) or a spoon-fed explanation of what the piece was about (“…and this part is meant to represent…”). I was eager to plough through all that and get to the work itself. I had heard that Sawdust Palace was a collection of cabaret acts, a departure for Marshall, whose sensibility tends toward the serious and contemplative. Did I need to know anything else? Did I need to know even this much? (That whole question of, “How much should we need to know about the art to appreciate the art?”)

Maybe not. But regardless, Marshall’s “Stripped” presentation far exceeded my expectations. In a brief 20-or-so minutes, she gave us some useful context for Palace—how it fit into her trajectory of dance-making and into the broader New York dance landscape—without giving too much away.


Joseph Poulson and Luke Miller in "Body Music"


She offered, for example, a more nuanced way of saying what I just said two paragraphs ago. What I call “serious and contemplative,” Marshall characterizes as a particular “flow” of experience that moves from audience to performer. Typically, she said, her work invites the audience in, asking us to infer, derive our own meaning, figure out what’s going on there. As an example, she showed her five-minute “Book,” a quiet excerpt from her 2006 Cloudless, in which two performers gently page through an encyclopedia (assisted by an enormous fan), while two others whisper in their ears: a mysterious exchange of information, which tells no story but the one we choose to bring to it.

Palace, Marshall said, reverses the direction of that flow, with performers making a more concerted effort to entertain us. The work was commissioned in 2006 for Bard Summerscape’s Spiegeltent, a portable dance hall with a lavish interior, traditionally home to circus and cabaret. (Set designer Susan Zeeman Rogers admirably reproduced that rough-hewn sumptuousness in the Y’s intimate Buttenweiser Hall.) And indeed, Palace, which came after intermission, deals delightfully in reckless, fun exhibitionism, in silliness and sexiness for its own sake. The 15 acts include a gymnastic tea service, a sensuous ruse in which the unassuming pianist (Alexander Rovang) ends up shirtless with his hands tied in a knot, and a new vignette exploring what Marshall calls “the idea of a woman who could manipulate her breasts through puppetry.” (That woman was the brave Jacquelyn Landgraf.)


But the flow in Palace, as far as I perceived it, doesn’t just go one way, and while some moments are stronger than others, the combination of in-your-face humor and thoughtful repose makes for an enchanting whole. Marshall gives our minds plenty of space in which to roam around, asking “What’s this? What’s that?” Her beguiling performers get ensnared in perplexing scenarios that are Pina Bauschian in their absurdity. Objectively futile tasks—like Joseph Poulson and Darrin Wright smacking various body parts together in “Body Music”—seem driven by a definite, if indefinable, underlying logic. In “Belt Man,” Darrin Wright peels off his shirt to reveal multiple belts wrapped around his bare torso. He places one on the ground, lies down beside it, pops to his feet through a stealthy little flip, steps reluctantly over the boundary he’s created for himself, and begins again—and again and again. “What is he doing?” I wonder. But at the same time, his ceremonial focus convinces me that, whatever it is, it’s important.

Doesn’t sound unlike everyday life, actually: finding purpose—and joy—in the repetitive and ridiculous. Life, as they say, is a cabaret.



Kristin Clotfelter and Alexander Rovang in "Salute to Love"


Photos by Julie Lemberger, courtesy 92Y.

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