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Punch Line

If you’ve ever laughed at the wrong moment, or at a joke that wasn’t funny, or to break the tension, then you will appreciate the theme of Shannon Gillen’s “Punch Line,” performed by the physical dance theater group Vim Vigor, that opened the Gibney performance 2023-24 season in September. Gillen’s storytelling skill shines in the full-length work, with both physical theater sketches that show off the company’s highly tuned acting chops, and sections of unruly, cathartic movement.

Performance

Vim Vigor: “Punch Line” choreographed by Shannon Gillen and Jason Cianciulli

Place

Gibney Theatre, Studio H, New York, NY, September 28, 2023

Words

Karen Hildebrand

Vim Vigor in “Punch Line” by Shannon Gillen. Photograph by Alice Chacon

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Dressed in black—jeans, hoodies, and sneakers—the three performers, Gillen, Jason Cianciulli , and Tzveta Kassabova, are onstage throughout the show, along with a mic stand and corded microphone set up at stage left. The storytelling begins with a voiceover monologue written by Gillen that takes a “you,” back in time: “In the beginning there is so much time”; “a car door mistakenly closed on a hand”; “the smell of campfires”; “the way your name feels in your mouth.” Jump cut to the three performers jammed one behind the other, approaching the microphone with exaggerated trepidation. Cue the recorded sound of a crowd cheering. The three then proceed to riff as if they were monkeys exposed to some new object. They toss the mic back and forth like a hot potato, dangle it from the cord like a pendulum. At one point it becomes a stethoscope magnifying a heartbeat. There’s a gag where the mic works for Ciancuilli but not for Gillen. A slow motion moment features requisite sound distortion. The mic crackles, it pops. 

The context is stand-up comedy. We, the real live audience, stand in for nightclub patrons clustered in café tables around the stage, cocktail waitress leaning over our shoulders. The staging moves between physical comedy sketches at the microphone—more absurd than slapstick—and sections of pure animal movement driven by martial art influenced contact partnering. I was riveted by these three as dancers, their full-bodied commitment to brushing up to the edge of danger. I could sense the panther of Cianciulli as his body pulsed in readiness when Kassabova suddenly flings herself through the air toward him. He smoothly flips her over his shoulder; she immediately rebounds from behind to slide between his legs. He pulls her up from the floor and whips her into a Lindy dancelike swing, the two never losing physical contact. As they twist and turn, they become entwined as a single ball of energy—a tumbleweed tossed around by the wind. 

Vim Vigor in “Punch Line” by Shannon Gillen. Photograph by Alice Chacon

The dancers deftly move between this kind of contact partnering and unison work, all of it athletic. Lit by Jess Fialko their black apparel blended with the background leaving the flesh of their ankles, hands, and faces to glow. It was like watching LED lights blinking on and off as they interacted. 

In one well-timed bit, Ciancuilli points the mic onto the top of his head and we hear the song lyrics, “Raindrops keep falling on my head.” When he moves the mic away, his voice goes mute. He repeatedly moves and removes the mic to and from various body parts while the song hiccups. It had the effect of channel surfing on an old car radio.

With each successive sketch, a kind of narrative piles up. A terrible joke is introduced and we get our first experience of laughing when it isn’t funny. I chuckled at the absurdity of the setup and so did those around me. See, Gillen is saying, this is what I’m talking about. “Punch Line’s” theatrical moments are never static. In this case, three wooden stools appear, posted diagonally across the stage. The dancers hop on and over the stools, go upside down on the seat, toss them back and forth like circus jugglers, and audibly stomp the legs to the floor. The stools complicate the risk in quite a nice way. If I found myself jonesing for even more danger—that split-section possibility the dancers would crash that heightens the rush when it all works out—blame it on our cultural moment and the relentless disaster news media cycle. To know these dancers came within a hair of total collapse—saved in the micro blink of an eye—might give me hope for our real life prospects. Perhaps we could all benefit from the kind of training these Vim Vigor artists impart at University of Michigan where the Juilliard trained Gellen is an associate professor. Before founding Vim Vigor in 2015, she danced for Johannes Wieland at the Staatstheater Kassel in Germany. The contact partnering of “Punch Line” reminds me of aikido, where the assaulted uses the force of their attacker to redirect the energy. And the acting skill that is part of the training serves not only the theatrical moments, it enhances the expression of the dancing bodies.

Vim Vigor in “Punch Line” by Shannon Gillen. Photograph by Alice Chacon

For the finale, the mood deepens. Dance and theater blends together to create the scene of a birthday party, referencing back to an earlier story in which Gillen talks about her eighth birthday. This time it’s a 30th birthday, celebrated with a bouquet of mylar balloons that morphs into a funny moment of aliens trying to plant a tiny flag on the seat of a stool. That campfire mentioned in the opening monologue now exists centerstage with Cianfilli lying under a space blanket that when scrunched gives the magical effect of glowing hot coals. At the end, the character has died and the space blanket and balloons transform into the spirit leaving the body. Inventive, witty, and uniquely moving, if Vim Vigor and “Punch Line” is reflective of series curator Nigel Campbell’s taste, it bodes well for what’s to come. 

Karen Hildebrand


Karen Hildebrand is former editorial director for Dance Magazine and served as editor in chief for Dance Teacher for a decade. An advocate for dance education, she was honored with the Dance Teacher Award in 2020. She follows in the tradition of dance writers who are also poets (Edwin Denby, Jack Anderson), with poetry published in many literary journals and in her book, Crossing Pleasure Avenue (Indolent Books). She holds an MFA from the Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College. Originally from Colorado, she lives in Brooklyn.

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