In their new film, Snowy Bing Bongs Across the North Star Combat Zone, the ladies of Cocoon Central Dance Team execute the daintiest fart joke I’ve ever seen. Sunita Mani, Tallie Medel, and Eleanore Pienta stretch out luxuriously on a soundstage beach, their graceful movements undercut by exaggerated sound effects like head scratching, the squelching of a sunscreen bottle, and the gurgle of Medel’s stomach. In perfect coordination, the three women turn on their backs and stick their butts in the air as they toot. So often “physical comedy” translates to just falling down a lot or pretending to get hurt. Cocoon Central Dance Team shows that the body can do so much more: it can bend, kiss, carry other bodies, and yes, fart.
Cocoon Central Dance Team has been making a name for themselves in the New York comedy world, appearing on Gentrify! Brooklyn at UCB, the Museum of Modern Art, and Sasheer Zamata Party Time! Snowy Bing Bongs is their film about alien sheep (the titular bing bongs) who fight malevolent beach balls. The film weaves sketch, dance, and animation together to create a very colorful and avante garde experience, a sort of Pina’s Playhouse aesthetic. It’s available for streaming on Topic.com now.
Where did you three meet?
Sunita: We met at Emerson pretty early on, in 2004, but we didn’t really start dancing together as Cocoon in New York until around 2009.
Tallie: We did become friends in college through dancing. That was something that really united us as buds. If there was ever a dance party somewhere, we were truly obsessed with watching each other dance and dancing together.
Eleanore: Through dance and also comedy. Because I thought both of these ladies were two of the funniest people I’ve met. We were all kind of in awe of each other. We were kind of like magnets toward each other from the get-go, am I right ladies?
Tallie: Oh yeah, girl!
Sunita: You are right, bitch!
The world of dance is often so serious, and the world of comedy is so often “I am a brain with a mouth, and the rest of my body doesn’t matter.” How do you carve out a space for something that wasn’t already there, in a comedy scene or in a dance scene?
Eleanore: Pretty much it was the attraction to each other, that physicality, and also humor. So it came really organically. Because we love so much to dance, but we also don’t take ourselves too seriously. So we would watch each other move and then try to do each other’s moves. And on each other’s bodies, the moves would always be different, and fun, and funny. That was such a fun thing to explore.
Sunita: At the time, we had so much joy and innocence about comedy. We filled in a space very confidently. We knew we could improvise, we knew we were sketch comedians. But we filled in the vaudeville niche very organically, very easily. That space always existed, I just think it was our joy and carelessness—obviously we cared a lot, but we didn’t try to label it too quickly, or we didn’t try to think about it. We just did it, and it was a very much needed space to be filled. Especially coming up through some of the UCB world, and that being very much the “brain and talking,” we bring the physical absurdity that is more intuitive and natural.
Tallie: As far as having a literal space that was given to us after we arrived in New York, we were given a slot on every Moon Show, that was created by Bob Walles and Nat Towsen. They invited Cocoon to perform at their first show. And we had a place to perform every two weeks. Literally that was just given to us, and it was very clear: “Now, here are the dancers!” Anyone who came to the show was able to take it at face value. Bookers or people who came to the show and had their own show, if they liked us they were able to just have us. We spread throughout Brooklyn and New York without really having to have an introduction.
Eleanore: And in that way, because the context was a variety show, and usually a comedic variety show. It was a comedy show, and how many times is she going to say comedy show, am I right?
Tallie: That’s Eleanore for you.
Eleanore: Comedy show comedy show comedy show, I’m fucking obsessed! Because we were booked in these predominantly comedy contexts, having movement was such a refresh for the audiences. People wanted to book us because it was so refreshing for the audience. They didn’t have to pay attention to what someone was saying, they could just watch and be ensconced in our movement!
Tallie: Our hips!
Eleanore: My God, our hips!
That leads me to an odd question: What do you guys like about having bodies?
Sunita: That’s a great question.
Eleanore: I love that question. I’m gonna simmer in it for a minute.
Tallie: Me too.
I just think it’s rare for women to actually have joy in their physical bodies. They’re a problem to be solved. And the way that you dance is about celebrating the body – the things it can do and also grossness, and the yucky things of the body are also a source of joy.
Eleanore: I just want to tell this anecdote that Tal and Su are probably sick of. One of the first times I saw Tallie perform was this improv show at Emerson. She just got on stage, lifted her shirt up, and stuck out her belly. It was so bold and unapologetic. I fell in love with her because it gave no shits.
In terms of physical comedy, and just physicality, I love what you can tell with your body without saying words. I sometimes have a hard time with language, and so I use my body to speak. It’s so powerful, and it’s so much fun to have this physical language with two other ladies who are bold and excited about how bodies can be gross, bodies can be sexy, bodies can be ______. That language and exploration of it is so much fun.
Tallie: Wow, she did it.
Sunita: That was wonderful. I don’t even know if this is worth…I’m just going to talk too.
Eleanore: I want to hear it!
Tallie: You’re worth it, Sunita!
Sunita: Thanks, guys. There are so many boundaries with touch, with having a body and taking up space. It’s such a mental thing, too. I feel so blessed to have a physically functioning body that can travel space, travel boundaries. I think we’ve all been through a long journey with our bodies, feeling different things, feeling different genders. I feel like I’ve had a lot of physical changes that have changed the way I view myself, because I am the one living in this portal. But I love that we, with our bodies, get to break down certain barriers. We take up space and touch each other. I feel like it’s really important, the dynamic we have. My favorite part is how physically affectionate we are with one another. It feels really strengthening, even though we’re really soft towards each other. My body is very fluid. It is a very transportive thing to break boundaries. Touch is a very important part of that, even though it’s scary sometimes. I feel very grateful to have the sense of touch with Cocoon. Touch is a factor in so many things, it’s such a spectrum of love and respect. That’s such a fun medium to work in, in a moving sculptural way, like it’s Play-Doh. It’s so fun and it comes so naturally.
Tallie: We are all from very small towns and grew up dancing at the small town dance studios. And I think that informed our dance vocabulary, but also the ways in which we perceive ourselves as dancers. We all know that we are not professional dancer-dancers, but that we are dancing because we love it so much. We have a true and profound regard for people like Pina Bausch or Trisha Brown – choreographers who are really excellent at what they do and made dance the world that it is. But we are also just doing dance because we love it, we’re not trying competitively to get into any sort of company or tour. We just like it so much. So that freed us up in a lot of ways to dance. We’re not intimidated by dancing in the ways we could have been if we were students at ABT. We dance because we have to, because it’s so much fucking fun. And then also our love for music informs the way we treat our own bodies. We just want to throw ourselves on the floor, or throw each other over a chair because we love music so much. Our bodies get to be a vessel for A$AP Rocky.
Body perception-wise, we didn’t mean for Cocoon to be such a feminist statement when we started, it was just a thing that we were doing to make ourselves happy. Now I can see that it’s a very feminist statement to be like, “Here we are, look at us. You can’t touch us. We’re going to look at you, and we’re gonna fart on you, too! And we’re gonna make ourselves look all wet! Whaddya think about that? And now I’m gonna slap her. Don’t touch!” I feel really lucky that our relationship to dance as dancers is passion-based. Did I talk for like an hour?
Sunita: That was perfect!
Eleanore: To piggyback on what you both were saying, just in terms of the ever-changing body, and in the context of dance comedy, we have a certain set of boundaries because we didn’t study professionally. And that itself is such a gift. I have hip problems. And to be making things with your best friends—who obviously care about you and if you can’t do a move, will be flexible to that—is so profound. And then we end up making it funny because of those limitations. Having our language informed by our limitations is exciting. The limit doesn’t stop us, it only makes us grow.
How do you start the choreography process? Is it a song, or a gesture, or a character?
Sunita: I feel like it starts with the studio itself. When we walk into it, just having a space with mirrors and a hardwood floor. The studio brings out a personality in us, so it’s like going to church. We go to our favorite place, put on a song and just feel. It starts with a feeling, from a song or like “Guys, it’s summer! Don’t you just want to eat popsicles?”
Sunita: It can come from a very emotive place, like the song of the summer or a favorite song. Or it can be very small, like from a gesture, some physical delight that just tickles us into oblivion. Then we’ll try to figure out a narrative, if it needs a narrative. But often it’s “Let’s just explore this movement and see what happens.”
Eleanore: Yeah, often the characters will come from a movement.
Sunita: The best example of this “Love on Top.” We heard that song, and thought “This sounds like a Diet Coke commercial.” And we became those ladies, who are like “TGIF, amirite????” That one sort of wrote itself, especially with the false exists. That’s what so funny about that song.
Tallie: That song won’t end, the keys keep changing.
Eleanore: It’s so funny, Beyonce is funny.
That’s an extremely hot take. People don’t usually think of Beyonce as funny.
Eleanore: I’m going to tell you a secret. I went to a Beyonce show and she was amazing. That’s not the secret. She picked her wedgie and wank at the audience. I said “wank” to mean the past tense of “wink.” The past tense of “wink” is “wank” in my dictionary. She picked her wedgie and winked at the audience, she’s so fucking funny.
Tallie: Wow, she’s going to be really happy to hear this from her best friends, Suni and Eleanore and Tallie.
Eleanore: The actual secret is that we’re all best friends with Beyonce.
Photo by Mike Dempsey.
Check out Snowy Bing Bongs Across the North Star Combat Zone over at Topic.com.