Karen Sherman's "One with Others": Dance, hand clamps, and Andre Agassi


Three years ago, Karen Sherman was thinking about quitting dance. She was doing a residency in New York. Every day she would go to her studio, and instead of dancing she would write, frequently for other projects entirely. 

"I was tired and disillusioned," Sherman says. The piece she created ended up talking about dance itself, as a career and a medium. It was the genesis for what eventually became "One with Others," which opens at the Red Eye this weekend.

Like her original project, "One with Others" questions the art form, Sherman's role as an artist, and all those big questions that creative types grapple with from time to time. However, at a recent rehearsal of the work, the piece never felt self-indulgent, perhaps because Sherman's sense of humor prevents the performance from getting too myopic. The work is personal, vulnerable, and has a dash of self-deprecation to make it a fun ride for the audience. 

Six months after Sherman created the first piece about her frustrations with dance, she was working on a different dance that was inspired by Andre Agassi's autobiography where he talks about how he hated tennis and was forced to play by his father. Sherman was interested in the biography, especially in the context of David Foster Wallace's theory that athletes can't write memoirs as they have to keep their minds focused and simplified. Wallace passed away before Agassi's autobiography was published. Sherman says it's a pity Wallace wasn't alive to see the tennis star's book disprove his theory. 

The work, inspired by the connection between Agassi and Wallace, asks questions about how people become conduits in how we view the world. Eventually, Sherman realized the piece about wanting to quit dance and the Agassi/Wallace piece were both part of the same project. She has been working on it with dancers Joanna Furnans and Jeffrey Wells since 2011. While original phrases from the first two dances she created are in "One With Others," the context isn't the same. "It's so interesting about dance," she says. "The meaning completely changes." 

Sherman sees "One with Others" as "object assisted," and describes the objects as having their own language. The set contains numerous mechanical devices made of metal and unfinished wood and an eerie two-dimensional man. The dancers also "wear" mechanical and wooden forms on their bodies. A dildo-like contraption rests on one dancer's stomach, for instance, and wood slabs act as gloves. 

The "hand clamps," as Sherman refers to them, erase the hands of the dancers visually. When she was making them, they kept leading to new objects. "I started understanding there's a lot in the piece about touch or writing or other things that have to do with hands," she says. "We touch each other through things that aren't actual bodies." 

When Sherman started working on the project, she would sometimes make physical objects as stand-alone art projects that at times were a relief from dance. "Dance is so abstract," she says. "You can't rehearse until everyone shows up. In carpentry, lumber remains the same more or less. When you're working on something, you can leave and come back the next day, and it hasn't changed." Sherman derives a lot of comfort from that. "It's much more stable," she says. 

The visual design, whether through the wood costume prop items or the extreme shadows that are created via old-school projectors, acts as an integral part of the storytelling in the performance. In some ways, "One with Others" can't really be described as a dance piece. It certainly has dance in it -- as well as improv acting and crazy sound compositions and music -- but it's really a lot more than a dance work. Performance is a better word for it, though these categories don't really matter, except in the eyes of funders. 


"One with Others"

8 p.m. Thursday, November 7-9

Red Eye Theater

15 W. 14th St., Minneapolis