The Cocoon Central Dance Team wants to make up a language. Currently, its preferred mode of communication involves recorded clapping and farting sounds; bananas consumed while dancing; blue, full-body spandex (with head caps); diamonds moderately dispersed over faces; and major facial expressions. It’s a language that can be heard all throughout their dances, sketches, and videos, which have been played and performed all over New York: at the Upright Citizens Brigade, MoMA P.S.1’s Innovation in Contemporary Comedy Showcase, and Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson’s Broad City Live, for which Cocoon opened both here in town and in Philadelphia. The popularity is starting to snowball, and major networks like Comedy Central and MTV2 have started asking how they can translate the troupe’s works to TV. The women are working on ideas for a full-length feature film.
Turns out theirs is a language all the right people are trying to learn how to speak.
Cocoon — Eleanore Pienta, Tallie Medel, and Sunita Mani — can currently be seen at the Peoples Improv Theater (PIT) for a run of their hour-long show, Snowy Bing Bongs Across the North Star Combat Zone. The performance centers around, naturally, the Snowy Bing Bongs, characters the women created and portray while dressed in sheepskin rugs covering only their front sides, with white pantyhose with cotton stuffing as hats. (Their backs and butts are completely exposed.) The Bing Bongs must battle their archenemies, which turn out to be beachballs of various sizes. Photos of the Northern Lights form the backdrop as they simulate battle with a number of acrobatic moves and dance breaks.
Interspersed are sketches and videos completely in line with their friendly, absurdist sense of humor. In one, the women dance in gold track jackets underneath a video game in which they, dressed in those gold jackets, slice oncoming fruit. They end the show on a high note, with a very bad karaoke rendition of Robyn’s “Show Me Love.” The audience delights in their silliness. It’s hard to follow exactly what’s happening at times, but what’s clear is we’re all in on the joke. The women are constantly winking at us and laughing at themselves. That’s really their language, one we all speak.
“It did feel like a language thing,” says Pienta of the chemistry between them. “Like we spoke each other’s language. I was like, ‘Oh my God, you’re a weirdo, too!’ ”
Before they’d become known for ridiculous costumes and beachball combat, Pienta, Medel, and Mani met at Emerson College. Each from her own small town in the States, the women grew up dancing (tap, South Indian, Donnie Darko‘s Sparkle Motion–based numbers, etc.) and revering a wide range of comedy (Stella Shorts, Saturday Night Live, Monty Python). At Emerson, they knew they’d immerse themselves in the college comedy world and, hearing talk of each other, eventually met. Along with five other friends, they would form their own unofficial Emerson comedy group, Cognac, which would lay the foundations both for their comedic voice and the way they would work together: open, supportive, fluid.
“There was a sketch,” Mani says, giving an example of the kind of amorphous absurdity they loved to explore, “where Cognac members, even audience members, would lift up their noses in a kind of piggy way, and then I would give them a name. ‘You’re Gerald.’ ”
After college, the original trio would move to New York (Pienta had transferred to Hunter College beforehand), having always been drawn to the city and knowing they’d want to pursue a career in the arts. Those first years hit them hard as they tried to make it in a city saturated with artists, having no money and breaking up with boyfriends. The outlet for hardship was simple. It was dance, unabashed and silly and natural, the three breaking it down to Ciara in their shared Brooklyn apartment along with roommate and friend Caity Widness. Mani, Pienta, and Widness would make up a dance to Kate Bush’s “Hounds of Love” to open Pienta’s birthday celebration one October. Other friends beginning their careers in the city as well then booked the group (Medel would join soon thereafter) for variety shows, their hilarity and notoriety growing from one gig to the next. And like most performers starting out with a new project, they took what they could get.
“We once did this kids’ butterfly celebration in Central Park because this woman saw us at a [variety show called “The Moon”] and was like, ‘I’m gonna book you for this kids’ festival!’ ” says Mani. But regardless of where they were performing, the women honed their act and their tone, finding the language, physical and verbal, to describe what they were.
“It’s like, ‘Remember when you and your cousins made up that dance to Mariah Carey and Uncle Sammy laughed so hard he choked on a bone?’ ” says Medel. “[What] seemed most appropriate was describing [our show as] making up dances with your cousin in the summertime.”
“It’s a really strong slumber-party vibe,” agrees Mani. The name came from various titles of dances they’d come up with. And, again, people noticed, the women being invited to perform with comedians all over the city (recently at comedy magazine Reductress‘s show and SNL‘s Sasheer Zamata’s showcase).
“They’re like an avant-garde Marx Brothers,” says PIT artistic director Kevin Laibson, who booked the women for their first Snowy Bing Bongs show earlier this year, ultimately extending their run.
Comedian and fan Eliot Glazer echoes the sentiment. “I’m obsessed with them,” he says. Glazer, who’s had Cocoon on his own show in the city several times, came to see their PIT performance one Friday in early May.
“[They’re] sort of fucking with the fabric,” he says, “and I love that. I don’t get it…and I love that I don’t get it.”
“It’s funny,” says Brandy Barber, also at the PIT show that night, “because they’re technically so competent. You can see the training and the technique. When they want to be choreographed together, as opposed to being funny and abstract, they’re so sharp and beautiful.”
“And you see the friendships, too,” says writer-director T.J. Misny, who’s also just taken in the show. “I think that’s what makes it work so well. You get that these people, they love hanging out and being silly together. What’s more elemental than that?”
Cocoon Central Dance Team will battle balls at the PIT May 21–23 and 25–26. For ticket info, click here.
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