Dancer, Healer, Shape-shifter: Sara Shelton Mann in Keith Hennessy’s Sara (the smuggler) | By Marie Tollon

A large aqua green drape splits the stage at a diagonal, from floor to ceiling. Its color is reminiscent of seas and skies, worlds to travel through. There’s a wooden kitchen table, and the dark Marley floor licks up the sidewall upstage right, creating a black board 7 feet high above the floor. The stage calls to mind an attic, hastily divided by a homemade curtain, veiling potential stories and objects, meant to be revealed or left in a state of permanent and secretive abandonment. Since so much of Keith Hennessy’s Sara (the smuggler) is about history, memory and disclosure, its setting is perfectly adequate.

Sara Shelton Mann in "Sara (the smuggler)" Photo by Robbie Sweeny

Sara Shelton Mann in
“Sara (the smuggler)”
Photo by Robbie Sweeny

In anticipation of the last of the three sold-out performance evenings, a sense of urgency and excitement can be traced through the audience. In the intimate setting, friends hug and talk, latecomers squeeze against others and find a seat on the floor. The room at CounterPulse is packed to the hilt.

Sara Shelton Mann appears with a cutting presence, wearing casual black slacks, white jogging sneakers, her head and face shrouded by a golden headscarf that runs to her mid torso. She walks to the black board, white chalk in hand, and furiously scrawls notes, phrases and symbols. The hand and wrist movements are quick, frenzied, as if dictated by some external power source that she has tapped into.

Hennessy had mentioned including solos from Contraband’s repertoire in Sara (the smuggler). Since I didn’t see the company perform in the 80s and 90s and only know brief excerpts of the work from video, I can’t tell which moments are revisited from older works. Yet many sections of the evening-long work, such as the opening, convey the feeling of the world Contraband is known for having created: mystical, performative, inclusive.

Whether Shelton Mann is revisiting this first scene from a previous performance or not, the beginning of the piece can be read as a metaphor for choreography, the writing of bodies in space. It also announces the first question the performer addresses with the audience: “What is choreography?” She goes on to propose some answers, still in the form of questions: “Is it going from point A to point B with intention, tension and desire?” In retrospect, the initial question seems to linger as the backbone of the piece, like something left in an attic: hidden, yet pervasive. It is a reminder that artists, like philosophers, can spend a life digging deeper to answer a single question, each time bringing new layers of their art form to light.

Sara Shelton Mann Photo by Robbie Sweeny

Sara Shelton Mann
Photo by Robbie Sweeny

Since the board on which Shelton Mann is writing is on the sidewall, it is hard to decipher what she is writing or drawing. In this culture of “full disclosure,” where so much unedited information is shared and flung in your face, it is a relief for an image to be allowed to incubate in its mystery. Sara (the smuggler) artfully contrasts such scenes with moments of full transparency, both in form and content. Hennessy makes several appearances on stage, to ask Shelton Mann a question, or add a prop for her to use. Discrete, his interventions are moving, as the trust and friendship between the two artists are apparent. Later on, the drape is brought down, revealing composer Norman Rutherford in the background. Shelton Mann also shares intimate, and traumatic, personal stories of growing up in the South, of her life in New York in the sixties and her journey to the Bay Area. She also announces her performance fee ($3,000), thereby exposing the financial transactions that are involved in the making of performances, information about which viewers are rarely informed. Shelton Mann reveals that this money will help pay for a hip injection. “Keith cried,” is all she says following the disclosure of her fee, and the silence that follows that statement is heavy. Here she also reveals the socio-economical realities of the dancer’s life: it is hard to make a living dancing, health insurance is rarely included in a dancer’s contract, and the dancer, whose body is prone to injuries, learns to live with pain, waiting for the next chunk of income to address health issues.

Sara (the smuggler) is an ode to Shelton Mann, her curiosity, her formidable strength and her irreverent spirit, in the many forms it manifests. There’s Sara, the wild child, whose appetite for life gets her in trouble in the stern, conservative family that adopted her after she lost her parents at a young age. There’s Sara the dancer, who recalls the support of her first dance teacher that went far beyond the dance studio; there’s Sara the choreographer, who shares her dreams and desires when founding Contraband. There’s Sara the teacher, who invites audience members to get up, move around, lift their arms, thereby leading a momentary class. There’s Sara the healer who gives a ‘clearing’ to a volunteer who has his right foot in a cast. Hands fluttering like birds on his arms and legs, she ‘removes knots’ from his body with loud exhalations and sounds, interrupting her talk to mention the left leg: “This one is doing all the work! I know how that feels.” The volunteer has a huge smile on his face. Sara the possessed: lying down and humming, muttering feverishly, occasionally springing upright to spit off to her side, before returning to her prone position with her spine undulating while her wrists perform a dance of the wild. Like a tapestry composed of pieces masterfully sewn together, Sara (the smuggler) succeeds in exposing the many facets of Shelton Mann’s identity in a seamless way.

Sara Shelton Mann Photo by Robbie Sweeny

Sara Shelton Mann
Photo by Robbie Sweeny

At the outset of this tour de force, Shelton Mann breaks the wooden table in half with a hatchet, momentarily channeling Indian Goddess Shiva, the destroyer and transformer. What does she –and Hennessy- manage to destroy and transform through this work? Maybe unintentionally on the part of its maker, the piece succeeds in undermining common beliefs that still pervade the dance/performance world: that the young and athletic body is the only one adept enough to perform or be looked at; that the spiritual has no place on stage; that choreography needs to be “dance-y.”

With flawless transitions, Hennessy also succeeds in transforming a talking solo into a work that transcends its subject: Shelton Mann’s personal memories offer a window into larger pieces of American history, such as vivid images of a South devoured by racial tensions and gripped by the looming presence of the Ku Klux Klan. The piece also provides material for gender and socio-economical studies: Shelton Mann’s upbringing story exemplifies what was generally expected of women in poor, religious communities in the fifties. It also conveys a moment of dance history: the making of work with Alwin Nikolais in New York, the dreams underlying the founding of Contraband, its influence on the Bay Area’s artistic landscape.

At one moment during the show, as Shelton is reflecting on Contraband’s work, she mentions realizing then that “she was creating something much bigger than [herself].” With Sara (the smuggler), Hennessy and Shelton Mann accomplish that: they create a powerful and moving piece, one that resonates beyond genres, traditions and autobiography.





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