Spectrum Dances: Emerging and Established Voices

at the Performance Loft, through August 26

By Kelly Kleiman

Portraits of intimacy, power, and freedom are more compelling in contemporary American dance than depictions of isolation, struggle, and confinement. At least that’s the inference one might draw from “Spectrum Dances: Emerging and Established Voices,” a showcase for three mentoring choreographers and their proteges. Perhaps this is because contemporary middle-class Americans have few external problems with which to struggle. Feelings of meaninglessness, however genuine, are amorphous, so battles with them resemble clawing at a spiderweb–hardly a basis for exciting dancing.

Embracing the sex-power-freedom trinity, Chicago Moving Company coartistic director Cindy Brandle provides the evening’s most exciting work. Duplicate features three women in black performing gorgeous angular moves to Moby’s rhythm-heavy techno music. My ability to describe this dance is in inverse relation to its quality. Sure, there are jumps and rolls; but where they are in space or in relation to the beat or to the other dancers’ movements is what makes the choreography work. Brandle is in complete control of these variables and confident enough to begin each dancer’s solo with a noticeable pause and a direct gaze at the audience. But the real key to her success is having the dancers partner each other, a choice absent from the rest of the program. While the other choreographers feature individual or ensemble work in unison, Brandle embraces one-on-one intimacy. This combined with the dancers’ powerful, confident strides and lifts and their free use of the stage, the music, and one another thrillingly reflect the possibilities of contemporary life.

Less jubilant but likewise exploring the intersection of autonomy and sexual expression is Anna Simone Levin’s solo An Accidental Dressing, splendidly danced by the choreographer, who’s artistic director of Same Planet Different World. First comes an elegant, comic tango with all the moves but none of the vulnerability of lovemaking. Then, after a blackout, Levin returns with her suggestive tango dress half off, failing to cover her underwear. To nightmarish music she spins and writhes, her tousled hair and dress alike conveying her confusion and shame. But then she recoups for a bold, energetic conclusion–replacing the tango’s cartoon of strength and sexuality with the real thing.

Dmitri Peskov’s 1938-1954 shows how compelling it can be to portray confinement when it’s imposed by an outside oppressor, not oneself. Commemorating his grandmother’s experience in Stalin’s labor camps, this piece at its best suggests Martha Graham’s work from the period Peskov describes. An eight-woman ensemble illustrates camp life through unison steps, circular floor patterns, angular reaches, and rolls reminiscent of Graham’s Depression-era protest dance Steps in the Street. It’s startling to see such political work today, but refreshing: this dance is about something other than our comfortable, familiar lives.

Peskov is one of the emerging choreographers (Levin is his mentor), but his relative inexperience shows in only a few areas. The piece is too long, as though he lacked the confidence to excerpt Shostakovich’s music, and sometimes too literal: it features breast-beating and other mimed gestures as well as the formation of a chain-gang line when the music alludes to “Song of the Volga Boatmen.” On these occasions 1938-1954 looks like a parody of Graham or of socialist realism. But that’s the risk one takes by being earnest in an age of irony: if you try to engage with the unspeakable, people might wish you’d never spoken. Yet the piece commands our emotional attention: embraces conveying solidarity alternate with chilling images of survivors staring blankly down at the fallen. Better overearnest than indifferent; better overambitious than trivial.

Triviality is the risk of a focus on confinement when the struggle is with oneself–even when the work is as clever and accomplished as Paula Frasz’s solo Lowering Clouds, performed here by Tracee Westmoreland. Garbed in white and dancing underneath a piece of white parachute silk, Westmoreland alternates fluid reaching movements with herky-jerky hesitations, repeatedly reaching the outer edges of the stage and then pulling back, balancing precariously as if she were looking into an abyss. All dance is a struggle with gravity, but Frasz makes us feel it. Ultimately, though, the dance seems gratuitous–what is this woman hesitating over? Why doesn’t she just stretch her wings and go? Such questions don’t reflect a failure of choreography as much as of theme: anomie isn’t an especially apt topic for a lively art.

The opening and closing dances on the program, both by emerging artists, demonstrate this problem more vividly because there’s less choreographic skill to conceal thematic weakness. Range by Tiffany Bowden-Van Cleaf (Brandle’s protege) is a meditation on home perhaps suggested by the convention of identifying dancers’ hometowns in program notes. Performed either in silence or to the six performers’ narrations of childhood memories, the work doesn’t convey anything. The movements are connected either too literally or not at all to the words being spoken. And we don’t know what confines these women to little fussy gestures and little tiny thoughts, so their reflections just make us impatient. It’s well danced, though, particularly by Diana Garcia-Snyder.

A similar failure of meaning troubles the finale, Westmoreland’s quartet Recollection. It begins with the dancers flailing around, though there’s no apparent reason for their movements to be futile. Similarly, the piece features women whispering to one another but never actually dancing together. Gingerly pursued pairings that don’t rise to the level of partnering alternate with sterile solos and conclude with an ensemble jig apparently more concerned with avoidance than engagement: all the dancers’ efforts seem directed at not stepping on the photos they’ve strewn around.

Mothers with shrieking children sometimes say, “I’ll give you something to cry about!” Unless contemporary dance has something to cry about–something real–it’s better off celebrating.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/George Tarbay.