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Flash Review 2, 7-13: Mann's Feast
Soul-Feasting with Shelton Mann

By Susan Maxwell
Copyright 2001 Susan Maxwell

SAN FRANCISCO -- Sara Shelton Mann premiered "Feast of Souls," the second installation of her tripartite Monk at the Met project in late June at the ODC Performance Gallery with a group of eight dancer/performers and three musicians. "Feast of Souls" blended live music, dancing, theater, three walls of slide projection and text. The piece, which explored the transmigration of souls, interrogated the senses of the audience through sheer onslaught and tenacity. It began, however, with the intimacy of one musician downstage who played a haunting melody about acceptance of the appetite which accompanies being in another body, in the endless rounds of birth and death.

The piece seemed structured on pushing acrobatic movement to a pitch which punctured some unseen barrier, then flowed into a calm and rather ritual moment, an emotional coalescing of sorts. Like the moment when Mim Tewksbury bit the heads of white flowers and spat them out slyly toward the audience. The most successful of these moments emerged as a flurry of group movement resolved into two dancers being blindfolded. One of the blindfolded began to step backward onto bricks laid under his feet just as his foot found the floor, or balanced in the air waiting for said brick. Was this meant as punishment? A sheer challenge of focus? Hard to say, but the rich ambiguity of the task became an image of scarcity and relief, of the focus necessary, Mann seems to be saying, to live. Some of the other moments read as thinner, perhaps because they lacked the momentum and necessity of tasks or became metaphorical, a kind of device for the dancing to pin its meaning on.

The dancing itself was stunning, grounded, and extreme in urgency and risk. Mann's collaborative vocabulary looks to be to one that aims to push it further. The dancers seemed caught inside the crafted whirl of a dust devils, trying to find the vortex of the movement before finding release from a particular phrase. So that which, isolated, would falter into a trick (a stunning barrelish turn, face toward the audience) melded into the next leap so organically that it seemed a natural demand. A demand of a body at high speed with little hope for refuge or safety, so that all it can do is risk everything again and again -- a tribute to the dancers' stamina and skill. Here, where the demands of the movement itself generated its own emotional tenor, visible on the performer's faces, the piece was most successful.

Less successful was some of the voiceover text, particularly when it took on a sermonizing flavor or seemed undigested in relation to what was actually happening onstage. An overarching concept such as the cycling of birth and death, when it remains floating in the ether, risked heavy-handedness. One yearned for a little less of "this is the way it happens in the world" and a little more of "this is the way its happening for these people onstage right now" A potent voiceover moment came, however, when Abby Crain sat on stage changing clothes and the narrator intoned "there is no body, no sensation..." mixed in and against what sounded like an African American man describing being tied up and whipped. Were the two stories challenging one another? Was one a negation of the other? Or an example? The abstract seemed to friction against the brutal specifics of one person's life.

Some of the most piercing moments in "Feast" were the inexplicable shifts into momentary stillness. Performers suddenly stood stock still, gazing upward, oblivious to the frenzy around them. Or the way Jose Navarrette stood, holding his pants bunched in his hands, in front of the grim poetry of the slides behind him. The back wall showed a cemetery of tidy white headstones, the picture shifting like the second hand of a clock counting down while the side slides simultaneously showed coins falling relentlessly through space. "Feast of Souls" was a tribute to the vision and perseverance of seasoned performers and a choreographer who doesnât flinch at multiple collisions of meaning and high speed collage.

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