“If you are expecting me to change your life, forget about it,” says a voice in a recording in “One With Others,” a smart, witty production by Minneapolis-based artist Karen Sherman that chips away at the pretensions of art.
Wait, chips away? Scratch that. “One With Others” doesn’t chip, it claws huge backhoe craters out of all the hooey slung around about the transformative powers, purity and superiority of art — and artists. Sherman, who has been making dance and theater works for 20 years, on her own and with others such as puppeteer Dan Hurlin and the feminist punk band Le Tigre, has clearly had it with all that nonsense.
Or at least, she questions it — questions a lot of things, including dance itself — and that’s what is most refreshing about this charmingly homespun, occasionally inscrutable but big-hearted piece, which had its premiere this weekend at Dance Place.
Among a list of pronouncements Sherman projects on the wall at one point: “Just because you’re a dancer doesn’t mean you’re in good shape.” Indeed, none of the three cast members of “One With Others” fits the dancer stereotype. Sherman is small, compact and fierce-looking, with arresting, dark eyes and slightly graying hair; Joanna Furnans is tall, soft and curvy, with a buzz cut; Jeffrey Wells is lanky and bearded, a cross between a theater geek and a bike messenger. They’re all wearing jeans and T-shirts, not the most forgiving attire to dance in. Yet, improbably, they dance beautifully.
Sherman, especially, has a way of moving that’s galumphy, artless and deeply appealing. She clumps around like a child pretending to be a monster, with exaggerated steps, hands raised like giant paws. In a voice-over, she tells a funny story about an audience member at another venue commenting on how Furnans doesn’t have a dancer’s body — though, this person also noted, she is obviously well trained, unlike the two others.
“We were all unilaterally insulted by that,” Sherman says. “But it’s kept us together as a trio.” This anecdote is followed by a gorgeous dance sequence, the three sweeping around the space like velvet.
A central question arises, concerning free will: Did I ever do anything on my own, Sherman asks, or have I done everything just because someone else suggested it? This is interesting to ponder, yet it’s not clear how “One With Others” addresses it. Sherman, Furnans and Wells are nice folks to spend an hour with, but a few of the scenes — ones with rough wooden props and rubber gloves filled with water — feel random and self-involved. After all, we’ve had our hooey-monitors tuned up and sensitized by Sherman’s opening. Moments like these trigger them.
At its best, “One With Others” offers a glimpse not at art itself but at the difficulties of making it. Near the end, we see Wells wrestling with a pillow, flinging himself on the floor and pounding it while gasping “Avoid Facebook!” and “Think of slashing their tires, but don’t really do it” and finally, a post-catharsis exhortation: “Dive into work.”
Meanwhile, Sherman is busily stapling Furnans’s shirt, with Furnans inside it, to a piece of plywood. Pinned around the edges, Furnans finally wriggles out of her little prison with difficulty and slumps against the wall. All three performers look exhausted, wrung out by the evening’s ordeal. But before long, they rise and do a gentle little dance, just moving their arms, as if they’re on a runway, positioning planes for takeoff. They’re beautifully synchronized, breathing together, as if they’ve done this dance a thousand times before. As their arms reach overhead, their fingers flutter busily, as if they’re sprinkling fairy dust, as if they have all the hope in the world.