Warsaw ghetto story inspires 'Shosha'
CONCORD -- Headlong Dance Theater's "Shosha" is ostensibly about the Isaac Bashevis Singer novel of the same name, set in the Warsaw ghetto of the 1930s. The Philadelphia-based company introduces us to the innocent childlike title character (Nichole Canuso), her strapping young suitor, Aaron (David Brick), and the two sirens who seduce him (Niki Cousineau and Amy Smith).
But just as we start to buy into the sense of drama suggested by the opening tableau, Andrew Simonet, acting as a kind of narrator/director, steps in officiously, saying "OK, now we can put this away as a story." He explains that rather than telling the tale, the show will explore "the true nature of the characters," and he sets about trying to urge, cajole, and correct the players as they participate in a series of exercises, dances, and vignettes. There's a bit of emotional whiplash as the action veers between some very funny directorial moments and the drama of the story, but the 50-minute "Shosha" ultimately turns out to be both a clever deconstruction and a sometimes moving, poetic evocation, both an expose and a celebration of dramatic artifice.
The production opens with the sounds of the rain and sea. Shosha sits building a village of paper houses peopled by paper figures. Aaron, a writer, unpacks a trunk full of books. It is a sweet scene, pregnant with possibility.
Then slightly cheesy sitar music (the score is an effectively colorful compilation of original and arranged music by James Sugg) leads on the other dancers. Their odd, comic behavior -- slow-motion walks, erratic runs, arms constantly curving up and down, all accompanied by whoops, moans, and chants -- is explained by Simonet as warm-ups. Like a religious zealot preaching to his flock, he talks about opening up physically and mentally, setting up what follows as satire.
Simonet's playful duet with Brick has a tinge of vaudeville, culminating in the brief hand-slapping game "Fraidy Cat." The two women tempt Brick's Aaron with a bizarre display of elbows, ankles, knees, and necks that is sensuous without being erotic. He and Canuso's Shosha begin a poignant duet, only to be stopped by Simonet and twisted into intricate maneuvers while trying to make sense of a slightly absurdist text. The undercurrent of love and betrayal in the story is constantly subverted by comedy.
In the dances, the company's movement aesthetic rides on the shifting weight of contact improvisation. The dancers display a visible sense of release in rolling falls, swoons into one another's arms, and partnered lifts that turn into back flips or slump to the ground like deflated balloons. The hands seem to have a life of their own, fingers carving intricate gestures in the air or skittering up and down the body like mischievous mice.
Some of the imagery is striking and unforgettable, and eventually that absurdist text brilliantly finds its context. The final tableau is heart-rending. After all is said and done, the still-innocent Shosha crawls into the empty trunk and shuts herself in, as if crawling into her own coffin. Aaron comes, locks the trunk, and begins to solemnly drag it off, just as a brisk breeze flies out from the wings. In a flash, Shosha's fragile little village is reduced to a pile of paper.