On the Verge: Cocoon Central Dance Team

Welcome to our series On the Verge, where our contributors highlight comedians they feel are ready for their next big break. Whether they’re already working in television or still waiting to land their breakout gig, these are just some of the comedians we’d like to see more of over the coming years – ideally with a show, film, or other comedy project of their very own.

Physical comedy might seem antiquated to the laugh-seeking audiences of today, a rare form of humor committed to memory with the bygone greats known for having mastered it: The Marx Brothers, Lucille Ball, Buster Keaton. These remain our archetypal references for physical comedy, and no one seems particularly interested in updating them. That is save for one New York-based comedy trio: Cocoon Central Dance Team.

Tallie Medel, Eleanore Pienta, and Sunita Mani are rising stars in their own right. You’ve likely seen or heard of each of these women through their individual professional careers in TV and film: Medel and Pienta are both indie darlings, with starring roles in The Unspeakable Act and 7 Chinese Brothers, respectively; Mani’s notable credits are in the mainstream, most recently as Arti on Netflix’s GLOW. But it’s their growing notoriety as the Cocoon that inspires wonderment, in part because what they do as three can’t be summarily described. The best I can offer by way of explanation here is that it’s dance comedy-meets-performance art, but you try pitching that to a network executive.

“It’s parody, but it’s not,” Pienta says. “It’s funny, because when we do have to pitch something, it’s like, ‘Just watch. Just watch and you’ll see.’”

Medel, Pienta, and Mani met at Emerson College, where they performed together on sketch and improv teams. Each member hailed from small towns in Alaska, New York, and Tennessee, respectively, and each gradually put down roots in the Big Apple. There, they reunited on a whim as the “Cocoon Central Dance Team,” an interstitial dance comedy act for their friend’s variety show (The Moon, hosted by comedians Bob Walles and Nat Towsen) that would appear between standup acts.

“It was like the perfect palate cleanser for standup,” Mani recalls of their act. “And it was truly a spectacle.”

Indeed, what buoys this trio up among the teeming hordes of comics looking to “make it” in New York City is their spectacular approach to comedy. Inspired by their respective small town middle school dance teams, the women of Cocoon marry their graceful tondues, turns, and synchronized leaps with elaborate costume changes, grotesque facial acting, and constant check-ins with the audience. To watch them is to watch yourself watching them, a satirical celebration of the physical body at its most vaudevillian extremes, winking at you as it moves.

“It’s so presentational, like we’re making eye contact all the time, where maybe in modern or self-serious dance they’re not,” said Mani. “[They’re] not really approaching the fourth wall in the same way. And we just live there. We love it.”

Cocoon Central Dance Team has had long-running shows at the PIT, Ars Nova, UCB, and other NYC stages. They’ve also scored one-off gigs as characters on Seth Lind’s Cast Party and as choreographers for the opening ceremonies of the New York City Marathon. Recently, Cocoon premiered their first-ever feature film, Snowy Bing Bongs Across the North Star Combat Zone, at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s CinemaFest this past June. The film includes innumerable comedy cameos from the likes of Reggie Watts, Julio Torres, Kate Berlant, and Joe Pera, fellow New York-bred alt-comics whose work often defies the scope of network loglines and pitch meetings.  

Given their various successes and the nebulous space their work occupies, it is hard to imagine what the imminent “big break” will look like for Cocoon. A Comedy Central half-hour? A featured group role opposite [insert A-list actor] in the next summer blockbuster? A gig as the in-house transitional act on SNL? Personally, I could see all of these for the trio. I doubt their hilarity/sincerity hybrid has crossed a pair of eyes that didn’t claim love at first sight, so it’s merely a question of what the powers-that-be in programming are willing to option these days. Cocoon is at work on a pilot, so we can expect that much. But even with this nod from the industry, the trio deems success a matter of authorship, not viewership.

“The potential executive credit for us is insane,” Mani said. “It would be insane to be creators, actors, and writers. As in doing the thing, and being in control of it every step of the way. That’s the package.”

“But also wild to finally get paid for the work that we’ve been doing for free,” Pienta added. “Imagine!”

Photo by Mindy Tucker.

Sam Corbin is a Canadian writer and performer based in Brooklyn. Please direct all marriage offers to @ahoysamantha.

On the Verge: Cocoon Central Dance Team