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The Ribbon Factory

Mad Shak Dance Company

at the Harold Washington Library Center, through October 4

As even his most ardent defenders will acknowledge, playwright August Wilson sometimes goes on too long. It's a by-product of his tremendous gift: there's no limit to the dialogue he can invent for his characters. Beyond a certain point, though, there are just too many words, no matter how beautiful: their sheer volume begins to conceal the point instead of revealing it.

This thought came to mind as Mad Shak Dance Company premiered Molly Shanahan's The Ribbon Factory, an ambitious piece that runs a full hour--an eternity in dance, with its convention of brief selections separated by pauses. At a certain point, no matter how original the movement, there's just too much of it.

The evening's final image provides the clearest example of "overwriting." A dancer enters trailing a thread, as though it were the leash of an invisible balloon. She anchors it to form a diagonal line across the stage while a second company member enters from the opposite wing carrying a thread at a different angle. Eventually all ten company members are weaving a stage-size web from these filaments, and some of the angles they create are quite lovely. But the process continues until dancers are ducking under and dodging around strings to position more strings. What began as a beautiful filigree has been elaborated into a trap.

This could be Shanahan's point: The Ribbon Factory seems to draw an analogy between the work of such a factory--grueling labor in the service of beauty--and the creation and execution of dances. If this is the case, then what looks to be a piece of decoration might well turn into a fetter. Still, from the standpoint of the audience, a point has been made, and then reiterated, and then hammered home until it no longer serves its purpose, like a word repeated over and over until it loses its meaning.

The evening nonetheless offers many pleasures. The dancers perform against a video backdrop showing them in rehearsal. People who at a distance seem effortless and elegant are seen close-up grinning, grimacing, and sweating. Esther Palmer's videography is marvelously evocative, avoiding the traps of both artsiness and literalism, and its integration with the live dancing works exceptionally well: the projected images complement instead of detracting from the images onstage. In addition to the rehearsal scenes the video alludes to a factory, with shots of the wheel of an old-fashioned sewing machine, and to other forms of hard labor: a barbed-wire fence appears repeatedly. Split-screen and mirror images take the video beyond recapitulation of the dancing to a geometry all its own.

And geometry is the rock on which Shanahan's church is founded. Solid geometry, apparently, for her trios and full-ensemble pieces never fail to intrigue while even the duets sometimes seem a bit thin. Aside from the solo nearest the end, with its starkly powerful gestures communicating struggle and despair, the piece's greatest weakness is its solos: Shanahan seems stymied by the absence of other points on the curve. Her choreography is angular, assertive, even harsh; when she puts dancers on tiptoe they appear to be hanging themselves. She specializes in a kind of cerebral athleticism that insists on the body as a locus of physical possibility rather than a communicator of emotion. Because the moves don't "mean" anything, though, no single set of them--no matter how inventive--can sustain audience interest for very long. But when two sets of complementary movements take place simultaneously--or, better yet, three or more--suddenly what we see is self-justifying: we don't care what it means, we just want to watch.

Thus the evening's most exciting figure features the entire ensemble. They begin on hands and knees, forming a line from upstage left to downstage right. Suddenly they all drop and roll downstage, looking simultaneously like an enormous machine--the factory's production line--and like the drop-and-roll maneuver for surviving a fire. (The Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire? People sacrificed for the sake of beauty?) Then the dancer nearest the audience does a brief solo and exits. Drop and roll again, and the next dancer does an utterly different mini solo and departs. The machine has become a guillotine, chopping off the foremost dancer, until only one remains onstage, whereupon the entire troupe returns, each doing his or her solo. These meld into a new machine--or, to return to the dominant metaphor, are woven together like threads into a ribbon. For this image alone The Ribbon Factory is worth an evening's attention.

It is, however, a dance about dancing. Usually I'm impatient with that sort of self-reference (though it isn't intrusive here), and certainly this is not a piece for people new to the art form. Yet its careful embodiment of Kevin O'Donnell's hypnotically repetitive music and its masterly use of space make the work rewarding--just not quite rewarding enough for its length.

It may be that the demands of creating the piece precluded rehearsing another dance to fill out the program, and Shanahan felt obliged to provide the audience a full evening with The Ribbon Factory alone. Perhaps when it's been set more securely on the company, she can cut 15 minutes and pair it with something else--because the longueurs in the middle detract from the exciting ideas and shapes at each end. Less would definitely be more.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/William Frederking.

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