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Shapiro & Smith Dance Explores Tableaux Vivants, Female Identities

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When asked about the inspiration for her latest dance, "Tableau Vivant," Joanie Smith replies: "Whatever stops women in their tracks." Smith has been exploring the history of late 19th- and early 20th-century women who posed as living pictures on floats, in drawing rooms, and at patriotic celebrations around the country.

To Smith, these tableaux depicting allegorical or historical scenes were much more than theatrical forms. They became ways to explore newly emerging identities for women concerned with health, bodily freedom, political and social equality, and artistic expression.

The poses these women practiced originally came from a French philosopher, François Delsarte, who codified human gestures and labeled every part of the body in a descending hierarchy of spiritual characteristics. The purest resided in the head and heart, the coarsest in the lower regions (he referred to the legs as "beasts of burden").

While Delsarte designed his system primarily for actors, in America it became a popular form of arty exercise. A woman named Genevieve Stebbins developed routines she labeled "aesthetic gymnastics" that were eagerly embraced by middle-class women all over America. You may remember the scene in The Music Man where the mayor's wife and several middle-aged women perform studied gestures in preparation for a series of tableaux for a Fourth of July celebration (including a fountain that goes "trickle, trickle, trickle"). Such parodies notwithstanding, the Delsarte method greatly influenced the art of early modern dance pioneers Isadora Duncan and Ruth St. Denis.

Smith chose to emphasize the iconic female relationships that these women both depicted and experienced. Set vaguely in the 1920s, the piece employs a text by Brian Sostek (of Sossy Mechanics) and music by longtime collaborator Scott Killian. Ten women, ranging in age from 22 to 75, cycle through a series of vignettes about beauty, addiction, aging, rebellion, loss, friendship, and women gone wild.

The cast includes local dance legends Susanne Costello, Judith Howard, Mary Moore Easter, Zoe Sealy, and Erin Thompson, who are joined by five women from Shapiro & Smith Dance.

"Besides being terrific performers, all of these women have very full lives," says Smith. "Among them are mothers, grandmothers, teachers, a poet, and a pharmacist -- quite the range of experience for me to draw upon."

During a recent rehearsal, dancers formed witty sculptural poses in attitudes suggesting heroines, hellions, victims, and nurturers. Sostek's text referenced suffragettes and social activists like Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, artists and renegades like Isadora Duncan and Annie Oakley.

"It's a knowing look back at history that acknowledges the absurdity of women's place 100 years ago, and the fact that it hasn't changed much today," says Sostek. In a section titled "Absinthe," for instance, an abused woman drinks "glass after glass of green chemistry, each sip a step, every step a misstep... gazing out high over purple cheek bones and swollen red lips like she'd taken a fall, a big fall."

The collaborative nature of the work required a lot of back-and-forth between Smith, Sostek, Killian, and the dancers. For instance, Smith would give Sostek and Killian an image or concept that they could riff off of, like the Titanic. Killian responded by putting an actual piece played onboard into his sound score, while Sostek used it as "a pebble in the pond" from which some ideas for his text evolved.

Tentative about his role as a man writing women's stories, Sostek tried his text out on the cast to see how it felt with the dance and remained open to their feedback. The result brims with scenes that are by turns jocular, melancholy, satirical, and poetic.

"Tableau Vivant" will be presented in the context of three other works, including the premiere of "Ravel x3," a dance to Ravel's music that Smith describes as "full of drop-dead virtuosic dancing."

IF YOU GO:

Shapiro & Smith Dance Cowles Center for the Performing Arts 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday $30 528 Hennepin Ave., Minneapolis 612-206-3636