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Susan Marshall & Company

'Sawdust Palace'

by Carmel Morgan

April 9, 2008 -- Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center, The University of Maryland

Susan Marshall & Company presented “Sawdust Palace,” a much anticipated follow-up to the 2006 Bessie Award-winning “Cloudless,” at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center at the University of Maryland on April 9, 2008.  “Sawdust Palace” was co-commissioned by the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center and the Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts at Bard College. The work premiered at the 2007 SummerScape festival at Bard College in a Spiegeltent, a mirrored, portable entertainment venue. 

The lively atmosphere of the Spiegeltent clearly inspired the creation of “Sawdust Palace,” which features five dancers and a pianist in an intimate setting. Although tentless in Maryland, the Center’s Kogod Theater was transformed into a tent-like space with red swag curtains, strung lights, cabaret tables, and even complimentary light refreshments. This was a unique, enjoyable way to view dance. It was also a challenge to the performers. Company member Darrin Wright revealed in a blog entry that there are certain hazards to dancing on a tiny, elevated, circular stage. He confessed that he finds himself checking for the end of the stage for fear he might fall off. Since there is no “front,” he explained, “it can easily get disorienting as to where in the space we are.” 

The keyhole-type stage, with a circular platform and short catwalk, was at first rather disorienting for the audience as well. One isn’t used to glancing up to see dancers, and one isn’t used to seeing dancing in the round. Thankfully, no one fell off the stage. To the contrary, the dancers smoothly leapt on and off of it, seeming perfectly at home with their somewhat confining surroundings. 

The costumes for “Sawdust Palace” are varied. Much of what is worn is reminiscent of Vaudeville: a vest, a silk jacket, a slinky gown with glitter. Other costume items are more eclectic. Twin black and white disco-worthy sweat suits, for example. The music is varied as well, ranging from live piano, to cabaret, to electronic, to sounds of skin on skin. 

Like “Cloudless,” its more mature cousin, “Sawdust Palace” is composed of a series of very short dances. This format, with a sort of built-in remote control function, seems especially appropriate for our fast-paced lives. While “Cloudless” has eighteen parts, “Sawdust” boasts twenty. 

“Sawdust” borrows more than just its structure from “Cloudless.” There are plenty of familiar elements linking the two works. Most obvious is the section in “Sawdust” titled “Tea for Two,” which closely resembles the duet called “Cup” in “Cloudless.” In “Sawdust,” the duet becomes a quartet – two duets really, highlighting the witty stunt of balancing a teacup on one’s upturned behind. “Sawdust” tosses in some sugar cubes. There are shades of “Cloudless,” too, when Poulson grabs his t-shirt in his teeth, just as Petra van Noort does in the namesake solo, “Cloudless.” 

Because the two multi-faceted works are similar, it’s impossible not to compare them, and “Cloudless” comes out on top. But that isn’t to say that “Sawdust” is a failure. It’s not quite the masterpiece that “Cloudless” is, but it’s every bit as much fun. 

“Sawdust” begins with pianist Alexander Rovang tickling the keys of an upright. Suddenly he walks away from his instrument toward a beautiful barefoot damsel in a long gown (Kristen Hollinsworth). She joins him at his stool and sits on his lap as he picks up playing Edward Elgar’s “Salut d’Amour,” a tune Elgar presented to his future bride as an engagement gift. Hollinsworth caresses Rovang’s hair. It’s a sugary start, tinged with humor, as Hollinsworth shifts and at times interrupts Rovang’s song. 

Next comes more romance, “Slow Dance.” Another couple takes the stage: Wright and Joseph Poulson. Side by side they step in unison, pulling forward and back, using their heels to twist flexed feet. The two don’t look directly at each other, but one can feel their closeness. The same dance reappears in the last number, “Last Dance Tonight,” only all of the dancers take turns with partners and with the steps, which gather in momentum. Here one feels the familial closeness of the company as a whole. 

Of all the splendid little vignettes, the most moving is “Harnessed,” another tender duet between males. In “Harnessed,” one male is airborne in a harness (Wright), while the other is tethered, sans ropes, to the earth (Luke Miller). The dance begins with Wright’s feet resting on Miller’s shoulders. Wright is suspended above, eyes often closed, looking angelic. Miller, who controls the relationship, hands up a glass of water, some grapes. He eventually lets go and leaves Wright unsupported, spinning wildly upside-down. Miller then sits on the floor beneath him and lifts a hand. Wright reaches down, but the tips of his fingers aren’t quite able to reach Miller’s. At one point, the men are head to head, one hanging from above, the other standing on solid ground. The pair exudes excruciating vulnerability. 

The most humorous of the dance skits may be “Chicken Flicker,” in which Poulson and Hollinsworth, who wears a fluffy burlesque costume, engage in an uproarious flirtation to the spirited “Zorba the Greek: Zorba’s Dance.” With Hollinsworth over his lap, Poulson plucks feathers from her costume, first eliciting screams from her and then erotic delight. Frenzied fingers and feathers fly, creating a mass of white fuzz that floats across the floor. 

There are plenty of other odd, side-splitting moments. In “Body Music,” Miller and Poulson make sounds with their bodies, slapping themselves almost silly. In exercises of fantastic dueling dexterity, they strum stomachs, tweak cheeks, and shake interlocking thighs. In “Page Turner,” Van Noort sits astride the piano’s keyboard with sheet music literally stuck to her rear end, right at Rovang’s eye level. 

Marshall’s company works well together because they’re a diverse group. Miller is the most comically expressive of the bunch. There’s something very Robert Downey, Jr. about his face, whether deadpan or not. Miller towers over the other men, and yet when he is paired with them, he is physically their equal. Van Noort, with her long curls, is sprightly, while Hollinsworth, whose short cut flatters her doll-like face, is bolder. It’s the distinct, powerful personalities that make this charismatic contemporary dance company mesh. 

While “Sawdust” fails to capture the cohesive magic of “Cloudless,” it shares much of its extraordinary poetry and humor. It also adds some over-the-top, sexually-charged tension to the mix. One wishes that “Sawdust” was filled with a tad more dancing and a tad less theater. Overall, however, Susan Marshall’s “Sawdust Palace” is a pleasant diversion, alternately raucous and surprisingly sweet.

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