Chicago Moving Company

at the Dance Center of Columbia College, through June 29

By Laura Molzahn

Seeing Nana Shineflug’s and Bob Eisen’s choreography on the same program was a shock. I’d always thrown them roughly together: they’re both Chicago vets, modern-dance choreographers who’ve been experimenting with and refining their visions for decades, carving out niches for themselves in a not-always-hospitable environment. But seeing their dances performed by the same people–Shineflug’s Chicago Moving Company–on the same night established the chasm that separates them.

Shineflug is an expressionist artist, Eisen abstract. Shineflug starts with a feeling, Eisen with an almost mathematical approach. In an interview in CMC’s most recent newsletter he detailed the method of composition for Park Works, his premiere on this program: to summarize, he created six phrases and six “circular” phrases based on them, and the eight dancers drew numbers to determine what they’d do with them. Given all the permutations–performing the phrases backward or forward, facing in different directions, and many other possibilities too numerous to mention–the dancers were going crazy, as Eisen admits. Then, in the truly mysterious part of the process, he “started playing with these sections, putting them together into longer pieces.” It’s as if the dancers were abstract elements of color or shape he collaged to achieve the look he wanted.

And that’s what Park Works resembles–a huge jigsaw puzzle of phrases cut up and put back together. Adding to its abstraction is Winston Damon’s score: sustained sounds separated by long periods of silence, neither noise nor silence bearing any relation to the dance. (The sounds themselves have a remarkable variety despite their superficial sameness–one is like a symphony heard from the hold of a great ship, another like looped machine-gun fire from a World War II movie, a third like a tuba note slowed way down.) At the same time Eisen’s shaped the material to create a kind of picture. Sections danced in unison, moments of stillness for all eight performers, and sidelining some of them so that only one or two are center stage provide respite from the chaos. He’s also included some gestural phrases that stick out like buoys from choppy water: dancers embracing or gazing into each other’s eyes or kneeling and putting their palms together as if in prayer. Neither ironic nor straightforwardly emotional, these gestures too come across as abstract, lacking any of the meaning we normally give them.

Perhaps as part of his drive toward abstraction, Eisen directs the dancers to show no affect–whereas in Shineflug’s new work, Bach Suites, they usually smile and sometimes grin and almost laugh. If Shineflug starts with a feeling, in this dance it’s joy, tempered by the deep, mournful sound of the cello on which Bach’s music is played. It’s as if we were hearing some large, ungainly animal wheeze into jollity.

Bach Suites made me think of buoyancy, a resilience that comes partly from the support of others. In the first image six dancers take their positions in a tableau of falling, each arrested by another dancer in the act. At the end of the first section they reassume their positions and actually do fall. It’s as if Shineflug were reassuring us that falling isn’t fatal–this is a world of fulfillment, where if one person is momentarily partnerless while others embrace, she soon gains a partner. The dance itself is orderly, with a clear structure: a gigue that features Wendy Taylor, a saraband in which Holly Quinn and Eileen Sheehan establish the piece’s low, dark note. But the stability Shineflug envisions is most apparent in the image that closes her own solo: she stands legs wide, arms wide, looking up, grounded but not stationary. Most of Shineflug’s power seems to lie in her upper body, but she makes the shifting impulses for movement crystal clear, and by the end of her solo she’s more expressive of the music than many of the younger, quicker dancers.

I first saw Shineflug’s Crash & Burn at the Blue Rider Theatre last fall. I loved it in that space but was skeptical about how it would come across at the Dance Center: it drew on the Blue Rider’s small thrust stage, irregular shape, odd little balcony at the rear, and looming brick walls. But not to worry: lighting designer, set designer, and all-around wizard Ken Bowen transforms the rather dull Dance Center space using gigantic projections of brick facades and the el, installing toeholds on a wall, building a slanted board as stand-in for the Blue Rider’s stage door, and creating stark, high-contrast lighting that makes the Dance Center’s black box seem a cavernous, nightmarish warehouse, the perfect spot for stalking and murder.

Crash & Burn is at the opposite end of the feeling spectrum from Bach Suites: Shineflug told me last fall that she made it in response to angry feelings about her own life at the time. The movement is harsh, abrupt, and thrusting; the dancers’ occasional embraces feel desperate, and we’re not so much soothed by them as made anxious because Shineflug emphasizes the way they end, usually with one person pushing the other away. But most affecting is the inherent violence and physical danger of the movement. One woman who’d climbed the wall was thrown to the floor so aggressively I expected to hear her cry. Dancers are dropped and shoved. And in one section the dancers throw bricks to (at?) one another.

But though the feelings Shineflug expresses in Crash & Burn are very different from the benevolence of Bach Suites, the dance is recognizably hers. Part of the resemblance is the resilience both pieces convey: people keep climbing the walls in Crash & Burn no matter how many times they’re pulled off. Even more important, these dances–Bach Suites in particular–look like Shineflug. Maybe I’ve been reviewing dance too long, because as I watched the six dancers who were not Shineflug in Bach Suites I kept seeing her doing the movement. And the same for Eisen’s piece: I kept seeing Bob’s stiff arms and sudden leaps.

Which calls to mind a quarrel I have with modern dance: the way choreographers shape dancers in their own images. (When I was taking modern classes I started to resent being criticized for not duplicating the teacher’s energy and line.) Part of this shaping involves directing the dancers to smile or not smile–both of which may be false to their natures and feelings. And lately I find I want to know what those are–I’m increasingly interested in the individual dancer’s contribution to the movement, especially when he or she is seasoned or naturally idiosyncratic, as Quinn, Sheehan, Taylor, and Robbie Cook are. It’s true that Shineflug’s an expressionist and Eisen an abstractionist, but each also occupies the much smaller niche of himself or herself. And confinement to that niche, though it may be necessary, isn’t necessarily desirable.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo of Chicago Moving Company by William Frederking.