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Reflections on Twisted Oak Dance Theater’s “Constants & Variables: Second Homes"

Updated: Jan 27, 2020

PC: Robbie Sweeney

I don’t know if this happens to you too - I’ve found that site-specific shows tend to begin as soon as I arrive. As I made my way onto the front porch at Shawl-Anderson Dance Center this past Saturday to see Twisted Oak Dance Theater’s newest work, “Constants & Variables: Second Homes,” I was captured by the place. Before the first performer emerged, before the warm pre-show welcome by Artistic Director Colin Epstein, before I even entered the lobby, I found myself immersed in the presentational tricks of the building itself. Next time you’re in the market for some solar romance, pass by Shawl-Anderson on a balmy September evening and get seduced by the shallow raking of the sun across the porch and the brilliant streaks of liquid gold it leaves behind. It may just make you weak at the knees.

Admittedly, I was an easy target for these cheap tricks - Shawl-Anderson has been my home for dancing for five years now, and my infatuation for the place has long settled into the kind of love reserved for the people and places we call home. That made me both the perfect and toughest kind of audience member for the show I was about to see. While “Second Homes” swept me off my feet with its imaginative, heartful, deeply playful and utterly delightful exploration of the space, I also found myself battling unmet expectations at a few points in a show that occupied a space so close to my heart in a manner so differently from how I anticipated it might. While I expected “Second Homes” to dive into the stories of the people who have danced at Shawl-Anderson over its 60 years, instead I saw the theme of “home” most clearly reflected in the incredibly inventive use of every corner the building has to offer, and the idea of “legacy” mostly absent, save a couple sidelong tips of the hat.

Walking into the lobby, I entered the first group score of the evening - a casual milling of audience members committed to preserving as much room between bodies as possible. Soon, the official show began, thoroughly interrupting that score. We were directed into a cozy semi-circle on one side of the room and dancers began filtering in from the stairs above. They accumulated like a tide rolling in, swaying gently like pastel-colored rainbow kelp to a metronomic beat that offered form to their softness. The light streaming in from the skylight above ignited their heads with an ethereal glow, amplifying the sense of other-worldliness built by their gently tidal movement. I found myself thinking about legacy...but unable to complete the thought.

We moved into the adjacent studio with half the dancers, as the other half streamed onto the front porch. They occupied every nook and cranny in sight, draping themselves across window panes, slithering up and over the porch railing, and squeezing into what until this show had always seemed to me an illogically small window (illogically small though it may be, it turns out to be plenty big for the explorations of two curious dancers). The dancers began some delightfully inventive movement explorations in each of the spaces. I found my eye especially drawn to the quartet on the porch, particularly in the intermittent moments in which three of the dancers smashed their final fellow against the glass doors and spun her upside down. Across groups, the dancing followed a regular pattern, supported by music reminiscent for me of mechanical toys. I was both delighted by the pure visual candy of it all and the inventive use of space, but also found myself wondering as the section went on whether it would develop into something more.

The temporal texture I craved manifested as another shift in location. We moved back to the lobby, where the dancers dropped into a theatrical vignette on the couches, slipping in and out of them, and over and on top of one another in an almost clownish display of tiredness. I wasn’t altogether clear on how to read the tiredness in relation to the idea of “second homes” or the legacy of Shawl-Anderson, but was still delighted to quiet chuckles at one gag in which one dancer stole the pillows from underneath another dancer’s resting head, only to have the dancer continue to sleep on empty air. If it hadn’t been obvious already through the playful partnering and easy humor in the first two sections, Epstein’s circus background was clearly visible here. The dancers streamed from the couches back up the stairs, creating a spectrum of colors as they went. The sun was lower now, and the shadows created by their bodies as they moved were quite beautiful.

We turned to watch a video on the TV hanging by the front door. Though this may have been the simplest part of the show, it was the only thing I hadn’t even begun to anticipate. Perhaps for that reason, it has been the section that stuck with me most clearly. The video flitted between spaces in Shawl-Anderson, some shots capturing entire rooms (such as the downstairs dressing room), while others zoomed in on a single architectural component, such as the shoe baskets under the dressing room bench. The common theme between every shot seemed to be a commitment to explore every permutation of movement play possible in the building. At one moment, the image switched to a shot of the empty stairwell behind us and I was struck with an immediate temptation to turn my head. I didn’t, because I didn’t want to miss what came next, but I wondered how many other audience members had been as inexplicably thrilled as I was to see the very thing behind my head on the screen in front of us. In the final shot of the video, a semi-transparent dancer ran upstairs, passing through a solid dancer on the landing who shivered as if touched by a ghost. Of everything in the show, this to me felt the clearest nod to the idea of legacy. I thought that maybe this thread would develop further as we continued upstairs.

Instead, we split into two groups to watch a ballet-inspired number in Studio 2 and another playful and impressively creative use of the very small space meant to be occupied by a single piano player in Studio 1. By this point, I was starting to accept that the show was not going to take on the idea of “second homes” and legacy in the ways I thought it might. I started piecing together how those themes might be present in ways I had missed until now, fixated as I was on my own preconceptions.

It was the feet under the curtain that did it for me - as a dancer hidden by the curtain began dancing, I was strongly reminded of the games my sister and I used to play with the long curtain in our living room as kids. It struck me that although “Second Homes” had not addressed the legacy of Shawl-Anderson as I expected it to, through their unfailingly playful and curious occupation of the most unlikely spaces throughout the building, the dancers had in a sense made a home of the entire place. We returned downstairs for the show’s final number, a piece that reminded me strongly of the embroidery thread I used to make friendship bracelets out of as a kid - the dancers’ synchronistic movement and colorful costumes felt like a patterned weaving of the space. The show ended with the dancers melting to the ground, and the spell was broken. The audience rose from our cozy proximity, but took time spreading back out, seemingly content now to stay in closer quarters.

I went back to Shawl-Anderson today for the first time since the show, and as I walked up the stairs to the porch, I had to laugh as the memory of Ashley LeBlanc’s face smashing upside down against the glass door leapt unbidden to my mind’s eye. I can’t say that “Second Homes” spoke to my own sense of home as it relates to Shawl-Anderson Dance Center, but I won’t forget its intrepid exploratory spirit and unfailing playfulness. In some ways, I even tip my hat to what feels like a bravely light-touch when it comes to honoring the legacy of a place that has been so meaningful for so many people. When a legacy stands so strongly on its own, sometimes inviting people to occupy it in a novel way is all that’s needed for one audience member to fall in love all over again (not least on a balmy September evening when the angle of the sun hits the porch just right).


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