at Cahn Auditorium, Northwestern University

August 17 and 18

We tend to associate certain characteristics with certain countries. The Germans are steadfast, pondering, and dour. They deal with cosmic issues and explore the darker side of the psyche. The French are chic, fashionable, sophisticated, and preoccupied with romance. The Japanese are industrious, adaptable, polite to a fault, respectful of their elders and of tradition. Americans are direct about their feelings, sometimes to the point of bluntness. They want the facts out in the open, want to know who and what they’re dealing with; but once business is over, they want to be entertained.

I was curious to see whether these concepts would apply during International Night at the American Jazz Dance World Congress ’90, which featured companies from Germany, Japan, France, and the United States. And despite a few minor surprises, the companies’ pieces did seem consistent with these expectations. What kept them from being boring was that many had enough innovation to provide the “astonishment” that Diaghilev was so fond of. (“Surprise me,” he said to Cocteau when the latter asked him what he’d like to see him do.)

The highlight of the first evening’s program was Masashi and Action Machine, from Japan. Choreographer and artistic director Kukimo Sakamoto’s high-powered The Seven Gods innovatively combined traditional Japanese hand gestures, poses, and circus acrobatics with the movements and sensibilities of jazz dance. The eclecticism of the piece extended even to the costumes. The black outfits suggested kyogen, the characters in No theater who bustle about “invisibly” adjusting everyone’s kimonos; but they were updated with sexy strapless tops. In another section of the dance, the preoccupation with contrasting colors, which characterizes not only Japanese theater but Japanese calligraphy and prints, emerged in the contrasts between the dancers’ white masks, the black costumes, and the deep red lighting.

The work’s first scene combined the two styles of dance: a typical jazz or tap lineup of dancers with their backs to the audience, hands shooting out as they about-faced to the audience, became a beautiful lotus-flower shape by the time the lights went up to reveal their faces. To the side, a lone jazz dancer tumbled like a Japanese circus acrobat. Most spectacular was the same dancer’s sudden somersault through the air over the heads of the others. This company danced with verve and a sheer natural joy–really getting down when they did jazz, serene and meditative in brief, graceful bursts of traditional hand gestures.

Compagnie Rick Odums, named after its artistic director, is from Paris. The women’s costumes in Houston were memorable, featuring abstract flecks and colorful shapes on black leotards with slashes of exposed flesh. And the red lighting was smoky and romantic for the first duet, a sexy apache dance with most of the threat gone out of it. What was left was a confrontational element that spiced up the sultry partnering. Their bantering encounter, with some impressive gymnastics and one-handed lifts, suggested the acrobatics of the bedroom, but it seemed more a one-night stand than a great romance.

In contrast to the smoldering slowness of the first section in Houston, the second had a quick Afro-Caribbean beat and lots of fast turns, jazzy hip swiveling, and arms shooting up or out. It was a party for the three women and two men who danced it. The third section was an overlong solo that gave the dancer an opportunity to show off an impressive technique. The fourth section, after an all-too- brief innovative opening with the dancers’ backsides turned to the audience, evolved into a conventional partnering dance: snippets of duets that were lovely to look at, particularly because of the dancers’ talent. But there was just enough creative potential in Houston to make you wistful for some real creativity. Despite the red-hot finale, when it was over, you felt you’d just eaten an overly rich but insubstantial French pastry.

On the other hand, Odums’s Layers of Veil was the highlight of the next evening’s program. (The rest of the companies on that night were from Chicago and Austin, Texas.) Danced with virtuosity by five women, Layers of Veil had all the revelatory power of a classic French movie in which each scene reveals more about the characters. The heavily garbed women looked as solid as monuments when the dance began, with the sturdiness of Picasso’s giant women. Their cowls over their faces, like masks or veils, were mysterious, but their layers of clothing were mundane, resembling ordinary peasant women’s field clothes. When they lowered their cowls to reveal their faces, they hit their shoulders with their fists and pounded their hands into their stomachs, expressing, in contrast to their former stoicism, the turmoil of their inner souls. As they peeled off layers of clothes, each stage was more stylish. They progressed from submissive, tortured caryatids to women in full bloom, rejoicing in their power and sophistication. The choreography had echoes of many influences, from the modernism of Elisa Monte’s Pigs and Fishes, with its driving beat, to the ingenious classicism of Balanchine’s intertwining figures holding hands. It’s the kind of masterful dance you long to see and rarely get to.

Germany’s Movement Company danced Big City, choreographed by artistic director Elfi Datzer. Though it started out as a conservative jazz dance, it became much more. At one point, a woman sitting behind me couldn’t refrain from saying “Weird!” But that was also the dance’s power–its surreal philosophical asides and double-impact imagery. A jazz musician sitting in a garbage can, for instance, turned into a reminder of the plight of the homeless living in cardboard boxes and scrounging trash. With so many things thrown in, the dance kept us guessing constantly.

Ultimately the power of the piece came from its subconscious linking of cosmic elements, dropped into the most ordinary moments–just as great thoughts or questions can come to us in the midst of mundane chores. Big City featured not only dancers in ordinary guise but three large boxlike tents with dancers inside them. These were humorous at times but mysterious and eerily beautiful when the dancers poked their bodies into the cloth, creating human outlines like friezes. The unidentifiable animal heads–masks–that peered out of the tents were funny at first, but by the time they were joined by a couple in pig masks (the woman carrying a big globe), it was all a bit unsettling. We weren’t sure why we were laughing uneasily at this strange little angular dance.

Big City was rather lengthy, and the sections of conventional dance were too long, but they did serve to anchor the piece in a more sensible, accessible base. The mix of conventional and unusual elements gave the piece strength. By the end of Big City, I felt I’d gone on a long tour–a quest of sorts–over the whole sprawling city.

The local companies that appeared during International Night all exhibited great technical flair but had more obvious messages. Joel Hall’s Cheers for Alexandra for the Joel Hall Dancers was essentially a takeoff on Jerome Robbins’s Fancy Free, but here each of the three sailors had a partner; with less tension and humor than Robbins’s piece, Hall’s was much blander. Ballet Chicago also appeared in a crowd pleaser–Gordon Peirce Schmidt’s By Django. But it didn’t set itself up so directly against a classic. This light, upbeat, humorous piece was performed with an effervescent spiritedness.

Gus Giordano’s ambitious Michelangelo: Images in Stone gave us the torment of the artist struggling to express himself. While some of the choreography was too obvious, there were stunning visual images throughout, such as Michelangelo (Paul A. Brown) being lifted in a wide jete on the arms and shoulders of a few dancers while the rest of the crowd reached imploring arms up to him. The artist later brought form and order, breathing life into a block of marble by breaking up its mass of dancers into variously posed statues. The muscular shadows printed on the dancers’ leotards created a half-marble, half-flesh effect. The final scene made the whole dance worthwhile: inspired by Michelangelo’s The Deposition, intended by the artist as a monument for his own sepulcher, it showed Michelangelo seated on high, apparently floating in front of a long, white sheet draped from ceiling to floor.

The hard-hitting messages throughout Michelangelo are easy to read; there’s no mystery there. And of course Americans are fond of turning their messages into slogans, then unionizing their demands. Giordano wants you to not only like his dances but understand them at a glance. Perhaps that’s why there were so many loudly cheering fans in the audience. Or perhaps they were cheering because he’d organized this American Jazz Dance World Congress, which has won him, along with jazz-dance great Luigi, the Le Huit d’Or award from France. Or perhaps it was both.