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IMPRESSIONS: Douglas Dunn's "Body/Shadow" at Judson Church

IMPRESSIONS: Douglas Dunn's "Body/Shadow" at Judson Church
Catherine Tharin

By Catherine Tharin
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Published on November 3, 2023
Body/Shadow; photo by Steven Gibson


Composed by Paul J. Botelho

Art by Brice Brown

Choreographed by Douglas Dunn

Media Design by Steven Gibson

Costumes by Mimi Gross and Sue Julien

Danced by Jules Bakshi, Cemiyon Barber, Jay Beardsley, Alexandra Berger, Dwayne Brown, Janet Charleston, Savannah Jade Dobbs, Steph Jacco, Vanessa Knouse, Corinne Lohner, Cassidy Martin, Emily Pope, Deniz Sancak, Jin Ju Song-Begin, Mac Twining, Timothy Ward, and Arthur “Trace” Yeames

Judson Memorial Church

October 27 & 28, 2023

An expectation of Douglas Dunn is for Douglas Dunn to present the unexpected. A choreographer of individual talents, his latest presentation BODY / SHADOW at Judson Church, October 27 and 28, is no exception. Billed as an experimental opera, this is a dance (seventeen excellent dancers perform for 60 engaging minutes) accompanied by operatic meanderings. Dunn’s collaborators, composer Paul J. Botelho, artist Brice Brown, and media designer Steven Gibson, lend a ‘downhome’ sensibility to the décor and to one actor character. Artists Mimi Gross and Sue Julien designed and constructed elegant dance costumes.

The audience sits in a large circle, close to the action. Solo dancers and trios move just shy of the blue, green and red-gel hand sculptures that delineate a slightly smaller inner circle. The significance of the detached male hands, palms up and life-sized, is cryptic. As a sculptural element, the hands impart a tactile and ghoulish Halloween glow.

Woman seen in silhouette against a blue background
Jin Ju Song-Begin; photo by Brice Brown

Botelho, dressed in slouchy tan linen vest and pants with several vintage cameras slung around his neck, drags his cache in a tan duffel amongst the dancers and on the perimeter of the circle. Resembling an Indiana Jones character without the swashbuckling panache, Botelho seems to be tramping through the bush; the dancers are simply part of the scenery. Botelho’s lovely countertenor is occasionally heard, though his words are indecipherable. Improvisatory mumbles, murmurs, breath sounds, and other garbled accompaniments dominate a recorded score.


The dancers, costumed in black bottoms and tops, wiggle close together on the ground. They surround a birdcage, a disparate element perhaps, as pink pig-tailed Emily Pope, wearing a red cape is lifted high above the fray. Later, the dancers move to the edge of the circle to execute Dunn’s clean-lined, Merce Cunningham inspired movement. A soloist performs in front of a sheet, where images such as fingerprints, are projected onto the dancer and behind the dancer’s shadow. At times, there are five sheets held by dancers, who trade places when it’s their turn to dance. There were multiple views of dancers from perspectives close to far. The stage was a bevy of activity.

The theater-in-the-round seen from above with audience seated in chairs and colored-gel hand sculptures placed in a circle in front of them.. The stage floor, a pink glow, is scattered with dancers performing seated and stationary, standing and reaching legs wide apart, and holding up sheets.
Body/Shape cast; photo by Steven Gibson

What is most striking is the coherent, moving perfection of the dancers. Mac Twining’s astounding ballon, precision, off-kilter second position stutters and ease, hold the watcher’s gaze. He joins Vanessa Knouse and Timothy Ward in a trio superbly embracing promenades, front attitudes, jumps and leg lifts in second position. Other standouts are the exciting Jay Beardsley, Alexandra Berger, and Jules Bakshi trio who contribute a pungency to the material. Deniz Sancak with concentrated refinement, splendidly dances a demanding adagio while Cemiyon Barber demonstrates a nicely weighted sensibility. As the dance progresses, dancers remove the multi-colored shapes attached to black costumes, and to white costumes beneath. By the end of the dance all are dressed in crisp, belted white unitards.

Projection of splotchy blue on a male body and the sheet behind. The dancer's shadow is seen on the sheet.
Deniz Sancak; photo by Steven Gibson

Two long-haired women chimeras, Cassidy Martin and Steph Jacco, in red with attached shapes in different colors, act as disruptors. They mimic dancers’ movements; they shimmy about and generally behave puckishly.

The work, divided into twenty acts, has a dance assigned to each act. Dunn worked with Jin Ju Song-Begin and Janet Charleston, longtime, dignified Douglas Dunn + Dancers members, to develop twenty, one-minute solos. Movement by Dunn was created on the trio groups. The acts have titles such as: ACT SEVEN Frisky/Mandarin, ACT EIGHT To pinch upon/Snitched out at last, ACT TEN My tender/Secret beauty, ACT SEVENTEEN Real anemia/Underarm excitement contained, ACT TWENTY Escape/Turn signaled.

Male dancer in white unitard executing a back attitude. Woman in red costume next to him. Blue background with other dancers in white to the left of the dancers mentioned.
Cemiyon Barber (left) and Steff Jacco (right); photo by Steven Gibson

Dunn, charming, funny, and tall, clomps on stage wearing an upright zebra costume, with a zebra head covering his head, and brown scuffed tie boots for hooves. Talk about a non sequitur!

What does all this mean? I don’t know but I was engaged from start to finish, and certainly the artists had a grand time. It was a bit like a gorgeous no-pressure, “Happening.” Having arrived after accidentally experiencing the loud and disturbing protest at Grand Central Station, this performance was a balm for the senses.

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