Risks — physical and artistic — fill Shapiro & Smith Dance's "Tableau Vivant," now at the Cowles Center. Choreographer Joanie Smith, who has led the company for the past 10 years since the death of her late husband and partner, Danial Shapiro, doesn't shy away from the aesthetic on which the company was founded. In her new piece, "Tableau Vivant," Smith's ambition doesn't quite hit the mark but it's a fun ride.
"Tableau Vivant" draws on the living pictures of the title, a practice popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The work celebrates feminism with tongue firmly in cheek.
There are some wonderful, jubilant moments, including seances and other period-appropriate antics, which work because of the keen performative sense of veteran dancers such as Mary Moore Easter, Judith Howard and Erin Thompson.
The work, however, never finds its center. There are sections that feel out of place, such as a cameo by Scott Mettille as a kind of Everyman that takes away from the female-centric point of view. The spoken words by Brian Sostek, heard as a voice-over by him and Leslie Ball, also detract from the work, turning the performers into subjects instead of storytellers of their destiny.
"Ravel x3," another premiere, isn't as daring a leap as "Tableau Vivant," but it succeeds in creating a sweeping spring frolic. Solos merge into duets, which expand into group movements in a ripple effect. Smith finds a balance between symmetry and chaos, where the dancers become an organism moving as a system.
"The Gist," a 2001 piece choreographed by Smith and Shapiro, feels dangerous not in its artistic content but rather in its physical feats. Dancers Andrew Lester and Megan McClellan perform a series of falls and balances in a violent depiction of a troubled relationship.
"To Have and to Hold, 25.5 Years," a Shapiro & Smith piece that debuted in 1989 at the height of the AIDS crisis, is performed on three benches that double as coffins. The work transforms the dancers into white-clad souls who mingle on the other side of death. At the time of its creation, this piece was likely quite a risk and it has become one of the company's signature works. While the original context conjures a time capsule, the work has a universality as a love letter to those who have died.
Sheila Regan is a Minneapolis writer.