In one of the most riveting moments of After The Curtain, the new show from the dance company Shaping Sound, a man looks into a dressing room mirror lined with lights. Is that confusion on his face? Fear? As we try to figure it out, another man, dressed exactly like the first, bursts through the mirror, clutching and grabbing at him. The two break into an intense dance duet, sometimes doing the same lithe, frenzied moves, sometimes battling one another. There's no dialogue, so we have to infer everything from their movements. But as the dance progresses it becomes clear that this second man that burst from the mirror is an alter-ego or demon hidden somewhere inside the first. They push and pull at one another, trying to gain an advantage, but they seem evenly matched.
That's just one of the dramatic, moody set pieces in After The Curtain, a show that takes us onstage and behind the scenes of a 1930s cabaret. Actually, it's a show within a show, with performers in elaborate costumes dancing for their imaginary audience (and the real one), and then retreating backstage for moments of joy, pain, and reflection, all expressed through intense, emotional dance pieces.
It's the third show produced by Shaping Sound, a company formed by Artistic Director Travis Wall (runner up on the 2006 edition of the Fox network's competitive dance show So You Think You Can Dance and Emmy-winning choreographer), dancer/choreographer Nick Lazzarini (winner of Season One of SYTYCD), choreographer Teddy Forance, and dancer Kyle Robinson.
"Basically, Shaping Sound is a commercial contemporary dance company that we started in 2011," Lazzarini says. "We wanted a place to perform and show our creativity and our choreography, and we knew that it was something that we had to do ourselves if we wanted to get our work out there. This is the fifth year we've been on tour and we're more popular than ever, which is crazy for a dance show."
Most of the time, shows like After The Curtain are largely choreographed by one person, but Lazzarini says that teamwork is the name of the game in Shaping Sound. "What's special is the fact that we collaborate," he says. "Not just among the founding members of the company, but we collaborate with our dancers."
Part of that collaboration comes from necessity. All of Shaping Sound's shows have been planned and rehearsed in very small windows of time.
"We never have enough time," Lazzarini says with a laugh. "When we created our very first show five years ago, I think we had 20 days to do it. That's 20 days of rehearsal before we went out touring. For After The Curtain (which launched early in 2017), we had four four-day weeks in January, and three in February to create this show. We were still finishing things five minutes before we went onstage."
That's where the trust comes in between the dancers, producers, and choreographers. "We have a lot do to in a very short amount of time, so there's a lot of multi-tasking," he says. "And there's a lot of trust that we have in our dancers. We can go away from the group and work on what we need to work on and then come back together as a collective and edit and simplify and make it all work within the parameters of the show."
Lazzarini is both a dancer and a choreographer in Shaping Sounds' shows, and while that might seem like too much work for one person, he says that having other eyes on him is helpful. "If I was doing this by myself, it would be harder," he says. "When you have other people watching something, plus a rehearsal director who sits in the house every night and watches, plus the whole company watching it on our bus ride and making notes, it's easier to make sure that you're doing the right things."
There's a definite story being told in After the Curtain, but Lazzarini is reluctant to give too many details. "It's set in the 1930s, and it takes place in this old-style cabaret nightclub where you see the show as an audience member," he says. "Then we flip the perspective of our set pieces and our props, and we do a lot of cool things with lighting where it looks like we've transitioned to an offstage world, where you see the inner workings of the company and the members of the company and how we're all interconnected, and there's a lot of things that go on in the one night we see in this show. Without giving too much away, I will say that it's a love story, and a very beautiful one."
That love story is told entirely through movement, with some very specific motions that are based in sign language. "The dancing is high impact, but it's also very theatrical," Lazzarini says, "because we're telling a story through dance. As a dancer, you're always trying to tell stories while you're onstage. We did a lot of research on sign language; we took phases of the music and learned how to speak them in sign language and approached those hand movements by using our bodies. We bridged that gap between sign language and dance and melted it together to find some really cool language through our movement."