Words Fail

Choreographer Susan Marshall turns a writer's paralysis into motion

Picture Osmosis Jones as directed by Susan Sontag. Or a Survivor analogue with no discernible rules, in which the participants savage one another while deconstructing their most ruthless instincts. The public may not be demanding a PBS special where unflinching intellect grapples with unspeakable acts. But that's a pretty good description of the unorthodox dances created by choreographer Susan Marshall. Past works, for instance, have examined a chosen one who is tortured and killed (The Descent Beckons); people trapped in claustrophobic rooms (The Most Dangerous Room in the House); horrific photos of crime scenes (Spectators at an Event); and athletes in the throes of existential angst (The Contenders).

Now Marshall has taken on the task of giving physical form to the ultimate inertia--writer's block. One and Only You, which opens the Discover Series at Northrop Auditorium on Friday, mixes dance, physical theater, and literature in a work about a writer in trouble. "His marriage is failing, and he's working on a stupid little detective novel that's not very good," the 43-year-old choreographer says of her latest work, speaking by phone from New York.

"I'm collaborating with my husband, the writer Christopher Renino. We've been together for 20 years, but it took us until 1998 to risk working together."

In for the long haul: Susan Marshall's One and Only You
In for the long haul: Susan Marshall's One and Only You

While Marshall insists that collaborating is "the only way to guarantee we'll talk to one another," she also admits that most writers would not be able to put up with the way she works. "I don't use text to pin the story down," Marshall insists. "Text gives landmarks, but the audience constructs the meaning. Chris understands my process. He's willing to develop his work in the studio, bringing in his text and subjecting it to alterations by the dancers. That's not easy for most writers.

"But it's equally difficult to physicalize a story," Marshall adds. "Two weeks ago I thought I knew what we had--now we're all running for the finish line." (The work, co-presented here by Walker Art Center, debuted in Pittsburgh last week.)

While it's hard to predict what the finished One and Only You will look like, Marshall is known for her ability to transform simple, everyday movement into powerful physical narratives. In her 1984 duet "Arms," for instance, a man and woman explore the collateral damage of their relationship through a series of flailing arm gestures. Standing mostly side by side and never looking directly at each another, they obsessively swing their arms, connecting inadvertently in eerie embraces. In Marshall's 1990 work The Contenders, dog-tired and emotionally frazzled athletes compete in games they can't win, pushing themselves through mindless calisthenics. One duet features a man and woman as exhausted lovers, hauling one another into horizontal embraces or coming together like drugged porpoises in slow-motion versions of wrestling holds.

Though there are stylistic hallmarks to Marshall's work--it's typically smart, intensely physical, and emotionally vulnerable--the choreographer thrives on injecting the unexpected. Take the life-sized inflatable dolls in The Descent Beckons, a millennial work based on ancient and bloody New Year's rituals. Bashed around Three Stooges-style by the dancers, these hapless mannequins foreshadow the fate of a dancer who is later nearly ripped in two, sacrificed to the community's lust for ripe corn and prosperity.

So if the Farrelly Brothers can turn the body's limbic system into a source of slapstick comedy, Marshall, even more improbably, can certainly translate a writer's personal funk and a stalled suspense novel into visceral drama. As Marshall has previously written in a mission statement, "The world of unacknowledged knowledge that runs parallel to our world of articulated thoughts and actions is the domain of dance." One and Only You promises to dance between the lines of the text, uncovering the mysteries of artistic creation.

 
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