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Guns, Unglorified in 'The Clay Duke'

The lights are on full strength at On the Boards, as a lithe blonde woman paces the stage, swaddled in a soft pink sweater and wracked by concentration. A handful of people are sprinkled in the theatre's seats as director/choreographer Dayna Hanson burns a trail across the stage. She's preparing for an open rehearsal of her new dance/theatre piece The Clay Duke, a heightened, hybrid work inspired by, of all things, a YouTube video.

In December 2010, Hanson's son showed her the newly posted video of a shooting, that had garnered one million views in the first week of posting. Earlier that month, 56-year-old Clay Duke, reportedly a bipolar ex-con and licensed massage therapist, walked into a school board meeting in Panama City, Florida, brandishing a gun. As he entered the room, Duke spray painted a giant V within a circle on the wall and instructed everyone but the board members to leave the room. He then turned his attention to the panel of men behind the dais. His wife had been fired from her teaching job, and their unemployment benefits had run out. After some bizarre, back-and-forth bargaining, Duke fires on the board, missing everyone. He's shot by a security guard, then shoots himself in the head. It's an odd scene, dramatic but uneventful, the last moments of a man's life spent in an utterly ineffectual dispensation of justice.

"I was fascinated by how human nature showed itself in the video," Hanson says, "And how these individuals behaved and related with one another during these bizarre and tragic last moments of one person's life." To explore this moment in human nature, Hanson assembled an ensemble of longtime collaborators and friends: dancers Wade Madsen and Peggy Piacenza, Thomas Graves of the Rude Mechs in Austin, Dave Proscia and Sarah Rudinoff.

"I love them each individually and I love how the room feels when all are engaged," says Hanson. "Each person is so utterly invested in this process and has so much intelligence, emotion, imagination, nuance and talent to give to the piece. The work really reflects the performers as much as the source material."

Over the last 18 months, Hanson and her team have recreated the physicality of the video and experimented with improvisation—precise attention to detail, tempered by fluid artistry. The resulting work is like a theme and variations, a moment looped and re-looped, examined and re-examined. Hanson's choreography melds with some of Duke's own words: "I'm gonna die today." "You fired my wife." References to the poor 95 percent, which Duke posted on a Facebook page created only a week before his death. Chekhov's treatment of suicide in his dramatic writing also infuses the work, as do the Death Wish films of the '70s and '80s (which explain the Charles Bronson references sprinkled throughout the piece).

"This source material is heavy and it has been challenging to remain light throughout the making of it," says Hanson. Amid the heartbreaking moments of physical connection and musical solitude, she mines absurdity: tap dancing, animal masks, a kennel, a moment when a female school board member whacked Duke with her purse, to almost comic effect. Crucially, Hanson is not giving answers. She's not making a statement on gun control, or mental illness. She's just looking, really looking, at a man and a moment.

"This is probably my most ambitious project to date," Hanson says. "Within this piece I am both undertaking new challenges in structure and content and trying to refine some of the things I think I do well. It is probably the most theatrical of all my work. Perhaps my next piece will be 'pure dance' but then I enjoy this hybrid form very much."

The Clay Duke runs Dec. 5-8 at On the Boards.

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