Theater archives

Susan Marshall Gets Intimate


The year: 1985. The place: Dance Theater Workshop. A man and a woman stand shoulder to shoulder, close to the audience, to perform Susan Marshall’s Arms. The two dancers simply swing their arms around, but the act is freighted. The implied embrace and near-embrace, the glancing blow, the pull away—and nuances of these—draw us into a microcosm of a situation we know well.

2011 marks the 25th anniversary of Marshall’s small company, and she and I are sitting in a neighborhood coffee shop, discussing what has changed in her work and what has remained constant in the decades between Arms and her latest pieces, Frame Dances and Adamantine (both at the Baryshnikov Arts Center, June 9 through 11). Marshall is mired in rehearsals and the end-of-term craziness attached to a role she assumed in 2009: director of the Program in Dance at Princeton University’s Lewis Center for the Arts. (That’s probably why she has brought notes to remind herself of what she wants to tell me.)

The 30-some works Marshall has made for her company (and for others, such as the Lyon Opera Ballet and the Frankfurt Ballet) have continued to include everyday movements—rendered strange and profound through imaginative abstraction, repetition, and variation. She says that when she embarked on a career in choreography, “it felt like any kind of dance steps would invalidate the logic of the world I had created. And I just couldn’t figure out how to do it.”

Reader, she figured it out. Over time, technically demanding dancing blended with the quotidian gestures that continued to interest her. She doesn’t define virtuosity as that dazzle that reinforces the distinction between spectators and performers that she likes to blur. “I think it’s a much subtler thing,” she says. “I’m wondering if an audience’s perception of virtuosity isn’t something to do with detail, specificity, and accuracy.”

One of Marshall’s ongoing concerns is developing a semblance of intimacy—both among the performers onstage and between them and the audience. Expert though her dancers are, they look like people we might want to know. I recall how in her 1992 Untitled (Detail), a man, speaking barely audibly, coached a woman on how to dive into his arms. Over and over and over, she tried it. You ached for her—never entirely sure whether this was a penance, a necessary lesson, or just her usual life. As Marshall puts it, when her dancers touch one another, “it’s not theatrical touch, it’s real touch—unadorned, functional—and I feel that’s very tangible to an audience. I think that’s probably what makes the work intimate.”

The two works that she and her six highly collaborative company members are presenting at BAC offer very different theatrical experiences. Adamantine, a New York premiere, was gestated during a residency in the Alexander Kasser Theater at Montclair State University, where it premiered in 2009’s Peak Performances series. What Marshall loved about the process was that “it allowed the theatricality to become part of the seed ideas, so that it developed organically with the work, as opposed to being something that gets plopped on after the work has been in a studio for months.” She, the dancers, set designer Jeremy Lydic, lighting designer Mark Stanley, and composer Peter Whitehead decided to use the theater as the set. Their only purchase was an $80 tarp from Home Depot. (Now they’re busy creating in BAC’s smaller Jerome Robbins Theater equivalents to the Kasser’s raising and lowering light pipes, the rope weighted with a sandbag, the fan-plus-spotlight on wheels, and other found items that created Adamantine’s dramatic interplay of darkness and light.)

On a given evening, half the BAC audience will see Frame Dances in the fourth-floor Howard Gilman Performance Space before they see Adamantine on the third floor; half will see Adamantine first. When watching Frame Dances, they may be only five feet from the performers. Marshall draws a diagram, showing how the spectators travel between three eight-foot squares, viewing either each framed five-minute action or the live-feed projected video of it that offers an overhead view. The real performers may be visible getting in and out of the frames. “It’s a big, ugly mess,” she explains about one installation—“people pushing each other in and dragging each other out. That’s happening all around the exterior, but what’s projected is just this nice, clean image.” The videos re-circulate, so spectators can then wander around as if in a gallery.

Marshall loves not only human motion but the motion of objects. She remembers a favorite moment in her 2007 vaudeville, Sawdust Palace. Joseph Poulson set Kristen Hollinsworth—wearing a tutu and a feathered breastpiece—on his lap and deliriously plucked her. While other performers were clearing away the debris, “the feathers went up into the air and just hung in the space. . . .
There was no dance at all going on. It was like being in a snowfall.”

One constant in Marshall’s career: She makes reality magical.