Sara Shelton Mann’s The Eye of Leo: Hybrid 3/The Teaching of a Thick Water Griffin should not be seen as a dance piece, she informed the audience at its one-night-only showing on Sunday, May 25. Shelton Mann instructed that this work in progress should instead be viewed as a puzzle, a sketch, or a hybrid between structured tasks and improvisational interaction with the energy of the room. Originally conceived at Dock 11 in Berlin as a challenge to create a piece in only three days, Shelton Mann has plans to continue this series in other forms in the future. During the presentation, Shelton Mann urged the audience to imagine themselves performing the tasks executed by a trio of dancers: Beth Graczyk, Alice Gosti, and Alia Swersky. She even led the way by standing up periodically and seizing the dancers’ attention with her snapping fingers. This structured improvisation dissected each dancer’s personality, showcasing them as vulnerable individuals.
Shelton Mann collaborated with the dancers and sound designer Jason E. Anderson in a two-week residency at Velocity in order to create this part of the Eye of Leo series. The director transformed Velocity’s Founder’s Theater into an “arena” for the three simultaneous solos. The performers interacted with a space full of disparate elements such as scattered keys and feathers, a line of oranges, and chalk markings on the black marley floor. They ran into the space without warning, whirlwinds of frenzied gestures, drops to the floor, and legs reaching for the ceiling. Even in the first few moments, the performers breathed audibly as they pushed the limits of their athletic virtuosity.
Graczyk, Gosti, and Swersky diligently performed their various tasks in different areas of the stage. This spatial organization forced the audience to choose one dancer at a time to watch and risk missing another moment happening elsewhere. Gosti painstakingly arranged pounds of keys on a table only to sweep them off, each key ringing out a clear tone as it bounced to the floor. Swersky imperiously compelled audience members through hand gestures to retrieve the citrus fruit she had balanced on her head and sinuous, bare legs. The audience members obediently complied, participating in the way Shelton Mann had encouraged in the pre-show talk.
During the short residency period, Shelton Mann teased out archetypes such as the Child, the Victim, the Prostitute, and the Saboteur from the dancers’ emotional lives. The dancers described this process in the post-show talkback as alternatingly “precious” and “uncomfortable.” Graczyk’s performance of the Rebel read clearly as she stripped down to her underwear and a furry vest, thrashing and grooving to a recognizable soundtrack of 80s hit samples. Swersky’s clingy red dress with slits to the hip connoted a reference to the Prostitute. Gosti’s playful karate kicks to pieces of newspaper with accompanying vocalization suggested the Child archetype. Shelton Mann explained one of the inspirations for her vision was a harried mother in the mall with twelve children, each acting out in a way characteristic of their personae. Shelton Mann’s inclusion of these archetypes enabled the audience to directly relate to the different personalities on display.
A choreographed partnering trio stood out amidst the chaotic improvised solos, providing a satisfying human interaction between the performers. Utilizing weight sharing principles from contact improvisation, one dancer supported another in an off-balance lean. Then, the third dancer moved into the shape, enabling the supporting dancer to let go while the first dancer remained precisely suspended in space, supported in a completely different way by this new partner. They repeated this compelling segment twice, creating some of the only moments where they noticed and reacted to each other, instead of solely to objects in the space.
The lighting design by ilvs strauss reinforced the necessity to choose which dancer to watch. A bright spotlight highlighted one quadrant of the space at a time, leaving some tasks to be performed in shadow. Often, lights illuminated the audience as well, bolstering Shelton Mann’s directive for the viewers to become part of the performance.
After a false ending with applause and bows, the dancers began again, interacting with the props more quickly this time. They revisited these elements as if in a remixed version of the piece, set to the driving beat of The Eurythmics’ “Sweet Dreams.” Finally, Shelton Mann stood up and said, “The End,” unleashing another round of applause, a small standing ovation, and a pleasing sense of accomplishment. The dancers had worked industriously through all of their tasks, taking the audience along with them in a “spiritual journey with no map or destination.” If this intriguing showing is any indication, Shelton Mann’s evolving The Eye of Leo promises much more to come.
More info on Sara Shelton Mann, choreographer/writer/healer, can be found at sarasheltonmann.org. You can buy tickets to the next installment in the Eye of Leo series, taking place in San Francisco on Oct. 25-26 HERE.