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Lightsey Darst previews "Minneapolis New Breed," a dance showcase at the Southern (February 25-28) featuring the talents of three up-and-coming ensembles: Mad King Thomas, SuperGroup, and Lamb Lays with Lion.
February 24, 2010

Photo by Eric Melzer

Q: What do a cardboard elephant, a support group for wealthy parents, and a period-costumed version of Chekhov's The Seagull have in common?

A: Minneapolis New Breed, February 25-28 at the Southern Theater.

THIS SHOW, THE BRAINCHILD of Dylan Skybrook and Jon Ferguson, is an evening devoted to three up-and-coming genre-bending collaborative ensembles: SuperGroup, Mad King Thomas, and Lamb Lays with Lion. Along the lines of Live Action Set or Off-Leash Area, these groups mix movement, theater, voice, design, pop culture, and the kitchen sink like wacky whiz-kids with new chemistry sets. A few days ago, I dropped in all three ensembles to see what the new breed creates.

SuperGroup turns out to be aptly named: I've never seen such smooth collaboration, such happy group-brain, as from this quartet of native Minnesotans who went out East for college, stayed a few years, then came back to our snow-bound paradise. As they warm up to Hold On For One More Day, the members of SuperGroup strike me as NewPeople: two men and two women steering clear of traditional gender roles, all skinny and limber as if they've been doing sun salutations while the rest of us eat bacon, seemingly trained in modern dance, acting, and voice, and comfortable doing all three at once.

Let me try to give you a sense of what they're piling together for their show. First, there's the dialogue -- or, more accurately, the text, since they don't so much talk to each other or create characters as deliver rapid-fire the lines, without punctuation, sometimes right on top of each other. A sampling of their exchange:

"I clean up shit for breakfast."

"Your own baby's shit is different than other people's baby's shit."

"Oh my god I'm dry heaving all over my face."

"I want to eat my own face."

Etc: fancy fart jokes. They also throw in knowing critical theory references -- "The message is the medium and the medium is the message and the two are allegedly related" -- and social commentary. To deliver all this, they use silly voices, random accents, even singing. Sometimes, they stop speaking entirely and just vocalize: a nightmarish siren warm-up fills one section.

Then there's the motion. It's pedestrian movement -- arm semaphore, steps, lunges, hops, walking in straight lines, etc. -- the moves not linked in phrases, but cut apart. No obvious relation to the script governs the movement; instead, it's ruled by some hyper-complicated numerical system. Why, I couldn't tell. But that's SuperGroup: excessively smart, fundamentally absurd. Altogether, they come off as a strange mix of enfant terrible and good citizen. When they perform, who knows what will land face up?

Of the three groups, Mad King Thomas is the best known to dance-goers. From performances at Choreographers' Eve, the Red Eye, and the Bryant-Lake Bowl, we're familiar with their too-much-is-not-enough aesthetic and messy, prop-happy splay. At what other rehearsal will you hear a performer swear and exclaim "I forgot the gold lamé"? Indulge me while I catalog their costumes for Like a Circus, Only Death: a cropped gold-spangled white formal, virginal, but a few sizes too small, resulting in a constant display of butt cheeks; zebra, high-waisted gauze pants paired with a leopard split-tail top; gold paillette underpants, a tail coat, a bra, and what else? -- a bullwhip. Thus attired, they sprint through a few murders, a raunchy lip-synch of "TikTok," several rounds of Ideological Boxing, and a full-out karaoke "Hungarian Rhapsody".

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If this new breed of dancers can find a line in the sand, they'll pour in Crystal Light and mud-wrestle over it.

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On the surface, MKT's wicked skits and tableaux are crazy funny, but they keep digging past funny to the dark heart of... something. I'm never quite sure what MKT find in the depths of bad taste: is it about women? sexuality? Or, is it something more basic: the inherent danger of seeing anyone as other, perhaps? Or, is it just the same old sadness: the world is a violent place and we are going to die here, you and I? Whatever the cause, MKT's dark spine shivers under its comic skin.

Walking into Lamb Lays with Lion's rehearsal for Lamb Lays with Lion vs. Katie Mitchell's The Seagull is like stumbling into some Italian film about filmmaking. Actors are everywhere, half in period costume, half in Urban Outfitters-esque hipness. A TV screen shows a peculiar version of the scene, faces turned to static; the performers are filming themselves with tiny cameras wired to clip lamps that they turn on each other during the emotional heights. With no clearly delineated offstage space, the unoccupied lounge against the walls, trying to disappear or naughtily trying to be seen. The main action is Chekhov's The Seagull (which is about theater, of course), played at top speed by both casts at once. The period cast stays orderly, but the modern cast switches roles on a dime, bends gender, wanders across the stage, and sometimes talks right to the audience. The sheer overload of acting nearly buries the text, but the melodrama compels me, so I keep grasping for it. I feel like I'm swimming in a maelstrom of noise, light, action, personality.

I can't tell whether Lamb Lays with Lion vs. Katie Mitchell's The Seagull is a train wreck or a stroke of genius; I can't even tell where the performances stop or start. SuperGroup's insouciant energy alternately charms and annoys me (I mean, they're calling this piece Shouldwetitleitnoworwait). I know from experience that I like Mad King Thomas, but sometimes I can't decide whether they're working the bad taste or just wallowing in it.

But this marks the new breed: edges are their playground. If they can find a line in the sand, they'll pour in Crystal Light and mud-wrestle over it. Everything is up for grabs in the world they show us.

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Noted performance details:

Minneapolis New Breed, featuring new work by SuperGroup, Mad King Thomas, and Lamb Lays with Lion, will be on stage at the Southern Theater February 25-28. Tickets are $18.

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About the author: Originally from Tallahassee, Lightsey Darst is a poet, dance writer, and adjunct instructor at various Twin Cities colleges. Her manuscript Find the Girl will be published by Coffee House Press in April 2010; she has also been awarded a 2007 NEA Fellowship. She hosts the writing salon, "The Works."

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Bonus video, a promotional clip from Lamb Lays with Lion's take on Chekhov's The Seagull:

MN Artists