In a small studio on the top floor of the Rose Wagner Arts Center, director/choreographer Stephen Brown and cast member Payden Adams are rehearsing a scene from SB Dance's upcoming performance Surrenderella. Brown—a towering, muscular man wearing a CrossFit T-shirt and athletic shorts—hunches over a small laptop on the studio floor, following the script on its screen. Next to him lounges Adams, who—brushing a splash of bleached-blond bangs back from his forehead with a dramatic flourish—finishes another read-through of his lines.
"I think this needs to be a lot sexier," Brown says, as Adams, his face relaxing as he comes out of character, looks at Brown for approval. "What you are playing," Brown coaches, "is seduction. They're strapping it on, you're strapping it on them, and you're explaining kink."
Part dance company, part theater and—as Steven Brown likes to say—part circus, SB Dance, since its inception in 1996, refuses to be labeled. It has, however, earned a reputation for high-energy, creative and often provocative performances with sexy, mature-content themes. Most recently, there was 2014's The Pushers (based on punk rocker Patti Smith's memoir Just Kids about her relationship with her lover, photographer Robert Mapplethorpe) and 2012's Of Meat & Marrow (a Rocky Horror-esque journey into the afterlife). Now, Brown is upping the ante again with his latest adult-rated theatrical engagement, Surrenderella, an S&M Cinderella story.
"I like art that challenges people," says Brown, who names among his inspirations Trey Parker and Matt Stone of South Park, the "Mark Twains of our era." If, in Utah, that means talking about sex—the consensual, adult kind—that's what he's willing to do.
But, he stresses, talking about sex doesn't make his work experimental. "Experimental is shitting in a teacup," he retorts. "Our work is more in the realm of surrealism or abstract expressionism, certainly not the formalism that has ruled dance for many years. This is not art put on a pedestal. This will crawl up and get you."
The Surrenderella story, at least the basic components, will be pretty familiar to anyone who's seen the Walt Disney movie Cinderella. There's the protagonist, the Cinderella character, who, in this case is a man named Gus. There's a stepmother, two stepsisters, and a handsome prince. Gus has a fairy godmother and a special gown. Gus even goes to a ball—though it's not the kind of ball with curtsying and glass slippers.
The idea for Surrenderella's fetish focus developed, quite innocently, from Brown's desire to play with stage props. Built around a movement concept—a common starting point for his work, like the gurney table in Of Meat and Marrow—Surrenderella revolves around stage rigging, those rope—and—pully systems that can suspend an actor playing Peter Pan, or elongate a dancer's leap across an entire stage. Brown, who's always loved working with rigging, began playing with suspension-enhanced movement more than a year ago; from first idea to opening night, most of his productions take over a year to complete. These suspension-movement studies, he could tell, held a lot of creative potential.
Consistently, however, two problems plagued him: how to get the dancer in and out of the harness without scene changes, and how to explain the harness in a way that seemed natural. "I needed to hang the idea on something," says Brown, seemingly unaware of the pun he'd just made, "and kink works."
In a world where Fifty Shades of Grey is, sadly, most people's introduction to bondage, Brown says he wanted his production to accurately and positively portray the culture and tools of sadomasochism. "If you don't understand the consensual nature of S&M," he explains, "you don't understand anything about it."
For his research, Brown reached out to a local dominatrix. He also studied the work of poet and BDSM (bondage/discipline/sado-masochism) performance artist Bob Flanagan. Diagnosed as a child with cystic fibrosis, a painful and debilitating condition, Flanagan used acts of violent body manipulation to challenge culturally held ideas of pain and pleasure.
"What attracted me to the subject was that, on closer examination, fetishism and kink is really an act of courage," says Brown. "It occurred to me that, if I found I liked getting the shit spanked out of me, I wouldn't have the courage to explore that. I would suppress it. Not repressing that urge is heroic."
Brown also came away with an understanding of S&M as a form of physical communication—not a surprising interpretation, it seems, for a dancer. With his idea in place, Brown assembled his creative cast of actors and dancers, including Rick Santizo and Nathan Shaw (pictured), and crew, with lighting designer Jess Greenberg and rigging specialist Craig Berman. Together, the team has spent the past year-and-a-half creating this built-from-scratch original production: Surrenderella, a show about an unusual man named Gus who's not afraid to be himself. A man some might call a hero.
"We all make shows about heroes," Brown concedes, "but I find mine in odd corners."