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Sara Shelton Mann

"Monk at the Met: Feast of Souls"

ODC Theater, San Francisco, CA

June 21, 2001
By Karen Hildebrand


It's probably no coincidence that Sara Shelton Mann's Monk at the Met: Feast of Souls opened on the night of the summer solstice, the same day as a full eclipse of the sun. Mann's work has often explored the spiritual realm. The longest day of the year seems a particularly apt metaphor for this piece which depicts one person's journey through a series of lives in different bodies.

A multi-media production, Feast of Souls is something of an over-indulgence. It's like a holiday buffet table filled to overflowing. We try to eat everything, when a more satisfying approach might be to savor one entrée with a few really great side dishes, and perhaps a second helping of each.

Mann is known for surrounding herself with gifted collaborators. In the 80's she founded the original Contraband, a gang of gymnasts, martial artists and renegade percussionists who beat on refrigerators and unleashed washing machines to swing across the stage above their heads. They were brash, inventive, and widely loved by Bay Area dancers and audiences.

When Contraband disbanded in 1996, Mann disappeared from the dance scene until a recent Guggenheim award resulted in the creation of her three-part Monk at the Met series, of which Feast of Souls is part two. With this new work, Mann introduces the next generation of Contraband, seemingly less brazen, more polished.

Notable collaborations for Feast of Souls are videography by Austin Forbord, who also dances in the production, and music by Norman Rutherford.

Throughout the evening, Forbord's videos are projected on all three walls of ODC Theater. While the audience enters, for example, an open book slowly burns, the flames leaving charred flakes of paper spiking from the open binding. It's a striking image.

Norman Rutherford is joined by musicians Peter Whitehead and Jennifer Hall at the rear of the stage where they play live--one of the show’s strongest elements.

Mann performs the opening dance solo of Feast of Souls. In black silk pajamas, she moves as if she's snatched a shock of energy from the air and it passes through every cell of her 50-something sinuous body. She adds some curious facial expressions now and then that seem out of place on her otherwise neutral features. Yet a wriggle of her nose, the darting of eyes, and a lick at her lips, seem to alert us that we will need our full sensory perception to take in what comes next.

What follows is fearless and physical contact dancing from an ensemble of three men and five remarkably strong women. A woman dons an over-sized man's suit trousers and jacket. A man in the video is dressed in a formal white gown. In one of the few comic moments of the evening, a female dancer in a floor-length white sateen slip, bites white roses off their stems, spitting the blooms onto the floor.

There are duets of hostile explosion, the 'come and get me' goading of street fights. One memorable moment is when a male dancer propels himself onto the body of Kathleen Hermesdorf who remains standing, arms out, wobbling slightly from one foot to the other from an impact that could easily have floored her.

But soon the many elements of this production begin to compete for our attention. We can't take in all three video screens, the multiple costume changes, the fascinating array of unusual instruments taken up by the band, the ever-changing configuration of dancers, the female drummer in a red satin dress who bounces in time to her drumsticks. My eyes jump from image to image. I’m fearful I’ll miss something crucial to the ultimate meaning of it all.

In the end Mann returns to the stage along with a Tibetan monk in red plaid skirt, the man who wore the white gown in the video. The worlds have reversed. The man is live on stage and the dancers and musicians now appear on video screen.

Mann's point begins to coalesce. Perhaps the competing elements are exactly what she intended. Life is indeed a multiplicity of choices. Don't place too much emphasis of on any one, because within the larger context of one's soul, each life exists for but a moment. Or as Peter Whitehead sings, "it's all been dust on our shoe."

Yet, it seems late in the production for this epiphany. I want more focus from this work, more guidance for my eye. Perhaps that will come when all three parts of Monk at the Met are shown at Theater Artaud in Spring 2002. The best recipes need time to simmer. In the meantime, welcome back, Contraband.

 

Please join a discussion of this performance in our forum.

Edited by Marie.


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