Five Solos: Views of the Primal Body

By Dancers' Group

54.ONSITE_SaraSheltonMann_Photo by Robbie Sweeny
Sherwood Chen / Photo by Robbie Sweeny

For Sara Shelton Mann’s The Eye of Horus, five performers come together to perform solos that have been developed over the past several years and will now be placed outside and under the sky. Dancers’ Group has asked Christine Bonansea, Sherwood Chen, Jorge de Hoyos, Jesse Hewit and Sara Yassky to reflect on their work with Mann.


by Sara Yassky

Words lack both the precision and expansiveness that is Sara Shelton Mann. She is a living legacy full of insight, information, skills, energy and perspectives that are invaluable. Sara demands an investigation and curiosity of what is there, and what could be. She works with no end point in sight, just space for more choices and possibilities to be uncovered.

When I first studied with Sara, there were many moments and in fact whole days that I could not figure out what she was asking me to do. The not knowing was frustrating, but I could sense that what she was asking for was possible. I trust what she can see and therefore I trust what she asks me to try. Sara enlivens the way I interact with a moment, a space, a relationship, a body, a decision. She helps access something indescribable in each person she works with.

As I write this in February, we are still developing this solo for The Eye of Horus. Each solo is wildly different, yet all stem from the investigation of archetypes suggested by Caroline Myss in the book Sacred Contracts. Sara uses the archetypes as an access point to the emotional body. It’s been pretty wild to see what comes up, to notice what rises to the surface and to scratch at the material just beneath it. Thus far I am playing with the Child, Saboteur, Healer/Caregiver, the Bully/Coward, the Warrior and the Advocate. I have no doubt that we will grab more, make hybrids, and lose others along the way.

In the studio, Sara excavates the archetypes most present, and then we play. We look at all angles—every side, the underbelly, the highs and lows, the quiet voices, the memories and texture of each archetype. She orchestrates them in conversation together and asks me to move and talk with them while creating different contexts for each to exist.

Her approach is not simply to generate interesting material, but rather to unearth an individual’s unique and collective identities and energies that move us through life. The process builds an invigorating sense of curiosity. As a performer, working on a solo can be daunting, but Sara supports and challenges me to work in ways I didn’t know I could. I see the potential in myself, and I see it when she works with others. She just makes things possible.


by Jesse Hewit

One way to enter this work we’re making with Sara, The Eye of Horus, is through the consideration of archetypes. This inquiry is, to me, such a quintessential Sara inquiry, because it asks the question: what big new information about ourselves can we still dig up, based almost entirely on things that we probably already know?

Basically, Sara has invited each of the soloists into a specifically nuanced conversation about who we are in the world: who we are to ourselves, who we are within systems, as mechanisms of capitalism, as arbiters of power, as makers of choices, as friends to our friends, as victims and champions of our socializations, and thus as intricate organizers of time and space and energy and impulse. This study (and this project as a dance performance) is about expanded and rather dramatic (yet also distinctly mundane) acts of self-recognition. The process for me, with Sara, has been about recognizing and exercising the components of who I am: the Destroyer, the Student, the Prostitute, the Alchemist, the Critic. These are just a few of my archetypes; just a few of the forms of spirit that prop me up, hold me down, get me into trouble, keep me hungry, reveal my power, situate me in diverse cycles of clarity/frustration/judgment/joy/affect/sadness/etc./etc./etc.

The space of making my solo has been a very personal one. Me and Sara. Showing each other how we will bleed in order to convince you that we are stupid and harmless; teaching each other how to let go of the violent need to cohere everything and everyone; allowing each other acts of animal behavior in order to release stories of pleasure and erotic prowess; letting each other be huge; letting each other be desperate; letting each other be utterly taken care of; utterly monstrous; utterly perfect. For me, this kind of investigation with Sara is the very best kind of political work. It is an act of subverting time and productivity. It is a project that deals directly in questions of behavior and posturing, and one that insists on the absolute necessity of behaviors and physical states/actions that very well may not be recognizable as appropriate or logical or useful. And with The Eye of Horus, they are studied and practiced and treated as the most important ways of being imaginable. It is in this whirlwind of archetypal choreographies that I am able to really recognize myself and others around me. We’re all here. We’re all capable of terrible, beautiful, simple things. This work just kind of…let’s the cat out of the bag.

It’s hard to know how or if this work operates within current trends of dance and/or art-making, and I think this is a good thing. Sara is a radically personal artist, who has committed herself to questions and practices that require a certain release of hegemony to inhabit. A life like this can often situate an artist outside of any number of systems that we are made to believe are compulsory to our lives. Instead of many of these prescribed systems, Sara works in realms of magic and healing and image making, and she has what is—frankly—a very rare ability to remain open to how ideas and circumstances and energies connect to one another and organize themselves around us. There are many different and legitimate ways to discuss or name what Sara does and makes, but from an artistic perspective (though really…when is the artistic NOT dealing in tones of the spiritual and the environmental?) she succeeds at finding what is clear and important about a piece of material, and crafting it to be even more poetic and strong and fragile, all at once. And essentially, many of us believe that this is kind of just the thing that we need most right now.

Accordingly, what will always be a difficult conversation, is the conversation about economy. As we have come to know, there are fewer and fewer options for living and working in arts economies, that actually keep us fed and sheltered; even fewer when an artist exists outside of capitalistically dictated paths for being an artist. That said, I certainly believe that while Sara’s particular perspective and process are chronically under-funded/ under-appreciated in our strange and broken economy, that they are also fundamentally vital to the continued obscuring, queering and developing of dance as the determined and singular thing that really may save us from ourselves…by bringing us back to ourselves, of course.


by Christine Bonansea

Since I’ve ben working with Sara Shelton Mann, I performed in three of her pieces, every time developed in a new environment and in fruitful collaboration with different performers and composers. I’ve performed for Sara in San Francisco at the Joe Goode Annex, Berlin at Dock 11 and Los Angeles at Showbox.

The work we’ve been developing, and that has led to my solo in The Eye of Horus has been a sensitive exploration of ourselves, revealing the multiplicity of our beings.

I enjoyed the process of isolating the ambivalent identities I carry; playing with the composition of my major archetypes: the Clown, the Magician, the Child and the Monster. Sara would reveal these creatures to myself, directing me toward the physicality of each of the archetypes. I became more self aware of what I was generating and the limitation of my condition. The rationality of death became intrinsic to the material. The Clown is the dominant archetype, the conductor using his tricks with the epicurean presumption to question death and its ramifications.

Sara’s spirit and practice creates a generous opening space where the energy can circulate in and out of the body. You trust, being more receptive to the unknown, discovering new potential in your physical and emotional body presence. These past years have been a fantastic journey collaborating with Sara as a dancer and improviser.


by Jorge De Hoyos

Performing “The Love of Emptiness,” my solo for The Eye of Horus, feels like a hero’s journey, a descent into darkness or a desperate escape attempt—maybe one episode in a series of ongoing fights to the death with chaos. It feels weighted with responsibility, and it also feels selfish as if regressing to a childhood place to be loved and cared for.

Like battle strategy or like tarot cards, Sara and I employ a community of archetypes into the circle that is sealed by the audience. Through this solo speaks the Artist, the Sorcerer, the Rebel soldier, the Madman…It’s a partnership that I perform between imagined scenarios—“what if I were…”—and me, the performer, who wanted to learn how to dance from Sara almost three years previous.

Similar to my mentorship with Sara, she sets the foundation for the solo: mysterious yet precise coordinates on the floor that she has drawn in chalk. It’s my job to enter, exert energy and invoke these archetypes of the personal and collective consciousness. The performance is an attempt to take on chaos and transform it, but the dance is in not knowing into what exactly.

Training with Sara has been the crucial step for me as an artist. From her I was able to feel that dancing is more than just the physical form, and that we have very practical and concrete invisible bodies that we use to dance.

Most of what I try to transmit to people whenever I teach is rooted in energetic principles that I learned from Sara, and I’m continually amazed at how important and unfortunately unknown this information is to many dancers and art makers. Her work is radical and invaluable in its commitment to presence in the body and its integration with decades-worth of spiritual and esoteric practices. Also some of the most influential transmission of Sara’s work that I’ve experienced is through the bodies of people who have also learned from her: from the entire Contraband lineage to part of my current tribe in Berlin/Europe like Maria F. Scaroni, Hana Erdman and Kira Kirsch.

Immediately after I made the solo with Sara, I moved to Berlin to work with choreographer Meg Stuart on a show called Sketches/Notebook. In both pieces I have a moment where I talk directly to the audience explaining certain possibilities of the universe. In both these moments I feel like I’m channeling core concepts of what I’ve learned from both people—a resonance of similar energetic principles but embodied in very different ways.

I’m happy to perform the solo again in San Francisco—like an anchoring, pollinating and recharging from the source.


by Sherwood Chen

From the first time I walked into a studio to work with Sara, I observed her drive to destabilize, to render body and gesture rife with infinite potential. This destabilization constitutes an important part of her aesthetic. She constantly reads the total field of one’s movement, and in that reading, she starts from the edge of that field, and then—with enough coaxing and coaching from her end—beyond. She always has had the ability to push me to work from that reeling, capricious line between conscious and unconscious gesture, with the demand that we import consciousness into unconscious realms. Never exclusively prioritizing a traditional, established virtuosity or trained technical command, she searches for another type of virtuosity, which has to do with sensitized navigation of time and space charged with personal honesties. Her process is bracingly metaphysical, humanist and politicized at once. This tends to yield volatile states that become a wellspring of creativity.

She considers the individual performer as both voice and vessel; their awareness, spirit and body as encompassing a far greater field of consciousness, space and time which demands from the performer a combination of acute real-time scrutiny and abandon. Sara asks of her performers a degree of personal reflection, yet turns this specificity inside out in the effort to create broader-reaching, ambitious connections with different archetypes and planes of awareness. While all of this is explored physically, energetically and conceptually in studio, she pushes to hone the exchange between performer and audience, as a way for all of us to journey together. And to wake up and smell our coffees.

The perfectionist in me doubts my capacities to atomize myself so thoroughly in such a process, and the masochist in me punishes me because of these doubts. But the ambition behind these efforts is what seduces the seeker in me every time I work with Sara. The opportunity to feel and move in ways which are unfamiliar, welcome, troubling and delicious awaken the dreamer in me.

What draws me to The Eye of Horus is an assembly of distinct performers personally mining specific archetypes, mashing them up, blowing them up. A motley gridwork of souls turning mirrors towards each other and the public, until all that remains are conduits for mysteries and shared frequencies.

This article appeared in the April 2014 issue of In Dance.