Shaping Sound, Shaping Dance

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I often struggle to define “contemporary dance” to my non-dancing friends. This new style of dance, which has emerged over the past few years with the rising popularity of television shows such as So You Think You Can Dance (SYTYCD), incorporates elements of showmanship and spectacle never before represented in the modern dance realm. “After the Curtain,” the touring show performed by Travis Wall’s Shaping Sound Dance Company, exemplifies this new era of dance.

I went with some friends to see the show on January 27 at the Shubert Theater on College Street. We were a bit starstruck — anybody interested in dance would be familiar with all the show’s dancers and choreographers; we watch them rise to fame on SYTYCD and Dancing with the Stars and devotedly follow their social media accounts. Travis Wall, runner up on the second season of SYTYCD and a renowned choreographer within commercial dance markets, was nominated for two Emmy Awards for his choreography and won one in 2015. His choreography is frequently characterized on the show as emotional and artistic, even experimental. Though he employs various stereotypically commercial dance tropes such as multiple turns and high leg extensions, he also choreographs dramatic partnerwork, utilizing props such as jewelry or mirror frames to mediate partnering.

The company continues to tiptoe the line between commercial and artistic industries. Shaping Sound’s founding was documented on the reality show All the Right Moves. Wall worked alongside acclaimed commercial dancers Teddy Forance, Nick Lazzarini, and Kyle Robinson. Its 14 dancers hail from commercial backgrounds, and the music, created for the show by contemporary musician and film scorer Ryan Lott, was an exciting blend of instrumental pieces and James Blake-esque songs featuring one repeated line (in one piece, “Please just take me with you when you go”) overlayed with crescendoing electronic beats. Musically, Shaping Sound combines the classical with the cutting edge.

The company employs devices such as props and costumes to their advantage. A fellow attendee, Faith Tomlin, ES ’21, noted that “highly commercial dance productions often compromise the quality of dance and technique in favor of special effects and costumes and props and such to sell tickets, but that was not the case at all with Shaping Sound. The technique and the choreographer stood out as the focus, and the costumes, sets, and special effects just added to the show overall.”

But “After the Curtain” did struggle to represent a plot through dance. Traditionally, this problem is remedied through simplification and symbolism, but not with Wall’s choreography. This show tells the story of a performing group cast on the verge of unraveling due to a tenuous web of romantic entanglements. Much of the narration occurs with the help of a typewriter. The protagonist, Vincent Allen Whitlow (Wall), guides the audience through the show by clacking away onstage at a typewriter as written words appear on a screen lowered temporarily on the stage, words which comprise a book he is writing. At the start of the show, we are introduced to 12 different characters including Vincent’s twin, Leo, and a character named Jude, about whom he writes, “Everyone has a dark side they suppress. Jude is mine.”

The show tries to maintain a pretense of artistry with its complicated storyline and use of typewritten text, but such efforts fell short, and the overall effect was still that of a competition dance. The performance featured elaborate 1920s costumes and carefully-constructed sets including staircases, false stages, and curtains. The characters were nearly impossible to keep track of. Vincent, the director of the company, falls in love with Sebastian, the brother of his best friend Rose. Vincent has been dating Ellenore, a member of the company, with whom Luther, another company member, is in love with. When Luther discovers Vincent and Sebastian kissing, he kills Sebastian. At the end of the show, destroyed by heartbreak, Vincent dies of causes unspecified and joins his lover in some afterworld. Along the way we witness various other relationships, including another unfaithful relationship between Vincent’s sister Vera and Rose. I know. It’s dizzying. And to be honest, it only took a few minutes for me to decide to ignore the plot’s nuances completely and focus instead on what I came to watch: dancing.

The choreography and execution exceeded anything I could have imagined. The performanced flowed seamlessly between meta-theatrical upbeat jazz dance pieces — in which the dancers performed on a stage within a stage, then were shown exiting onto a false “backstage” — and heart-wrenching duets between any number of star-crossed lovers. The movement was exhilarating and athletic, constant and energetic. In the show’s most famous duet, Vincent faces his mirror, moving slightly until his reflection reveals himself to be Jude (Lex Ishimoto), Vincent’s so-called “Dark Side.” Jude crawls out of the mirror and begins manipulating Vincent’s movements until the two engage in a breathtaking wrestle for power. In another moment, Vincent, tied to invisible wires, begins flying across the stage, flipping and turning as the rest of the dancers move below him. A quieter duet shows Lily (Chantel Aguirre) and her alcoholic boyfriend Clyde (Michael Keefe) dancing together as Lily tries to remove his flask from his hand. A bit heavy-handed, but well-executed nonetheless. The dancers, in spite — or perhaps because — of their commercial backgrounds, understood the stakes of the show, of the company performing within the company. The characters, though sometimes ambiguous in terms of name and plot, emerged masterfully through movement.

“After the Curtain” sold out its 12 shows in Canada and the East Coast — an incredible accomplishment for a 5-year-old contemporary dance company. The company will head south, performing the last show of its tour in Fort Meyers on Valentine’s Day. The wonder of this new dance era is that most people can’t do it. We watch contemporary dance to be moved and entertained, perhaps even — like in certain moments of “After the Curtain” — exhilarated. Watching Shaping Sound was like observing the work of a masterful painter, augmented by the immediacy of the performance, the expanse of the theater, and the swelling music. I couldn’t do what those dancers were doing, and was forced, instead, to fall in love with the spectacle.