If artists are mistake generators, as comedian and choreographer Claire Porter once observed, a cast of advanced students at the American Dance Festival are dangerously close to achieving their full potential at the present moment.
It's Thursday, July 17, and exactly one week remains before the curtain rises on the premiere of FOUR FINGERS AND ONE THUMB, a new piece that Irish choreographer Leonie McDonagh has been creating with the students over the past month. It premieres this week as part of the ADF program "Footprints" alongside works by Carl Flink and Netta Yerushalmy.
When a set of sequential handstands repeatedly goes awry in the opening section of this cirque-inflected work, bodies go down hard, tumbling across the stage of Reynolds Theater. Shortly afterward, a grimacing young man yells, "What the hell, number seven? Get off!" as a group of performers attempt to pile on top of him, sending more dancers sprawling over one another.
Both sections usually run better than this; the group has rehearsed them dozens of times. They'll clearly rehearse them dozens more. Among the rough landings, though, triumphs still arise. The next day, a new tweak to another sequence delivers an earthy but well-informed joke about the vagaries of dance auditions. The room erupts in laughter. A number of faces are red. McDonagh shakes her head, shielding her eyes with her hands.
"It's the basest, lowest, cheapest form of comedy," she says. "God, I love it so."
As actors know, comedy is hard. And as dancers know, new choreography is often difficult. McDonagh has been combining the two since 2006 for her Belfast-based dance theater group, ponydance. Last summer, their comic quartet Where Did It All Go Right? became one of the hottest tickets of the season when ADF presented it at Motorco Music Hall.
It was the perfect venue for a work in which a group of lonely, awkward and occasionally desperate young singles try to dance and drink their way to interpersonal intimacy with one another—and selected members of the audience—before the night is out. Bawdy, risky and occasionally poignant, Where Did It All Go Right? veered between outright slapstick and more thoughtful laughs about the human condition.
On the basis of that triumph, ADF invited McDonagh to return this summer with a different assignment: create a new full-length work with the festival's students in five weeks' time. Nearly everything about this commission is a departure from her usual methods. Instead of the small group she's cultivated for years, she's chosen 28 strangers from the ADF student body. Accustomed to making work in short order, McDonagh says having more time for a new work "means I get to lie awake thinking and worrying about it for six weeks, not one or two."
There's another wrinkle: Few of McDonagh's selected dancers have ever performed comedy on stage before. Fewer still have done comedy in dance. By opening night, she will have had five weeks to teach them how.
One week before opening, many of them are still grappling with unfamiliar techniques. "It's definitely harder," says Aaron Salas, a student from Virginia Commonwealth University. "It's more about timing. Mentally, you have to be aware and adjust to when things are about to happen; you have to know exactly when to make the joke."
Durham native Ardyn Flynt adds, "It takes more thought than steps and counts."
"Dance lends itself so well to comedy, I don't know why more people aren't doing it," McDonagh says. "I learned from my clown teacher, Ira Seidenstein, that the best training for a clown is dance training. Dancers know exactly what they're doing with their body. If you know that, and can read body language, you can really be funny."
Humor has been a touchstone for McDonagh since childhood. "I've always gone for laughs," she says. "I want to know how wrong you can go. Wrong is funny, as long as it's not too wrong. That's my goal: 'Oh, it's a little bit wrong—but you're getting away with it.'"
It's striking that, one summer after staging a work about people in a bar in an actual bar, McDonagh is creating a work with some very pointed jokes about the world of dance for a modern dance festival.
In one sequence, a mob of performers struggles to keep any of its members from breaking through. In another, a woman crawls across a human highway to get to her goal. In a third, a barrage of backhands and uppercuts may forever change the way you picture one very familiar show tune.
"The dance world can be like that," says dancer Johnny Chatman II, a student at University of Texas. "In commercial dance, it's more cutthroat than, say, modern or concert dance. But you're fighting for attention. When you audition, you want to be the chosen one."
"It looks at the dance world in a way we don't like to talk about—but that it totally is," says Amanda Maraist, a 2014 graduate from the University of North Texas. "It's usually unspoken. But it's always there."
"My priority was to give [my students] a good education, closely followed by making a decent work," McDonagh says. "I've definitely achieved aim one." Then the clown choreographer who dares to ridicule, in public, the harsher realities of her chosen profession, reflects for a moment. "And as for aim two? We'll see."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Send in the clowns."