The Unabashed Sexiness of Susan Marshall

July 19, 2007

Why hasn’t anyone thought of putting Susan Marshall’s work in a cabaret setting before? Her dances, especially since last year’s Cloudless, have the intimacy, the brashness, the overt sexuality that would fit. In the Spiegeltent at Bard College’s Fisher Center for the Performing Arts, people could sit at the outer edge in a booth and drink. But I felt pretty lucky to be sitting in the front row around the raised circular platform where the 20 vignettes of Sawdust Palace took place.

Even though it was mid-afternoon, with light streaming through the stained glass latticework, all eyes were fixed on the two people in the first scene. Kristen Hollinsworth walked in wearing an evening gown, and the piano player (Stephen Gosling) got up to greet her with a look of submerged desire (and regret?) on his face. She hugged him and didn’t let go. Thus burdened with a gorgeous woman wrapped around him, he returned to the piano bench and continued to play. As she nestled her head against his, or spread her fingers along his back, we listened to the lovely music by Edward Elgar.

Marshall’s two women are beautiful and sexy (Petra van Noort is the other); her men are goofy or sad. All perform with great focus, discipline, and physicality—and a delicious awareness of the absurdity of their actions. The unabashed sexiness of her women—they flaunt, they strut, they flirt—flies in the face of the traditional austerity of American modern dance. They are a bit like Pina Bausch’s women in evening gowns, who can brush their hair in a man’s face, be carried by a man as though flying, or taunt him seductively. While Cloudless was more wholesome, even outdoorsy, Sawdust Palace is based on the burlesque tradition of the German cabaret that goes along with the mirrored Spiegeltent. However feminist one might be, it’s nice to go along with the ride because their sexiness is (usually) coupled with witty and surprising choreography.

In “Tea for Two” Marshall doubled one of the exquisite scenes from Cloudless: Lying on her back, the woman blows a handkerchief off her own face; the man’s hand darts out to catch it without looking at it; she writhes in (anticipation of) pleasure. Repeatedly. She then inverts herself in a sort of plow pose, and the man sets the teacup on her …perineum. Kinky, beautiful, ritualistic, poetic, with all the sex implied.

The one skit that crossed the line for me into annoyingly sexist material was the section called “Chicken Flicker.” Joseph Poulson wears a butcher’s apron and watches Hollinsworth, all dolled up in a Las Vegas–style chicken outfit, complete with mesh tights and tufts of feathers at her breasts and pelvis. He gets turned on by her aggressive strutting and starts plucking her feathers, escalating into a frenzy. Hollinsworth is totally available to him to be butchered/raped. I winced as the audience cheered. (OK, so maybe I’m just a feminist without a sense of humor.) To give equal time to a differing opinion, I refer you to Elizabeth Zimmer’s review on our website.

Lots of other scenes were funny and/or charming. I nearly fell off my chair when Poulson and Luke Miller lifted their shirts and pants to make “Body Music,” putting themselves in ridiculous positions to make rhythmic slapping, lapping sounds all over their skin—and each other’s.

In the last scene the soulful Darrin Wright tentatively danced with the others one at a time. Somehow it was such a brave, poignant decision to have the sad one slowly get happy by the proximity of first one other dancer than another. You see the contagion of performing, and you see the extent to which Marshall allows each performer to be an individual.