REVIEW: Bill Shannon’s ‘Touch Update’ at Dance Place

Touch Update
Bill Shannon

Dance Place
November 10, 2018

By Lisa Traiger

Bill Shannon doesn’t walk. He floats, glides, slips and slides. The fact that he uses specially-designed curved-bottom crutches is almost beside the point, his grace and ease are so astonishing. On his return visit to Dance Place November 10-11 — after far too long — alas, he did not perform. And I missed his effortless ease and unparalleled grace. The self-styled interdisciplinary artist and maker has moved beyond his liquid-y gravity-rejecting Shannon technique, which harnessed crutches and skateboard to do what his legs couldn’t. His new experiments focus on the digital world of high-tech video installation.

Touch Update, his hour-long rumination on our digitized world, envisioned through a series of video-enhanced vignettes and live performance, felt as disconcerting and assaultive as the incessant news cycle. From the start, with a projected “unboxing” video showing a proud new gun owner to later scenes of the destructive beauty of fire, reminiscent of the currently raging California fires reality encroached. Touch Update feels like a daily scroll through my newsfeed — #BlackLivesMatter, #MeToo, mayhem and destruction, both natural and human-made. Shannon’s fabricated sculptural “tree” of video screens that stands in a back corner of the stage, always on, constantly lit, like some many personal devices these days, stands both ominous and innocuous, ever-present and ever-drawing one’s attention.

Shannon’s piece serves as commentary on the incessant presence of screens in our lives. His masks are helmet-like apparatuses comprised of multiple mini-screens covering the performers’ faces. Displayed on those miniscreens: video portions of faces — eyes, noses, ears, mouths disjointed like a high-tech Picasso cubist portrait that speaks, frowns, lifts an eyebrow, all in real-time. The video editing and programming by Cornelius Henke III provides state-of-the-art content for Shannon’s designs. Dancer Taylor Knight of slowdanger contributed the sound design and its environmental and industrial references – mechanical hums, waves and rain, static, driving percussion and spoken monologues and dialogues. These varying aural worlds move the piece from vignette to vignette.

Like life in 2018, the star of the evening isn’t the human body dancing. It’s the technology and the moving projected image, whether on the back wall of the stage, on the various panels of Shannon’s sculptural tree, or the miniscreens on the masks.

Touch Update draws its movement language from the mannerisms and vocabulary of hip hop. The quintet of dancers — clad in comfortable streetwear — dabbles in the pedestrian, then moves often in almost yoga-like serenity into slow motion floor work. Raphael Botelho Nepomuceno (a Cirque du Soleil alum) uses the specially modified Shannon crutches, but his Shannon technique — yes that’s what he calls it — is not near the level of the “Crutchmaster” himself (that’s Shannon’s old-school hip-hop street name). As well, it wasn’t until close to the finish that Nepomuceno gave us more than a glimpse his silky, swift motion loping walks on crutches, one-crutch balances and pirouettes on the crutches. The rest of the dancers remained two-footed, sometimes using the floor like stop-action breakers, other times like flowing yogis.

Nepomuceno’s earlier solo let loose pent up energy in a few too-brief aerial flips, cartwheels and floor dives. His knees tremoring before this quick explosion of high-voltage tricks felt like a burst from the volcano of frustrations the nation has been suppressing.

The only respite in this ultra-driven screen-obsessed world Shannon built and programmed, was a sensuous duet performed behind the sculpture and projected on its disparate screens. The pair — Anna Thompson and Taylor Knight — though nude, were only partially and incrementally visible. The sculpture’s cameras captured parts of each body, again in a disjointed cubist fashion — we see an elbow, an expanse of belly, a cheek, a profile or shoulder. Soon the disjointed approach Shannon has taken with the pure, nude human body feels like a reflection of the disjointed lives we are living today, where screen time takes precedence over personal time with people. While there’s nothing close to pornographic in these discrete body snapshots, the suggestion hangs in the air that in this brave new screen-obsessed world even sexuality and sensuality is mediated through cameras and pixels.

Touch Update may feel as disjointed and discomfiting as a day spent monitoring the devices and programs that rule our lives. What happens when Instagram, SnapChat and Facebook overtake our lives. Shannon’s work pushes viewers to take another look. And touch.

Bill Shannon’s Touch Update will be presented at New York Live Arts November 14-17, 2018.

Photos: top, Bill Shannon’s Touch Update, photo Kelly Strayhorn
Below, Raphael Botehlo Napomucena in Touch Update, photo Jonathan Hsu, both courtesy Dance Place

An arts journalist and critic since 1985, Lisa Traiger is thrilled to helm the re-launch of Dance Metro DC’s Dance Journalism Project.

Lisa wrote the dance column for The Washington Post Weekend section from 1999 to 2014 and was a freelance dance critic for The Washington Post Style section from 1997-2006. As arts correspondent, her pieces on the cultural and performing arts appear regularly in the Washington Jewish Week. She also contributes to Ballet Review, Dance Magazine, The Forward, Pointe, Dance Studio Life, Sondheim Review, Asian Week, New Jersey Jewish News, Bethesda Magazine, and Washington Review. She edits From the Green Room, Dance/USA’s online eJournal.

In 2003, Traiger was a New York Times Fellow in the Institute for Dance Criticism at the American Dance Festival in Durham, N.C. She earned an M.F.A. in choreography from the University of Maryland, College Park, and has taught dance appreciation at the UMCP and Montgomery College’s Rockville campus. She served on the Dance Critics Association Board of Directors from 1991-93, returned to the board in 2005, and served as co-president in 2006-2007. She was on the advisory board of the Dance Notation Bureau in 2008-2009.