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Review

Making Statements 

By Samantha Mehra, Brittany Duggan
  • Meagan O'Shea in her own work “based on actual unrelated events” / Photo by Trevor Schwellnus 
  • Susie Burpee / Photo by Ella Cooper 
  • Julia Sasso in her own work “accidental dances” / Photo by Krista Posyniak 
  • Meagan O'Shea in her own work “based on actual unrelated events” / Photo courtesy of Meagan O'Shea 
  • Meagan O'Shea in her own work “based on actual unrelated events” / Photo courtesy of Meagan O'Shea 
  • Meagan O'Shea in her own work “based on actual unrelated events” / Photo by Trevor Schwellnus 

“Based on Actual Unrelated Events”

Meagan O’Shea, Stand Up Dance

Toronto October 20-25 and 26-30, 2009 

Samantha Mehra: Hub 14, the setting for Megan O’Shea’s new solo work, “based on actual unrelated events”, is an intimate white-walled studio space, with enough seats for approximately twenty-two people. The air is thick, the voices amplified. Upon entering, we were asked to remove our shoes as we crossed the stage to the audience seats, but were allowed to put them back on once we sat on the other side. Already, I felt the centre of the room was a sacred space. O’Shea’s solo, which promised to be a meditation on the complex meanings of dance and language, was prefaced each night with a work from local artists: Susie Burpee, Val Calam, Alicia Grant and Cara Spooner, Karen Kaeja or Julia Sasso.

I happened upon Burpee’s work, “On Being Prepared”, which began with Burpee in the dark, kneeling centre stage with a headlamp on her forehead. She leaned forward, addressing a sheet of tinfoil and cupcake tins, which reflected silvery impressions on the wall. She began narrating what was essentially her process in discovering and considering “prepared dance”, explaining to us/the tin foil that the music we were hearing was prepared piano music, created by placing tinfoil and cupcake tins on the piano strings. Her hands conversationally danced along, fingers spreading and pulling one another, making fists and circling at the wrists. 

The next section, which was her prepared dance, was performed in light, sans headlamp; we see her alternately stop in her tracks and traverse the stage with gliding or bound walks. She is fond of reaching upward and exposing her solar plexus, changing direction continuously and spontaneously turning her head to observe some invisible distraction. Her limbs go from hyperextension to collapse, sometimes to the point that she winds up folded on the floor. Eyes closed, she occasionally hums and emits a few soft lyrics, indicating an internal song or rhythm guiding her movement; ornate hand and finger gestures surprise us in moments of stillness.

After a while, she addresses us once more, explaining that there was no ending, so she has to “ask Savannah to fade the lights”. The End. I found Burpee’s division of text/explanation and the actual dance to be very research-oriented, bringing us into her creative process and performance. This tactic, no doubt, expressed her earlier intimation that, “If there is no mystery for an audience, there is nothing left to be curious about.”

Which solo did you happen to see, Brittany? 

Brittany Duggan: I attended on one of the evenings on which Julia Sasso was performing her solo, “simple lines of enquiry – first study…”, a beautiful piece of inquisitive choreography danced in and around Ann Southam’s piano piece “Simple Lines of Enquiry”, played by Eve Egoyan.

Sasso’s choreography did not appear to be led by Southam’s minimalist score as much as she used the serial qualities of the piece to explore and trace the stage space, making it her own. As you mentioned Samantha, Hub 14 is a small, very intimate, box-shaped space and had an almost magical contrast to the crisp October air waiting right outside the stage door. I felt like I could just as easily have been stepping into any one of the smaller neighboring galleries on the Queen Street West strip.

Surrounded by the blank white walls, Sasso’s solo suited the gallery-like space in a different way than O’Shea’s subsequent solo. Her dancing – gentle, lyrical, infused with hints of passion – never made an absolute statement, but rather allowed the work to be taken in much like a piece of abstract visual art, open for personal interpretation and enjoyment. 

O’Shea’s solo work, on the other hand, made statements. The title of the piece, “based on actual unrelated events”, is the very thing O’Shea seems to almost disprove; as though such a statement were inherently untrue. No event is that unrelated from the previous or the next, at least not for this multifaceted performer, who considers the perplexity of languages, global agriculture and rootlessness, weaving them all together in a clever and entertaining way. She transforms the space with nonchalant, task-based moving of props in one moment and further transforms it the next with spurts of dancing in and around the props, often using smaller, gestural movements while standing and larger, flowing, wholly physical movements while on the floor.

The smooth and casual progression of the piece made me curious about whether I would be able to remember the sections the day following the show or if their seemingly scattered presentation would make them blur. In attempting the task, I surprised myself by how much detail I was able to remember, how related these unrelated events became through O’Shea’s roller-coaster delivery. Samantha, I was wondering what your ride was like throughout the performance and your reflective thoughts now? 

SM: Interesting, Brittany, that you were able to easily recall the work. I too felt that O’Shea’s solo ingrained itself in my memory. Perhaps the strength in remembering had to do with the seemingly unrelated moments, each distinct in their subject but bound together by O’Shea’s committed stage presence and continual narrative. For me, it was due to the fact that O’Shea’s solo functioned in two distinct ways. On the one hand, she takes us into the realm of the personal by giving herself a voice, recounting the many places she has lived, and even looking past the fourth wall to ask an audience member to call out various prepared statements to aid her in trying on several pairs of shoes and completing a brief movement phrase with each (all of these culminate in a rousing rendition of the toe-tapping introduction to the eighties pop tune “Footloose”). Also, O’Shea’s use of masking tape to demarcate the stage, create precarious webs, and manouevre around them at various points in the piece allowed us to shape-shift through various “homes” and “contexts” with her, further drawing us into the personal.

On the other hand, I found the solo to be a kind of abstract presentation of research on dance and language. For instance, O’Shea states that the accumulation of language changes meaning. To demonstrate, she states: “I like you,” simultaneously assigning (usually angular) gestures or postures to each word as she utters it. The movement vocabulary expands as she adds more words: “I really like you,” “I like you a lot,” and so on. She returns to this notion again by presenting several gestures (devil horns, crossing the arms, or waving the hand) and upon repeating them, suggests that the action could mean several things. “The way you clarify is through demonstration,” I recall her saying. With the combination of the intellectual and the personal in this finely-detailed solo, I found the resounding idea (for me) was the difficulty of locating the body and its language in among the daily barrage of complex and often competing images.

Admittedly, the hallmarks of the solo were accomplished through text, facial expression, gesturing and posturing, and brief but meaningful encounters with objects. Although I longed for more full-bodied physicality, I think the work was able to sustain my interest on an intellectual rather than an involved, kinaesthetic level.

Did you have a similar take on the themes in this piece? 

BD: I agree with how you’ve approached dividing the solo into two realms: the personal and abstract presentation of research on dance and language. I had not thought to categorize in this way, instead seeing these two subjects as inseparable. Or rather, I had just assumed that in presenting the semiotic, the personal would inevitably be included. I’ll try to explain.

What I found both comical and informative in O’Shea’s solo was her honesty in revealing her character through the performance’s scattered sections. Never mind the seemingly unrelated topics – such as the disappearance of the honey bees or the impossibility of translating “amusement park” from English to German word-for-word – what stuck for me were the personal reasons behind O’Shea’s interest in these topics, such as her introduction to the lives of honey bees when her and current boyfriend were on a road trip and got stuck on the highway because a truck carrying millions of bees had tipped over. This example, along with other pivotal moments in her life, have all been catalysts in bringing her to this space. From the moment she walked onto the stage in her floor-length black skirt, cropped platinum blonde hair and burgundy painted lips, I could begin to make sense of her understanding of various meanings through gesture. O’Shea’s personalized, contextual delivery shaped the perspective from which her audience could come to understand her dance vocabulary.

Samantha, you mentioned the difficulty of locating the body and its language in an overly saturated image culture as a prominent idea in the work. I too found this comment a strong theme along with perhaps – and more abstractly – the ambiguity in nearly everything and the possible connectedness between all events (the latter may be due to O’Shea’s clever hand at crafting, but left an impression all the same). For me this was a cohesive show of too many ideas, as is perhaps only possible from a clown, storyteller, improviser and contemporary dance artist rolled into one. It’s been great talking with you Samantha; hope to do it again soon.

SM: Same to you Brittany. Thanks for the conversation. 

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