Frank Fishella and Paula Frasz

at the Harold Washington Library Auditorium, November 1 and 2

By Mitchell Kupferberg

Paula Frasz and Frank Fishella have danced or choreographed for many of Chicago’s leading dance companies for the better part of two decades, quietly establishing themselves as pioneers in the local melange of modern dancers. In the two acts of five dances each of their most recent joint concert at the Harold Washington Library, Frasz and Fishella explored the interplay of power and desire. Along the way each revealed a bold, distinctive aesthetic.

Frasz appears committed to challenging our perception of traditional dance harmony. In her five pieces–the first half of the concert–an observer would be hard-pressed to identify a single recognizably traditional pattern of movement. Her goal seems to be to introduce her audience to a new awareness of beauty by engineering an aesthetic of awkwardness abounding in constrained lateral steps, hyperextended angular arm movements, and stop-action interruptions. At times I felt I was watching the evolution of an anti-dance style rejecting all previous alignments of convention and contemporary taste.

Frasz was most successful at this task in Eater of Hearts, in which Kim Neal Nofsinger–naked to the waist and wearing a luminous, parachutelike skirt–executes with precision and grace a series of small, angular lateral steps combined with sweeping arm motions and slow, tortuous rolls on the ground. Intermittently he enacts the devouring of a human heart and pulls his skirt over his face, eerily outlining his features through the silk while stepping slowly across the stage like an apparition.

This explicit enactment of predatory behavior–the vampirelike devouring of one person’s life energy by another–is a constant theme in Frasz’s work: she focuses on domination, oppression, and abuse of power, especially by men. In Alpha Male men are depicted as inherently competitive and destructive: the two male dancers begin by playfully confronting each other, but their horseplay ends in murder. In Freeze Frame five dancers in business suits are liberated from their predatory competition by the stripping away of their “uniforms”–a development conspicuously instigated by two female dancers, as if to amplify the feminist message underpinning much of Frasz’s drama.

Her feminist perspective and highly charged attitude toward masculinity are most apparent in the final piece, The Terror of Suddenly Freed Birds. Here Frasz, Judith Chitwood, and Juli Hallihan-Campbell are diverted from their quiescent, peaceful movements by the merest look from an obscure male figure seated with his back to the audience in a shrouded easy chair. Each of the women is sent into paroxysms of anguish when she encounters the man’s glance. I found this piece–described in a press release as “a statement about domestic violence”–disappointing because we never see the man’s face, and the destructive power inherent in his gaze is never explained: he’s an amorphous primitive force rather than a human being. The piece ends with the women uncertainly circling the mysteriously vacated chair at greater and greater speed, like birds looking for landmarks to orient themselves in flight.

The Terror of Suddenly Freed Birds is chilling in its suggestion of elemental evil. But I would have liked a more clear-eyed exploration of what motivates the male figure and a fuller context for the women’s vulnerability. Without these, the dance deteriorates into a dogmatic indictment of men based on acts never performed or even alluded to onstage. This is a shame: there’s much confusion and obfuscation in our culture around issues of domestic violence, and Frasz clearly has the motivation and talent to provide badly needed insight.

While Frasz addresses personal relationships from a societal or cultural perspective, Fishella is more centered on the dynamics of individual desire. He’s also more inclined than Frasz to use humor, though her lightheartedness is apparent in the concert’s opening piece, a satirical social dance for herself and Fishella using a table as a springboard for angular, stop-action leaps and spins. Delighting in abandoning and reconciling with each other, they playfully evade each other’s grasp or fling each other good-naturedly into energetic but elegant rolls on the ground. Bailes Mal Criados is a strangely whimsical and moving depiction of the well-worn intimacy born of affection and mutual trust.

Fishella is most at home, however, in explorations of the delights and disappointments of more ephemeral love affairs, especially those between gay men. In Watching You Watching Me he effectively uses a leather jacket, a pack of business cards, and the lure of irresistible curiosity to convey the humiliation of discovering a lover’s infidelity. The piece segues into a vigorous trio as Shannon Preto emerges as Fishella’s rival for the attentions of Wilfredo Rivera. In the evening’s most spectacular duet, Rivera flings himself onto Preto’s extended arms in a simulation of flight, rotates his body and arches his back until he can grasp his ankles behind Preto’s back, then slides slowly down the front of Preto’s body to the ground, suggesting the initial excitement and declining vitality of romantic attachments. The move is typical of Fishella’s work, combining athleticism, a cunning eye for innovation, and a deft, improbable whimsicality.

Whimsy and comedy are clearly Fishella’s long suits, and those who came in search of his iconoclastic humor were not disappointed. Black Dresses is a burlesque showing nuns as you’ve never seen nuns before, snapping their fingers and tap dancing to the mellifluous strains of the Clooney Sisters and Meryn Cadell. Preto and Fishella in wimple and shawl add to the jovial lunacy by joining the high-kicking chorus line of sisters; Preto drops into a lightning-quick break dance before scampering to find his place in the line again. This is not a piece that will please the staid, but everyone else will find it hilarious.

Fishella’s use of humor should not be interpreted as a lack of depth or an unwillingness to engage the painful and difficult. In Love During Wartime he brilliantly depicts the drowning of 2,000 French sailors in a senseless naval-training exercise of 1804 off the coast of France. Voice-overs from texts by Jeanette Winterson and musical excerpts from Elvis Costello and the Brodsky Quartet provide the backdrop for this evocative piece, which delves with sensitivity and imagination into the harsh realities of grief. In the final image, two male figures are seen struggling against long, engulfing sheets of white cloth, straining blindly like faceless apparitions to reach each other. During their silent struggle Winterson’s words echo across the stage, wondering in horror at Napoleon’s ability to compel courageous young soldiers to commit the equivalent of suicide: “Why did we not say, ‘Let’s stop him’?” the voice bitterly but quietly asks. “Why did we not say, ‘Let’s hate him’?” It’s a haunting question.

A brief solo by Fishella recalling his earlier depiction of the tribulations of promiscuity closed this rich and ambitious concert, and when Frasz emerged and grasped Fishella’s hand to accept a well-deserved ovation, their bow embodied the emotional reconciliation they both sought to achieve in their different ways. Capitalizing on their respective strengths resulted in a performance of greater depth than either would probably have achieved alone. Although, on balance, Fishella’s pieces convey a richer insight into human experience, Frasz’s idiosyncratic imagery and bold innovations paved the way for Fishella’s own technical innovations, wit, and humor.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): “Love During Wartime” photo by William Frederking.