The Austin Chronicle


Karen Sherman's surprisingly funny, moving dance and text work was poetry in motion

Reviewed by Stacy Alexander Evans, May 2, 2014, Arts

Salvage Vanguard Theater, 2803 Manor Rd., April 26

Among the messages transmitted during Karen Sherman's arresting One With Others was this: "Only poets have it worse than dancers." In that case, Sherman and fellow performers Joanna Furnans and Don Mabley-Allen have it perhaps worst of all, as their brilliant articulation of the human experience was sheer poetry in motion. Incorporating text, narration, modern dance, and objets d'art, One With Others was a triumph on many fronts.

A visual delight, the show was notable for its fabulous shadow play, and lighting designer Carrie Wood is to be applauded for her virtuosity. Wood does what all talented artists do: She uses the tools of her trade to go beyond the quotidian and the literal. Seeing Mabley-Allen's shadow cast on two different surfaces at once, it was natural to meditate on the subject of duplicity. Indeed, what topic could be more germinal to the act of performance? As the poet Wallace Stevens noted, "Every man is like an actor's trunk, full of strange creatures, new & old."

When Sherman used a steaming-hot iron to apply a transfer to a shirt she was wearing, it was an Iggy Pop razor blade moment – and also a painful reminder of a not-so-distant past when such appliances often tethered women to undesirable domestic situations. Here, X marked the spot on Sherman's heart, but also on the performers' hands – hands that wanted to create art but were bound up in wooden contraptions that looked like flower presses. One imagines Renaissance sculptors like Michelangelo in a contemporary predicament: working on David in the wee hours after a shift at Home Depot. How does life in a post-patron world affect the artist and his or her work?

There was a recurring motif of futility – arms flailing against vertical surfaces, dancers leading each other around by their heads – yet the references were ironic since this work was moving, potent, and productive. One With Others was unquestionably cerebral but also surprisingly funny. Sherman's self-deprecating wit was endearing. Certainly one cannot be one with others if one is determined to stand apart, perched upon a pedestal waiting for the throng of admirers to arrive with fragrant bouquets.

"I hate Michael Douglas," said Sherman during a particularly amusing scene in which she acknowledged that she was aping the actor's turn in the film of A Chorus Line. "Who casts themselves as the person they hate?" Yet when all the world is our stage, we're all guilty of just such a crime – at least on occasion. In this moment, audience and performer were simpatico. As a published poet, Sherman making reference to the bard's plight was no doubt deeply personal, and, indeed, very little she said could be taken at face value. Her sophisticated use of language is what distinguished this show and practically guarantees a broad appeal beyond the realms of theatre and dance.

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