Forget pumpkin spice — the best thing about fall is the breadth of spooky and haunting theatre we get to enjoy. Last week I was lucky enough to see a reprisal of Shapiro & Smith Dance company’s Notes from a Séance. Moody and sensual, this plot-driven dance tells the story of a 19th Century cult/school/religion/utopian society run by the inscrutable Mrs. B. Full of animated dancing and wonderful practical effects, the remounting of Notes from a Séance this fall (after its successful run at the Cowles this April) makes me think Shapiro & Smith Dance hope make this show into a perennial fall classic. I hope they succeed! Instead of dwelling in gore or too many jump scares, Notes from a Séance revels in the transforming seductive power of the occult. Playing into the sensual and, at times, unnerving world of the occult, we watch Mrs. B and her acolytes attempt magic while also giving in to their baser desires. Part of Mrs. B’s power, and ultimately her downfall, is her notion that the bodily desires must be fully sated before the spiritual realm is achievable, giving the show license to move between the demure and the debaucherous at will.
Cards on the table, this is a diverting hour or so of dance. The plot, while not particularly thick, is rich with potentialities and ambiguities that point towards hidden worlds. As a performance, I particularly enjoyed the range of dancers and their various ages. Mrs. B’s precise movements, less ostentatious than the other dancers but more dominant and confident, counterbalance the younger dancers’ elegance and hedonistic wildness. Notes from a Séance doesn’t flinch at the ways sex and sexual tension shape group dynamics. The story focuses on the cosmic shift in group politics after the addition of the newest member of the cult. This young and powerful woman (the protagonist) starts to eclipse Mrs. B. I do wish the program (which gives lovely biographical information about each of the dancers) called out which dancer did each part.
So, I will settle for describing a few of my favorite movements from this dance. The first is during a stereotypical seance, right at the beginning (before any fuckery happens); everyone is dressed in prim, Victorian garb (beautifully executed by Mathew J. LeFebvre) while Mrs. B dazzles them. Passing looks and reactions around their tight circle, the dancers work themselves up into a frenzy of feeling. In another scene, four dancers engage in an orgiastic dance-couplings. Changing partners, positions, and tempos, they abandon themselves to rapturous feeling and sinuous movement before slowly losing stamina and ultimately sleeping.
While the story and the dancing are both diverting, perhaps the most enjoyable part of this show are the practical effects. From ethereal bubbles to candle lights that are seemingly passed between the dancers in the dark, the technical aspects of this show are delightful without being gratuitous or showy. Like Mrs. B’s power, part of their charm lies in the viewer’s ability to suspend disbelief and come along for the ride. Perhaps my only qualm with this show is the music. Prerecorded, it feels slightly zombified next to the living pulse of the dancers and the wonderful light.
While this show is now closed, we can hope for two things: a) that it comes back next year and b) that Candy Box (which the company will open this spring) is half as sexy and technically sophisticated.