Shut Up and Dance at 20: A cause shows it has legs

The cast of Shut Up and Dance, a benefit for MANNA. The show goes on Saturday.
The cast of Shut Up and Dance, a benefit for MANNA. The show goes on Saturday. (Photo by CANDICE DeTORE)
Posted: March 20, 2012

Two decades ago, after the Pennsylvania Ballet lost a beloved member to AIDS, the company's dancers staged a one-night-only benefit to support an organization they all believed in - a young organization called MANNA, which delivered meals to those with HIV/AIDS.

Twenty benefits later, Shut Up and Dance has become for many the feel-good performance of the year.

Michael Sheridan, a Pennsylvania Ballet alum, current staffer, and cofounder who helped establish the benefit's traditions, said the first performance was May 15, 1993, at the Trocadero on Arch Street. It raised $1,200.

The second, on a frigid January night in 1994, became legend. "There was no heat in the back, the pipes broke, the toilets were frozen over," Sheridan recalled.

He performed in a piece called Dig by Terry Beck, with dancers Christine Cox and Nick Stuccio. "We really loved this piece, but there was dirt on the stage that was part of it, and there was no running water to get cleaned up. There was also a drop-off . . . and I fell, so I was dirty and bleeding and we felt like it was a disaster - but we had fun anyway."

Since then, Shut Up and Dance has become a symbol of HIV/AIDS awareness and activism, raising upwards of $100,000 annually and attracting an audience of dance enthusiasts and members of the city's vibrant GLBT community.

This year, many of its dancers are performing in Pennsylvania Ballet's production of Messiah, finishing the day of class and rehearsal, then going immediately back into the studio to learn new choreography for the benefit.

Company soloist Ian Hussey is both performing and directing, after having assisted veteran Jonathan Stiles for several years. He said dancers now are used to the time crunch: "We fit it in somehow, and always in the last couple of weeks it snaps together - that's part of the fun."

After a drop in attendance in recent years, Hussey led a pub crawl earlier this month with stops at Woody's and Knock, two popular gay bars, to get the anniversary message out. The response pleased him: "I was really surprised that there was still so much support in the community about it."

Of the passing of the director's baton from Stiles to himself, he said, "Jonathan and I thought it was a good time for me to direct and to look to the future.

"The great thing about this is that it started out with Nick Stuccio, Leslie Carothers, Michael Sheridan, and other incredible dancers, and it was their generation that built it to what it has come to represent . . . . Then it was entrusted to the next generation with David Krensing, Matt Neenan, Amanda Miller, Tara Keating and others, who really expanded it.

"Now these young dancers, who don't really know what it represented in the beginning, find out and are completely inspired by this wonderful tradition."

The 2012 choreographer list includes veterans Neenan, Meredith Rainey, and Brian Sanders, and emerging talents Alexandra Hughes, Alex Ratcliffe-Lee, Amy Holihan, Enza DePalma, Eric Trope, Evelyn Kocak, and Alyson Pray.

The benefit samples trends in contemporary classical dance, from classical ballet to pure abstract movement to dance-bar trends. The cast of two dozen is about half the company roster, including the junior Pennsylvania Ballet II.

Shut Up is famous for dazzling opening numbers, from Disney characters dancing amok, to incarnations of Martha Graham, to Meredith Rainey lip-synching the prison number from Chicago in a black sequined minidress. Hussey, tight-lipped about this year, says only, "Our opening is always collaboration with the dancers and choreographers, so it will be exciting . . . . We're still putting it together."

Last week, Richard Keaveney, chief executive officer of MANNA since 2005, spoke of the nonprofit's special relationship with the dancers: "It's so unusual that performers from a premier arts organization have collaborated for two decades, do[ing] something so powerful for a premier social service in the city.

"My colleagues around the country that run similar services are so envious of this event."

MANNA has expanded its services beyond HIV/AIDS clients, its original purpose, to cover many debilitating or life-threatening diseases, including cancer and diabetes. It serves nine counties seven days a week and estimates it delivers 800,000 free meals a year. It also works with clients to engineer specific diet strategies to combat illness, and counsels families.

On any given day, 75 volunteers are working with administrative staff to keep things moving. Keaveney said, "The client list is in flux at all times. When we expanded the facility and mission to include other illnesses, we made the commitment to provide all nutritional needs," he said. So now we're a seven-day operation, producing about 900,000 meals in a year."

MANNA's capitalization for direct services stayed ahead of the financial meltdown that affected other services, particularly HIV/AIDS service organizations. "We built a war chest, but this year we will be using about $1 million of that." Still, he said, "there will be no cutback on services."

He credits Hussey for keeping the spirit of the mission going for younger dancers who weren't aware of how HIV/AIDS was devastating the arts community 20 years ago. "There is that relationship between a one-night-only performance and the work that we do all year. Ian is such an exceptional dancer and he has had such passion for this cause."

Keaveney said that this year, MANNA will have the programmed pieces presented "In memory of . . . ." The entire performance will honor MANNA's seven founders, all of whom will be in the audience.

"For so many years," he said, the benefit performances had us laughing, and crying . . . for clients who died, or cheering when their weight went up and they started feeling better or were able to go back to work."

Michaela Majoun, WXPN radio host, has emceed the show for much of its existence and says it's always exciting. "Apart from other artistic endeavors or fund-raisers is the seamless melding of the art with the support of the most basic service to people in our community . . . feeding them when they're ill. I love the humor the dancers bring to many of the performances. And . . . the remembrance of the dancers who were lost to AIDS," she said in an e-mail.

Whatever else ends up onstage, one classic is always included: Mikhail Fokine's "Dying Swan" from The Carnival of the Animals to Saint-Saƫns' music, made famous by ballerina Anna Pavlova. Despite many other adaptations, it belongs to - and audiences really want to see - luminous principal dancer Arantxa Ochoa, who said it is one of her most cherished stage moments.

"I want to say the first time was 2004, as the most memorable for me, because it was such a different evening . . . . The moment I stepped onstage, you could hear a raindrop, it was so silent. Then when I finished, it was like a rock concert.

"Going through the emotions, you know the audience is there for a special reason . . . . It has an energy like no other performance. It's symbolic of the last moments of a swan's life, and I dance it in memory of the people that we have lost. For this evening, this cause."

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