Friday, March 9, 2012

What's in Susan Marshall's big tent?

Susan Marshall & Company in Sawdust Palace (Photo: Rosalie O'Connor)

Since forming in 1985, Susan Marshall & Company has garnered a whopping ten Bessie Awards. Marshall herself, a much sought-after dance maker on the US and international scene, was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship in 2000. So, fair to say, if you're given a chance to gain insight into this artist's creative process, that's a pretty good deal, right? 92Y's Harkness Dance Festival has a pretty good deal for you, coming up next weekend.

Invited by 2012 curator Doug Varone, Marshall immediately took to the festival's theme, "Stripped/Dressed," which refers to a two-part program. The first part gives the audience an interesting peek behind the choreographic curtain; the second presents fully-produced work.

"I'm approaching this as an opportunity to bring the process out into the open," says Marshall. "We'll dissect a couple of the sections that we'll present later."

She also hopes to show a work-in-progress--"fresh off the presses," she says, although conceptualized several years ago. "Since I'm in the middle of making it, I can remember what I was thinking!"

And it's quite something to remember, as the choreographer explains. "It involves an apparatus, a structure, that would allow the performer to--and this is the strange part--make her breasts move up and down."

She continues, chuckling, "I've become interested in the way the object takes a passive part of the body and gives it agency, and how it's very disorienting to actually see this part of the body dancing of its own volition!"

"I intend the work to be subversive," Marshall says, "And yet it's very hard to approach this sexual, female body in any way that hasn't already been exploited, in a way that doesn't fall into a trope of what's already out there--victim or seductress. It's like walking in a mine field.

"The sexuality is undermined by the humor and even by the ugly bizarreness of it--which I think might be a way forward. I'm very much looking forward to the audience response. I may not succeed, and I think feels like a very comfortable and safe place to have that discussion, to hear what the audience's response is to the work at this stage."

Susan Marshall and Dancers in Sawdust Palace (Photos: Rosalie O'Connor)

In 2007, she premiered Sawdust Palace, a Bard College commission in celebration of British composer Edward Elgar. The piece was created for a Spiegeltent, a portable dance hall. Marshall will revive Sawdust Palace for 92Y's Buttenweiser Hall.

"Elgar crossed the line between low and high art and created music for the dance hall. This caused problems for him in his own lifetime in terms of respectability, being taken seriously. In its time, the 19th Century, a Spiegeltent was used as a dance hall. Now, it's used for intimate circuses or Party Central for festivals or club space. So it has all these connotations, and we just went for it and decided to embrace them all.

"In the Spiegeltent, you have a bar, you have cabaret tables, and that sort of thing. The piece would not work as a stage work; that would be the wrong frame. So, we are transforming Buttenweiser Hall into a very informal theater-in-the- round."

"We have scarf dances. We have burlesque. We have specialty acts that I will leave to the imagination," Marshall says with another chuckle.

Not left to the imagination is anything having to do with creative collaboration. Marshall enjoys sharing what she has learned in years of working closely with her dancers. She's currently preparing for her annual SUMAC program--a play on the company's name and the anagram for Systems for Understanding Movement and Choreography--which will be held at Barnard College, June 11-16.

"It's built off a lot of the systems that we use as a company, but we incorporate
other approaches that we've learned from other choreographers. Many dance artists now work collaboratively and expect that kind of creative exchange with their dancers. We wanted to make sure that dancers have a place to practice that and have the tools and feel empowered to face the demands they may encounter. We wanted to help choreographers use the minds and bodies in the room more fully, and to help them to break out of their stuck places.

"We don't make it open to the public. It's a vulnerable space, and it's a very safe space."

Click here for application information for Marshall's Summer 2012 SUMAC program. (deadline: April 1)

See Susan Marshall & Company at 92Y's Harkness Dance Festival--Friday and Saturday, March 16-17 at 8pm and Sunday, March 18 at 3pm. For ticket information and purchase, click here or call 212-415-5500.

1395 Lexington Avenue (92nd Street), Manhattan

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