Stephen Brown, or SB as he is known, has created a local following based on the premise that his work is different in its engagement of adult sensibilities and its challenge to the presumed insulation of concert dance. Audiences have come not just to expect but to desire his use of profane text and sexually explicit interactions. On those terms, this weekend’s performance of Surrenderella allowed a packed house to observe his new creation, more or less, with amusement.
The show places a basic outline of the well-known fairy tale inside a caricature of BDSM culture. Payden Adams as a submissive Cinderella is the audience’s guide through a world of bawdy mice, step-sisters in ankle restraints and over-the-knee silver boots standing in for glass slippers.
Winnie Wood theatrically directed the show, where dialogue & tableau almost outnumber choreographic moments. Most of SB’s moving material is peppered between narrative touchstones and relies on repetitive sequencing using aerial apparatus to extend the illusion of bondage. At times he also borrows from (and subverts) more traditional dance-makers like Alwin Nikolais as his use of costumes (in this case, red pleather boots) abstracts and distorts the body.
As movement and text brush alongside one another it becomes clear that nothing too deep can occur in this particular version of the tale. Each time an idea approaches a conceptually risky place, the strained content is relieved with either contradictory classical music or an obvious joke, including Nathan Shaw as “The Captain” breaking into musical theater choreography to diffuse a potentially tense scenario. Most of the laughter and applause coincided with physical humor — feigned ejaculation, audible urination or an extended commentary on testicles — but also at the presentation of pleasure as alternatingly hysterical or absurd.
Clearly SB doesn’t want Surrenderella, or his work in general, to be taken too seriously as he sets up relaxed atmospheres where audiences can order wine before taking a seat or have a dance party with ushers in tutus. Other national choreographers have found their wheelhouse in this territory as well, but with arguably more wholesome humor. Monica Bill Barnes is one example of another choreographer suggesting that dance as comedy is simply more desirable than what most theaters are presenting. If the joyous audiences of herself and SB are any indication, they may be right. But even if met with enthusiasm, these approaches beg questions about the necessity of falling in line with popular culture and identifying median humor as a means of audience retention. Certainly, BDSM is not a topic SB has uniquely identified (50 Shades of Grey?) although it is one he’s capitalized on, with success.
Surrenderella runs through June 20th at the Rose Wagner Blackbox. Tickets on arttix.org
This review is published in collaboration with loveDANCEmore.org
Ashley Anderson is a choreographer based in Salt Lake City. She is founder of loveDANCEmore, a blog and biannual journal about dance in Utah, and currently serves as 15 Bytes’s Dance Editor.