It begins with a man on his back in a leotard and tap shoes tethered to four long metal poles with lines resembling electrical wires. Even the rehearsals of SB Dance don’t resemble anyone else’s.
Then again, Specimen isn’t billed as a performance, but rather as an “exhibit.” After dancing with troupes like Ririe-Woodbury and New York’s renowned Mark Morris, founder Stephen Brown took a detour to study biology at Columbia University before starting his own dance company in 1997. Science reared its sometimes gruesome, sometimes clinical, yet always fascinating head when Brown started developing his latest work.
What other dance performance includes a comic book with the price of admission? With acclaim from the Salt Lake City Mayor’s Award in the Arts and the National Endowment for the Arts, Brown is technically accomplished enough that he can afford to be whimsical, and his work often is. Props like buckets, cardboard boxes and the redneck accoutrements of his 1999 white-trash satire Scampdance add humor, but there is also something deeply disturbing, even monstrous, like his “Waltz of the Dog Faced Boy.” His always-changing cast of “freelance” performers makes each of his dances different, yet always a product of his unique choreographic vision. His work always tries to reach deep thematic levels, most notably in interpretations of Kafka’s The Hunger Artist and the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice.
The theme in Specimen, however, is completely of Brown’s devising, and in a way it is his most deeply contemplative, challenging and most fully realized work. The piece is presented from the perspective of research animals in the basement laboratory of a quack scientist named Frank. To be a “specimen” as well as the observing scientist'as the dancers at times are'is in a sense the scientific method in a nutshell. And the gurney rolled about the stage, upon which dissections and perhaps autopsies occur, is a reminder of the finite nature of life itself. “The show is really about monsters,” Brown maintains, “from both science and religion. The explanations of life, from evolution to intelligent design, are both dissected and shown to be, in some degree, monstrous.
He adds that the show starts out with performers in regular, “showy” costumes, and by the end becomes more and more fantastic, as cartoonish as any of his other work. But there are also some really virtuosic performances, with incredible athleticism demanded of his dancers. The fluidity of their movements demonstrates that some things can’t be dissected, though Brown says a book that was influential in the creation of Specimen'with photos from a medical wax museum in Florence, Italy with models of diseased bodies and severed limbs reminded'him of the way scenes are sectioned in a performance.
The music is also the subject of dissection. Cut-ups and sound collages by the infamous John Oswald'whose Plunderphonics, sampling other musicians’ works and reassembling them into a crazy quilt of frenetic melodies'have for over a decade hovered on the fringes of legality as well as the cutting edge of music. “With [local classical musician] Ricklen Nobis, I also plundered Plunderphonics,” Brown quips about his own cut-ups. But perhaps the most surprising thing about the musical score is the way it can move from disjointed snippets of sound into straight-up sonorities of Debussy’s “Afternoon of a Faun.
After dissecting his subjects, Specimen’s Frank tries to put them back together again, though sometimes in Frankenstein-ish ways. But the exercise isn’t dry or academic in the least. Even though science is an intellectual pursuit, the idea of being cut up like a laboratory animal creates an incredibly visceral reaction, Brown notes. He reveals his fascination with the life sciences: “There is a sense of opening yourself up, something transformative, to be manipulated by this sickness. I thought, wow, this is the subject for dance.”