Jon Mueller’s Death Blues (No Time Like The Present) at Alverno College
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During Molly Shanahan’s deliberate, frantic, silent dance performance at Alverno College’s Pitman Theatre on Friday night, a pair of equally silent spectators began to giggle nervously, staring at the floor trying desperately not to disturb the event. The reason? A bug had crept out onto Shanahan’s path, and the audience members who noticed seemed to be mentally taking bets on whether or not it would avoid the dancer’s precision choreography or meet a barefooted demise. A distraction on the surface, perhaps, but if the point of Jon Mueller’s Death Blues (No Time Like The Present) was to heighten sensory awareness of the here and now, the six-legged party crasher could officially be considered part of the performance.
Mueller’s multi-sensory exploration of time and presence enthralled some and baffled others (including a few who walked out of Friday’s performance), but no one could deny that it delivered on sensory overload, starting with a trio of confections from pop-up restaurant And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Crumbs. Each treat (a jelly, a sponge cake, and a brittle, each intended to represent the layers of a first kiss, an apology, or life ambition) exploded with a jumble of sweet, spicy, and who-knows-what-the-hell-else that stuck with the audience throughout the nearly two-hour performance. After a walk through Dylan Schleicher’s maze (scented with Adirondack Aromatherapy perfumes and peppered with mysterious singing druids), the crowd made its way to the backstage of the Pitman Theatre, where Shanahan began what felt like a half hour of completely silent interpretive dance.
Shanahan’s tense, measured movements, delivered with an agitated intensity and featuring several repeated sequences, seemed to represent a frenetic desire to break the cycles of everyday existence—a discomfort with “comfortable” routine. If so, the length of the piece drove home the discomfort, as the still-silent audience certainly had their patience tested. But perhaps discomfort and challenging the audience were part of the point. (Isn’t it usually when it comes to modern art?) After all, we’re the most alive when pushed outside our comfort zones, and as Mueller drives home in his Death Blues manifesto, this show is about being truly alive and aware in the moment.
As anyone who has seen Mueller perform in his old bands Pele or Collections Of Colonies Of Bees could attest, he seems most alive when drumming. So it logically followed that the show hit its stride with the Death Blues band, a droney post-rock study in repetition and intensity delivered by an all-star combo featuring members of Testa Rosa, Altos, Field Report, Juniper Tar, and more. The 35-minute set stomped and pounded with guitar percussion, upright bass, and male/female chanting, all held together with Mueller’s always compelling, calculated beats. Just as the music settled into a steady theme with little variation, the curtain behind the band rose to reveal a hidden chorus bathed in blinding white light, once again jarring the audience out of a repetition-induced trance.
Death Blues as performed at Alverno College was equally intense, enthralling, challenging, thought provoking, and to some, trying. But love it or hate it, it excelled at using powerful sensory moments to disrupt inertia and call attention to the here and now. Whether it was the sudden appearance of a backing choir after 35 minutes of drone, an unexpected explosion of confectionary flavor, or something as simple as a crawling bug distracting from a modern dance, Death Blues was about a series of moments designed to call attention to the importance of the moment. Whether the 100 people in the audience were reveling in that moment or fleeing from it, they couldn’t deny that they were soaking in it.