Masks Off: Sara Shelton Mann Talks About Her New Set of Simultaneous Solos, The Eye of Horus

By Robert Avila

Sarah Shelton-Mann and Jessie Hewitt perform together.
Sara Shelton Mann and Jesse Hewit / Photo by Robbie Sweeny

At 70, Sara Shelton Mann remains not only one of the Bay Area’s preeminent artists, but a restless, galvanizing seeker. Her latest project, The Eye of Horus—made in collaboration with David Szlasa (sound and scenic designs) and performers Christine Bonansea, Sherwood Chen, Jorge De Hoyos, Jesse Hewit and Sara Yassky—builds on a series of beautifully designed, exceptionally powerful solos (originally titled The Eye of Leo), which were presented over the course of a year at the Joe Goode Annex beginning in October 2012. These solos represent a new turn in a long and multifaceted career, as Mann explains below. Audiences who have seen them launched one by one at the Joe Goode Annex have witnessed some of her most concentrated and enthralling work in years.

Commissioned by Dancers’ Group’s ONSITE program, The Eye of Horus will combine these intensely intimate yet highly energetic pieces into a simultaneous public spectacle premiering in free midday performances at Jessie Square, outside the Contemporary Jewish Museum, from April 24 to May 3.

In explaining her process for the second solo in the series, Peter, Mann wrote at the time, “I open the ground and track it as a guide and follow the progress of the terrain chosen by the individual. Some chose the difficult path, some chose the surreal dream of extinction, some the practice of perfection…I have chosen, and I do not choose. People find me. I have become a hermit in a cage and those who find me have to find the key to the door.” In the following interview, she elaborates on this dynamic, almost mystical relationship with her dancers and the forces they together channel into exquisite form.

Robert Avila: Can you tell me how The Eye of Horus evolved?

Sara Shelton Mann: I was in Russia in [July 2012]. I took Zeropoint over there. At the end of each program, I always put this quote by Nietzsche [“The individual has always had to struggle to keep from being overwhelmed by the tribe. If you try it, you will be lonely often, and sometimes frightened. But no price is too high
to pay for the privilege of owning yourself.”]

Then I was in Berlin. I had gotten an email from Larry [Laura Arrington]. It turned out Keith [Hennessy]’s people [dancers from his piece, Turbulence (a dance about the economy)] were going to be around, and Kathleen [Hermesdorf]’s people were in Berlin. There was a show opportunity at the Dock 11. So I invited people, and said, I’m going to make solos. But it has to be done in three days. [laughs] I’ve gotten a little too famous for making things in three days. So everybody showed up, and they thought they were going to make a string of solos. I said, no, they’re going to be simultaneous solos.

When I got back, I started thinking of doing pullouts of each solo and just concentrating on the person. Years ago I had this book, Sacred Contracts, by Caroline Myss. I actually drew my [Archetypal] Wheel: the four major ones are the Saboteur, the Child, the Victim and the Prostitute. I’d thrown the book out. But I was up at Dos Rios [the Dance Brigade retreat]…There’s this dog-eaten book; it was completely destroyed, put together with gaffer’s tape. That was the book!

The solos are made from the emotional body. The movement comes from working with the archetypes and having them improvise from the emotional body. And conversation. I had them study those four [archetypes], particularly the Child, because I had found that our childhood patterns we can track throughout our lives; and they’re, whether conscious or unconscious, a pattern of how we orchestrate things into focus, into reality. So Jorge [De Hoyos] was the first one, and I took him up to Dos Rios. We were able to eat, we were able to talk, I could send him over to the barn, he could improvise, I could come over and watch. It’s really a collaboration.

RA: What came next?

SSM: Then there was Peter. Jesse [Hewit]’s emotional body, and his physical body, is enormous. Tremendous energy. He coaxed me out onstage! [For West Wave in October 2013.] Nobody has done that in years. But I have this wonderful relationship with Jesse in which I’m able to work with him. He writes to me; I write to him. He makes a point of getting together with me, and checking in. I always think, when was the last time anybody did that? Anyway, the solo with Jesse…it was very big, very emotional terrain.

Next was C (we’re still The Eye of Leo at this point). There was Mim [Marintha Tewksbury], Christine [Bonansea] and Rachael [Lincoln]. It was very difficult to get them together. I imagined three solos stacked up, but the Annex is not that big. Honestly, I got some flack around the women. I had to remind people that I used to make duets and solos for women only some years ago. [laughs] Anyway, I thought it was beautiful.

Then I did Sherwood [Chen]. I found that we have a match, and it’s called the Sadist/the Masochist. Because we got into quite a lot of talking about the text that I was writing about, and what things meant, and into this intellectual discussion. One day I looked at him and I went, “You have a big critic in your head. I do too. We’ve got a match!” [laughs] So it was best to work with Sherwood really fast, so he didn’t think too hard; to hone his skills into an architecture that, I would say, is chiseled in space. Because everybody has their tendencies and their patterns, so my first job is to break those.

RA: Did you find you succeeded in breaking those patterns and tendencies? It felt very cerebral somehow.

SSM: Yeah, and I used that. Actually, somebody said, where is the Sara that we know, the one who speaks to the audience, and makes people feel good? I just thought, well, maybe I was really successful, that it didn’t feel so much like Sara, that it was really chiseled, cold, almost violent. But that’s what came out of Sherwood. It’s not [about] what I want to come out of me; it’s what I want to bring out of that artist—chisel something really
clear in their consciousness.

RA: At the same time you are very much a psychical and physical part of the piece, sometimes very directly involved in a hands-on way.

SSM: Oh yeah. I’m tracking.

RA: There’s a strong connection and conversation there. It’s palpable.

SSM: Somehow I’m really focused on action, physical action, always have been. I think dance is very practical, and I think of movement as descriptive language, I always have. But focused on the removal of all stories. So that there’s this transparency, and that the consciousness, this non-local presence, becomes so palpable that it can be followed by the outside. I do have a specific focus about how I want the viewers to participate. It’s just removing the thoughts and becoming more aware of this presence, until it becomes the experience itself, both internally and externally; so that all of the experience—the visual, the kinesthetic, the auditory, the auditory-digital—becomes a participant in that presence.

RA: Is the emphasis on transparency a through-line for your work in general?

SSM: Well, number one, I want the performer to become transparent, so I don’t just see their bodies doing things, no matter how interesting they are. But that they can also see in all directions, they can really see from the back of their skull, so that when they align themselves in space their architecture becomes transparent. They have more space inside the cells, more light inside the body. Then you can see through them. They become
more of a light body.

RA: The opposite is when there’s too much what?

SSM: Personality. Density is great. I like density, or even heaviness, or emotionality. It’s something about the representation of something, the presentation of something—I keep trying to pull those masks off.

RA: How did you settle on the square in front of the Contemporary Jewish Museum as the site for the piece?

SSM: David Szlasa said meet me in front of the [Contemporary] Jewish Museum on the benches. I went over there and I went, wow, this is really nice. Brilliant, David! They built it so you can see into Yerba Buena; it’s a really beautiful, long view. I emailed the architects and they gave me the design but they didn’t have much history. So I did a little research on the history, and it turns out there was a substation there that was destroyed in 1906 [and rebuilt in 1907]. It was an electrical substation. The bricks in the Jewish Museum are from that substation. This thing called Jessie [Street Power Substation] was there underground. If you look at the square, it’s almost like holding the city—there’s something very strange and surreal about it.

Somehow I want to deal with what’s going on in the city, the displacement and everything else, in some way that’s not political verbiage. There are more tents going up everyday. More people living in their cars everyday. More people on the streets everyday.

RA: Do the solos represent a shift in the way you’ve worked in the past?

SSM: They’re completely different.

RA: So the process is a departure.

SSM: Completely. It’s all based on conversation.

RA: That wasn’t a dimension in the past?

SSM: Well, I’ve always had conversation, particularly with one person. I need to talk to somebody. But [in The Eye of Horus], that’s all there is. And it’s funny when I made the solo for Jorge…I asked Norman [Rutherford] to come to rehearsal…and he said, “Sara, so you want me to compose a score with no music, and you’ve now made a dance piece without any dance.” [laughs] And I had to get out there with Jorge, in order to get him [where I wanted him]. He wouldn’t do it; I had to get out there. And then Norman says, “Why don’t you do that?” So that’s how it started. He said, “Sara, it’s so fun, why don’t you do that?” So I remember I was sitting beside Keith [Hennessy] during [the premiere of] Jorge’s solo. And suddenly I get up. And Keith starts laughing! Because nobody expected I was going to do it.

That’s one of the things I find so impressive about the solos. They are so focused, so clear and sharp, not just formally but as an expression of the dancer’s particular qualities and temperament. Jorge, for example, danced like I’d never seen him.

SSM: That’s what everybody said. They were just shocked.

RA: And yet it was clearly, uniquely him.

SSM: [laughs] Yeah, you could see his mind! For me, it’s really interesting. It makes me wonder if this is it, you know? Then I think, why don’t I just make a dance piece again, or something—because I used to be so possessed with duets and contact and physical stuff. And these are solos!


Dancers’ Group/ONSITE Presents The Eye of Horus
April 24, 26, 28, 30 and May 3, 2014
12:30pm (all shows)
Jessie Square, btw. 3rd and 4th Streets, SF

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

Robert Avila is a San Francisco-based arts writer who has covered theater, dance, film and performance for the San Francisco Bay Guardian, American Theatre, San Francisco Chronicle, and other publications. He also writes at Since 2016, he works as director of communications at GLIDE.