The Pope, Marx, and Houdini

Corporal Mortification
Shawn McConneloug and her Orchestra

Silent Second Sight
Paula Mann Dance

Body of Work
Everett Dance Theatre

In a romantically run-down space southeast of downtown, five young women in tartan skirts and combat boots are leaping off school desks, reciting the lives of female saints with great aplomb, running, struggling with their unruly clothes, shouting the words "ointment!", "flagellate!", "pus! pus!" as their boots pound rhythmically against the hardwood floor. Schubert's "Ave Maria" creeps shyly from a pair of speakers, making the surrounding activities appear even more bizarre. Choreographer Shawn McConneloug lowers the volume on the sound system and takes a few steps toward the dancers.

"That was a pretty good run, you guys," she says. "We probably need to go over your saint stories once more. Susan, I need a more reportage-like quality from you. Morgan, is it two flagellates or three after ointment?"

Pieces about growing up Catholic seldom paint a flattering portrait of the experience; few of them could land in the performance series of a religiously affiliated institution. Shawn McConneloug's mordant Corporal Mortification, created in 1994 and soon to be restaged for a performance at the College of St. Catherine's O'Shaughnessy Auditorium, has beaten the odds. In this 20-minute work, blind faith and burgeoning adolescent sexuality clash in the minds and bodies of five Catholic schoolgirls. It's a funny and energetic work, enhanced by the frenetic girlishness of the excellent ensemble, all in their late 20s and early 30s. It is also disturbingly evocative, as when the tousled hair, bleeding rosaries, and thrashing combat boots coalesce into a final image that lingers long after the show has ended.

McConneloug, who in grade school dreamt of becoming a mother superior, is hardly doctrinaire: "Having attended a parochial Catholic school from first through eighth grade," she laughs, "I felt like I had a lot of information to work with."

McCONNELOUG WILL split the one-night program at O'Shaughnessy this Saturday with another local dance doyenne, the choreographer Paula Mann. Although more rooted in straight-ahead dance, Mann's new half-hour work hardly dabbles in abstraction. As her six-member company, clad in straitjackets, paces through a section of the dance, Mann explains the curious getup.

"Silent Second Sight was inspired by the life and work of Harry Houdini," she explains. "I did a lot of reading about the tricks he performed, and the danger of it was striking. Such a level of danger isn't really communicable with dance, but I was still interested in conveying the images it inspired in me."

One of these is Houdini's celebrated water-tank trick, in which the handcuffed Houdini, suspended from his ankles and locked inside a tank of water, would effect an escape. "He could hold his breath for an extraordinarily long time," explains Mann, "and he had no emergency nets of any kind. That was, and still is, totally unheard of."

In its finishing phase a week or so before its premiere, Silent Second Sight already looks like a rich, intricate, and vastly entertaining work. It has the feel, at times, of a fin de siècle vaudeville act, albeit one with a few anachronisms, like video animation and rock music. At other times, the dance's breathless pace and technical virtuosity are rousingly modern, the usual flavor of a Mann work.

THE RHODE ISLAND-BASED Everett Dance Theatre has a history of tackling subjects considered undanceable by most. In The Science Project they balanced on seesaws and dispatched crockery down precariously sloped slides. Flight was an homage to the Wright brothers--not your common dance heroes. With Body of Work, presented by the Walker Art Center this weekend, the company offers a conceptual equation that seems the least danceable of all: Work equals money equals power.

Body of Work is an ode to American labor with a Marxist twist. Drawn from countless interviews with factory workers, union organizers, and the unemployed, and seeped in exhaustive research of socio-cultural issues, the hour-long work passes in a flurry of imagistic segments: a coaching session for a job interview, interviews with old unionists projected onto placards carried by the performers onstage, a seamstress struggling with an enormous stretch of cloth, a picket line, a firing, a riled-up crowd singing, "What do we want? Bread! When do we what it? Now!"

The seven performers, some of whom are as young as 18, bring such an unaffected energy to the show that Body of Work never seems like a mouthpiece for proletarian martyrdom. The cumulative effect of Body of Work does translate into something like "Workers of the world, unite," but Everett Dance Theatre rarely seems to be dancing by dogma. In other words, don't wait for a performance version of Das Kapital.

Shawn McConneloug and her Orchestra and Paula Mann Dance perform at O'Shaughnessy Auditorium, 8 p.m. Saturday; call 690-6700. Everett Dance Theatre performs at 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday in Studio 6A of the Hennepin Center for the Arts; call 375-7622. For information on the company's residency activities, call 375-7626.

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