In KillSport, Spank Dance Company's latest, performers shoot, stab, bludgeon, and explode stuffed animals to satirize our lust for blood

Arts Review


Blue Theater, through April 2

Running Time: 55 min

In my family, as in all families, we have special ways of relating to one another, and one of them is the rhinoceros kiss. Given that it's a "rhinoceros kiss," my bet is you can imagine how it works, but just in case: We put our foreheads one against the other and rub them together semivigorously. We may even, on occasion, make a rhinoceroslike noise. That, in our family, is a rhinoceros kiss.

Imagine my delight when I saw the members of Spank Dance Company giving one another rhinoceros kisses toward the beginning of KillSport, Spank's latest original production. Against a pseudo-stained glass background of red, blue, and yellow triangular panes, on a stage surrounded by compressed sheets of plastic and various cute stuffed animals, dressed in bright, mostly primary colors, and wearing furry headpieces, the Spank dancers kissed and played, little stuffed mice in their mouths, everyone having a grand old time. Innocence pervaded the scene, but of course, it didn't take long for the larger animals to discover that torturing those sweet mice was an option.

Utopia isn't all it's cracked up to be, and things do get a bit out of hand. The performers enact practically every possible mode of killing, including shooting, bludgeoning, exploding, and stabbing. (I've never seen so much blood spurting on a stage – beware if you sit close.) At one point, they pull out the stuffed animals' eyes, rip off their ears, and tear out their throats. (And who among us would deny having that impulse on some level upon seeing the atrocities committed in all our names?) At another, they look like so many bodies twitching on wire by the trenches.

Ellen Bartel, Spank's artistic director, is walking on the edge here, in more ways than one. Modern dance is a tough sell – an even tougher sell if it's political, and tougher still if you have something to say that perhaps goes against the prevailing zeitgeist. Because it's dance, and most especially because it's modern dance – with tremendously powerful original music composed by Andy Hadaway and inspired by, of all things, Roger Corman's cult B-movie Death Race 2000 – the story Bartel tells through movement is open to a wide variety of interpretations. But when one dancer slowly struts across the stage, surveying the latest scene of physical and/or emotional carnage while sporting a tattered umbrella emblazoned with the U.S. flag, and later a wheelbarrow decorated with that same banner is rolled across the stage, packed with the bloodied and tattered corpses of stuffed animals, Bartel and her fellows seem to be speaking not only to the greenest side of our natures, but to the most political as well.

In the program, Bartel tells the story of a man who cured his dog of killing animals by hanging one of its bloody victims around its neck, and we see this story played out during the dance. Perhaps if our loving and, it probably goes without saying, Christian president were to wear the mangled corpse of an Iraqi baby close to his chin for a week or so, a difference would be made – but I doubt it. To paraphrase Samuel Johnson, patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel. Surely he was referring to some specific scoundrel, but like Bartel's dance, Johnson's comment is open to interpretation.

Here's your chance to watch the scoundrels kill each other for sport.

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KillSport, Spank Dance Company, Ellen Bartel, Andy Hadaway, Roger Corman, Death Race 2000

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