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Dance Review:

MAD SHAK DANCE COMPANY at the Storefront Theater


Molly Shanahan, founder-artistic director of Mad Shak Dance Company, has forged a synergistic relationship with composer Kevin O’Donnell. His original music can be as mutable and layered as Shanahan’s choreography; and the dancers appear as if they are climbing inside the arpeggios -- caressing or kicking around a few chords in the process. The seven-year-old modern dance troupe remounts its 2000 "Cock and Bull Stories" and presents one premiere through June 30 at the Storefront Theater.

The first piece, Shanahan and O’Donnell’s "Cock and Bull Stories," opens in darkness, with only the staccato-like voices of the dancers slicing through the black air. They muse on time, its resilience and relentless passing until, gradually, the words propel them into hypnotic and, later, frantic motion. Throughout this work inspired by Jean-Paul Sartre’s existentialist play, "No Exit," the 10-member ensemble lounges on and vies for a place on velvet-draped couches. Several stories unfold simultaneously as the dancers wrap themselves around the cutting timbre of their words and O’Donnell’s malleable score or bound toward unseen obstacles.

At times, they are caged animals or fashionable guests at a Belle Epoque dinner party. It’s unclear whether they are living Sartre’s maxim of "Hell is other people." But the dancers – tellingly clad in Jamie Oakley and Shanahan’s shabby-chic costumes – certainly struggle with their own personal hell as they search, reach for and get coyly – yet viciously – territorial about their minuscule universes.

The choreographer successfully plays with the inherent ironies of the Storefront’s raw, exposed space. An "Exit" sign looms tauntingly over the performers, and their frenetic will to escape a devastating unseen force literally bumps up against the surrounding brick walls. Shanahan is especially adept at extending and shifting her ensemble into arresting movement vignettes. "Cock and Bull Stories," while frustratingly enigmatic in parts, pushes the ensemble to become not only actors but to embody characters and their dangerous, unpredictable emotions.

Shanahan’s premiere, "Like Clouds in the Skies of Never," follows a structural foundation and intricate explosion of movement and form similar to "Cock and Bull Stories." But it gets lodged in repetitive self-awareness. The dancers, dressed in Atalee Judy’s mauve-and-black brocaded corset variations, seem to get lost in a swirl of morose monotony. Their patterns – like suspended, pendulum-swinging leg splits -- prove the choreographer’s meticulous grasp of space, but they say nothing evocative and tend to peeter out. Even the execution feels clunky.

In her program note, Shanahan states that "during the making of ‘Like Clouds in the Skies of Never,’ I have thought a lot about the process of translation and all that is gained when we have permission to use our imaginations to arrive at an understood ‘meaning’ – regardless of the limitations or rules of the language itself." The choreographer, however, leaves too much room for interpretation. The piece is surreal, meditative and a bit creepy and foreboding. Yet, ultimately, it is everywhere and nowhere at the same time.•

Mad Shak Dance Company performs through June 30 at 8 p.m. at the Storefront Theater, 66 E. Randolph. Tickets: $12. Call 312-742-TIXS.

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