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How does Salt Lake City's most untraditional dance company tell what could be considered the most traditional story of all?
SB Dance has surely bitten off about all it can chew with its new show, "SNaked: The True Story of the Garden of Eden," which plays at the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center downtown through Saturday.
Artistic director Stephen Brown describes the piece as "the tale of original sin retold in SB Dance's signature style of movement, theater and object."
This piece is the least provocative that SB Dance has produced recently, and I am glad about that. Where on Earth would Brown go next? I asked after "Surrenderella" in 2015, as he seemed to have mined the depths of badgering at the audience's comfort zones.
Brown has made a wise choice with "SNaked"; he has reined in the shock value and ramped up the comedy, which plays a part in all his shows as the company aims to fill the role of "trickster coyote" in the Salt Lake community.
Eve, played with sass by Natosha Washington, has misheard her name as Steve, which bothers her greatly. Adam, played by Florian Alberge, is a perky, almost hyper, creature who dances around naked with gay abandon, taking a great deal of pleasure in his wiggly parts. The serpent is depicted as a flamboyant and comedic trickster; Nathan Shaw, an SB Dance mainstay, revels in this role and spouts many of the show's best lines.
Brown, who created, wrote and choreographed the show, and Winnie Wood, the director, masterfully intersperse the comedy with staggering technique. It's a tool that helps the audience connect with the characters and the story and keeps us from feeling intimidated.
Brown and Wood have chosen a classical French theme for the garden, with some of the characters speaking with French accents and the dancers wearing large Marie Antoinette-style wigs. While we see the wigs of 18th-century high fashion, royal pomp and decadence, the dancers wear the stained undergarments of servants. The look sets the dynamic of contradictions that SB braids together: gender reversals, name changes and ethnic presuppositions. Brown has wisely choreographed the dances with a formality that echoes the dance of that period and utilizes more classic ballet than he has in recent pieces. Symmetry is the binding force that runs throughout the pieces. There are a number of sequences that look simple, such as the sweeping of dirt that is scattered across the stage, but that have a ritualistic quality to them. There is a whole number that revolves around the dancers stomping on the floor rhythmically. The pas de deux is framed like a classical court painting, pleasing as a balanced design even as it is impishly mocked with comedic garnish.
The third facet that SB marries with comedy and outstanding technique is technical panache. The company, which has presented an original piece every June since 1998, prides itself on collaboration with an imaginative stable of designers.
A number of large screens at the rear of the stage, with projections by Alex Thedell, assist in the storytelling and are in keeping with the French theme. God is depicted by voiceover accompanied by abstract, brightly colored, burgeoning images. The Garden is shown with sumptuous, bold and appealing projections, and at the close of the show, a fast progression of photos and pictures shows how mankind has developed, with images such as the Pyramids, art by Leonardo and Michelangelo, The Beatles and video games. Jessica Greenberg's crisp, clean, no-nonsense lighting manages to enhance the circus without becoming overwhelming.
The show features a combination of vets and newbies; Shaw, Alberge and Washington are joined by John Allen, Christine Hasegawa, Annie Kent, Rick Santizo and Kimberly Campa.
One of the company's great strengths is that it uses the same dancers for many of its shows and takes advantage of their impeccable technique and individuality. Their bodies are pushed hard, and one can tell that when they reach a comfort zone, they are most likely nudged a little further. The work has a raw and energized feel, and my guess is that if I saw the show again this weekend, it might have grown still more.
But it is also clear that Brown and Wood give their dancers leeway to bring their personalities to the table. There are sections of verbal interaction that seem to be improvised, and dancers are evidently given the carte blanche to be funny, which is unusual.
The only section I felt could have had more bite was the final sequence where the dancers pass bright red juicy apples to the audience. The intention was interesting, but to put the performers among the audience at the end wasn't the strongest stage picture. I would have liked to have seen some of the ritual and ceremony from earlier in the piece applied to the end.
Overall, the intention to "make art that requires the audience to stretch their minds," as Brown has said, is achieved. "SNaked" is funny without being bawdy, and classical without being stuffy.
But beware lest you think for one moment SB Dance has circled back to a kinder, more pleasant performance. The circle of "SNaked" back to origins is like the coil of a rattlesnake, turning back, to strike forward. This is, after all, the work of the "trickster coyote." Brown is the master imp of the perverse, and he offers the prize apple at the top of the tree, bringing us to the forefront of groundbreaking original dance.
'SNaked: The True Story of the Garden of Eden'
The tale of original sin is revamped in SB Dance's unique style. For mature audiences only.
When • Reviewed June 10; continues Friday and Saturday, June 17 and 18, 8 p.m.
Where • Leona Wagner Black Box Theatre, Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center, 138 W. 300 South, Salt Lake City
Tickets • $17.50-$22.50; 801-355-ARTS (2787) or artsaltlake.org; more information at http://www.sbdance.com
Running time • One hour with no intermission