Molly Shanahan speaks from the gut in Blackbird's Ventriloquy | Dance | Chicago Reader

Molly Shanahan speaks from the gut in Blackbird's Ventriloquy 

The dancer-choreographer's latest solo work is fraught with duality.

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click to enlarge Molly Shanahan

Molly Shanahan

William Frederking

Blackbird's Ventriloquy, a 50-minute solo performed and created by Molly Shanahan, opens on a contrast between image and sound—the wood floor and white walls of Links Hall an empty cavern for a score by Kevin O'Donnell that presents small effects hardly heard—a melody, an engine—under a deceptively uniform layer of water rushing. There are always at least two surfaces to peruse in Ventriloquy, which Shanahan describes as meaning, etymologically, "speaking from the gut," but which Merriam-Webster lists as an alternate for "ventriloquism," "the production of the voice in such a way that the sound seems to come from a source other than the vocal organs of the speaker."

When Shanahan appears, walking from left to right of center, there are two of her—Shanahan and her shadow—and they move forward in a characteristically Shanahan phrase: organic and idiosyncratic, virtuosic in embodiment, labyrinthine, gestural. Her left hand appears to hold the weight of an organ of moderate size, perhaps the heart or a kidney. She returns to her starting position and repeats the phrase again and again, as if practicing a signature or revising an introduction: my name is, my name is. People think a dancer is her body, but, as Shanahan shows with each investigation of the undercurve, a dancer is how her body thinks.

Ventriloquy proceeds in vignettes anchored by props deployed with varying degrees of awkwardness, beginning with a telephone. It does not ring, but she picks up and says, "Hello, hello, hello, hello," and then "Hi, hi, hi, hi" in a way that's at first theatrical, then absurd, then mechanical. The ventilation system roars up in the silence: actual or recorded air?

This sense of unease is intensified by the next scene, Shanahan crouched like a vagabond next to an iPad set to play an image of a burning log, seeming to eat from an empty pie pan. The image of homelessness is disturbing: the absence of personal context contrasts with a figure engaged in an action that is both public and private, inhabiting a hostile space, nevertheless. Each image in the sequence is punctuated by a surge of pure movement. Here, she explores with grotesque sensuality the hollows of her hands, the torso as an engine of expression and concealment, the body as a puppet possessed by neuroses.

Most striking is Shanahan's use of the iPad not as a screen, but a mirror, which she holds facing the audience as she faces upstage, making a two-headed, Janus-faced monster of herself. She puts in earplugs and sings along to an iPod—raw, thin, and uneven against any grander contemplation of the self.  v

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