The Seldoms

at the Vittum Theater, September 18-20

DanceLoop Chicago

at the Ruth Page Center for the Arts, September 18-20

Dance is a better medium for conveying impressions than ideas. At its best, it carries those impressions right past the cerebral cortex and into the primitive brain, or past the brain entirely and into the viscera. Combining with whatever’s already present, these impressions can produce a shock of recognition: oh, that’s what this music (emotion, experience) looks like!

Of the ten works performed last weekend by two troupes, the Seldoms and DanceLoop Chicago, only two measured up to this standard, working with rather than against the grain of dance to communicate with the audience. Three others went so far in the opposite direction that they seemed to have no content at all, and the remainder were sunk by the ideological freight they were forced to carry.

Duet #1 (1999), by Jin-Wen Yu, a guest artist in the Seldoms’ concert, was the most successful of the lot. To Bobby McFerrin’s music, Michelle Blakely and Mei-kuang Chen enacted a series of playful interactions organized around the motif of conversation: in one repeated gesture, the dancers cup their hands at mouth or ear. But they also exchange information with their bodies, playing like puppies in a litter: nudging each other aside, tumbling over each other, and in one memorable move, butting a head against the other’s sacrum until that dancer is pushed into a back flip. As the two take turns at leading, what first appears a contest of wills gradually reveals itself to be cooperation, at which point the piece’s concept–this is what interdependence looks like!–comes winging through. The dancers were superb, making the demanding choreography look relaxed and easygoing.

In a different vein, but showing the same respect for dance’s unique modes of communication, is Dmitri Peskov’s Ophelia, Ophelia (2002), part of DanceLoop Chicago’s concert. Tarah Brown and Heather Kroski, one wearing a black slip and the other white, sit side by side in chairs. First alternately and then simultaneously they depict insanity, flailing and flopping and obsessively attending to the position of their hands and the location of their chairs. On this viewing, my second, it became clear that the performers are not only behaving like madwomen–they’re jerking like marionettes on strings. What a superb point: Ophelia is indeed a puppet, manipulated by everyone else in Hamlet. Without making any effort at narrating the play, or even the Ophelia subplot, Peskov offers a fresh gloss on the world’s most overinterpreted text.

However, his new Three Songs for a Dancer demonstrates that points can be too bite-size for dance. Jill Economakos is adorable in her neon pink top and Kewpie-doll pigtails, but what are we to make of her going through a repertoire of contemporary popular dance moves? The first song, which alternates Russian lyrics with stereotyped hipster phrases in English, suggests that the piece is a comment on the impact of the West on Russian culture, but the other songs don’t continue this theme. Though funny and likable enough, this dance is disappointingly content free.

Peskov’s pieces were bracketed on the DanceLoop Chicago program by two works from fellow artistic director Paula Frasz. Here the content overwhelms the choreography. Voices of Light, her 2000 piece about Joan of Arc, is set to Richard Einhorn’s music, composed to accompany the rerelease of a silent movie–which may account for the dance’s melodramatic feel: in one sequence the corps surrounds Joan (Economakos) and points at her accusingly while stentorian howls rise on the sound track. I hadn’t read the program before the piece began, so it was nearly over before I realized who this woman in the knave of hearts tunic was supposed to be. If Frasz wanted to re-create the legend, she ran up against the limits of dance as a storytelling form; if she wanted to convey big ideas like Sacrifice and Nobility, she succeeded only in communicating bombast. It didn’t help that the corps of nine was unable to stay in sync or that Economakos was obviously struggling to manage the movements most suggestive of Joan’s otherworldliness, like walking through midair (on the others’ hands). But even a step-perfect performance would have revealed an obvious truth: dance can’t tell stories the way film or theater can.

Frasz’s 1999 Songs My Mother Sang Me is, if anything, even more like a silent movie than Voices of Light. It comes complete with title cards explaining what the dancers are doing–engaging in bad marriages, dying in Vietnam–which are useful but raise the question why Frasz felt the need to shape this material into dance at all. And the vocal accompaniment–off-key renditions of Australian folk songs–was more annoying than evocative.

Work by the Seldoms–Carrie Hanson, Susan Hoffman, and Doug Stapleton–is abstract, the furthest thing from programmatic. But this troupe too suffers from an imbalance between content and choreography. The concert began with Hanson’s 2003 Casualty–which a program note says portrays “women who have become targets of violence during times of war and conflict”–and continued with Barbara Grubel’s To Bury the Petal, a solo that uses scattered rose petals to communicate loss. The third piece, which closed the first half, was Hoffman’s Time / Fragments / Remains (2001), said to be “about the solitude and alienation described by the disintegration of memory.” My notes on the first half read: “First the rape piece, then the death piece, now the Alzheimer’s piece.” Harsh as this judgment is, it expresses the frustration I felt at having emotions signposted for me instead of conveyed through movement. All three were danced well–Yu, who performed the solo, is so magnetic you can watch him walk across the stage and feel you’ve gotten your money’s worth. But the dances themselves lacked any momentum. Casualty begins and ends with the performers sliding slowly across the stage on their backs; in between there are other slo-mo gestures intended to evoke victimization and loss of autonomy. These are important subjects, but remaining stone-faced and moving slowly won’t convey them.

If the first half of the concert was heavy on ideas, the second (except for the marvelous Duet #1) was entirely free of them. Yu’s Off-Joint, a solo to Chinese opera, seemed to be an exercise in exercise, an investigation of movement possibly interesting to movement professionals and completely impenetrable to everyone else, though again the fluidity of Yu’s dancing made it worth watching.

The point of Ode–the Seldoms’ homage to their namesake group, 19th-century artists who created tableaux vivants–never becomes clear. Hanson, Hoffman, and Stapleton are graceful enough, but the salient feature of tableaux was the performers’ ability to stay remarkably still. Why would anyone want to “dance” such pieces? And Lara Miller’s costumes, unitards decorated with spongy conch-shell shapes, are so distracting that the costumes seem to be dancing instead of the people.

Choreographers are like sports stars and other entertainers: you need a better batting average than .200 to bring any but the most ardent fans to the ballpark.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/George Tarbay, Bill Frederking.