Choreographer Molly Shanahan gets budding NU actors moving

December 2, 2010

“There’s no way around the pelvis,” says Molly Shanahan. “A locked pelvis is at the root of mechanical-looking gestures onstage.” That’s one of the tenets of her Movement for Actors class at Northwestern, which she’s teaching for the first time this fall. Another is that there’s a middle ground between what she calls “moribund rest and pumping iron.” I can see the moribund for sure when I walk into a studio at NU’s Marjorie Ward Marshall Dance Center and discover nearly 20 freshmen sprawled on the floor, some in puppy piles, looking wiped out at high noon.

 A third challenge is that many of the students—all theater majors—have been spooked or otherwise put off by dance classes. They’ve taught Shanahan a new word: “fancer,” meaning “fake dancer”—a term common in musical theater circles.

Shanahan, longtime artistic director of modern dance company MadShak, actually tries to avoid the word “dance” because her students “have been inundated with the notion of dance as rigid steps. I use very little set movement—I’ve found that it rattles this group and sends them into ‘I'm not a dancer!!’ mode and self-criticism.”

“I try to feed them their dance like Mary Poppins.”

Yet her ambition for them is nothing less than relearning how to move, using her own back-to-basics “choreographic curiosities and values”—on view this weekend when MadShak performs her new “Sharks Before Drowning” at NU.

Ultimately her goal is to increase these young actors’ physical self-awareness and assertiveness and eliminate their habits—or at least make them conscious of them. With self-awareness, she says, “They can be self-referential in establishing character and find their character on the body. Better to be intrinsic than pasted on afterward.”

At her class, instead of giving students exercises or games, Shanahan just asks them to spread out on the floor. “Close your eyes,” she says soothingly. “And in your mind’s eye, tap into the up-down of the pelvis, its weightedness.”

She alternates between encouraging interjections (“Excellent!” “Nice!”) and coaching: Soften the jaw. Create a safe space but not a rigid cage. Tap into a biomorphic sense of who you are. When we feel the head, we feel a plumb line. Get curious if you find you’re just moving your hair back and forth. Try not to get hung up on the “best” choice. 

Whatever she’s doing, it’s working. A roomful of sleepy kids is transformed into a mass of moving bodies, each taking its own unique and fascinating route.

Theater/econ major Michael Silberblatt says he’s enjoyed the “fun, judgment-free environment” of the class. And that ease is apparent in the students’ sometimes off-the-wall comments to Shanahan:

“When I sort of fell, I was there to catch myself.”

“My joints were making a lot of noise today.”

“If movement wasn’t intended for transport, this is how I’d move, for self-indulgence.”

“I tell students, ‘We’re here in service of excellence—you being as expressive as you can be,’” says Shanahan. “We fake it until it feels familiar. No one knows what’s right and wrong.”

(Molly Shanahan and class, above - photo by Eric Futran)