at the Auditorium

October 7 and 8

Joseph Holmes Dance Theatre is one of the hardest-working, most peripatetic troupes around. Each year they pop up in engagements all over the Chicago area–and around the country and, this year, out of the country (in Israel). But it’s fun to catch them in their annual engagement at the Auditorium because the production values are so great–the stage is spacious, the sound system mammoth, and the lighting sophisticated. You have to watch for them, though, because the company comes and goes there with a speed as breathtaking as their dancing.

My guess is that JHDT really gears up for its yearly Auditorium appearance; it gives the group an opportunity to look forward as well as back–to hint at new directions even as they strut their standbys. Randy Duncan, who took over as artistic director in 1986 when Joseph Holmes died, clearly feels indebted to Holmes and his vision, and more than one Duncan work seems inspired by Holmes’s death. But whereas last year’s Turning Tides has an angry edge and opens out to the audience, this year’s Psalm is weepy and inward, almost too private. It’s not necessary to forget Holmes’s vision, but I think it may be time to stop saying good-bye.

Peter Sparling’s Rondo pushes the company in one welcome new direction–it’s more abstract than most of Holmes’s and Duncan’s work but still blessedly accessible, playful and urbane. It also exploits one of JHDT’s strengths: male dancers. Good ones are rare, and JHDT has them aplenty. Rondo was danced by Byron Jones, Patrick Mullaney, and Cuitlahuac Suarez (a newcomer to JHDT, and a find). It opens with the three men entering one by one, each moving in a distinctly different way to the complex, modern music (by David Gregory). As in modern music, the dancers’ dissonance produces a kind of harmony, in the same way that odd-shaped pieces of a puzzle come together to form a picture.

As the dance goes on, it becomes less abstract. The dancers come together to make different geometric shapes, from a simple triangle made up of the lines of the dancers laid out stiff and straight on the floor to a complex pyramid. Once these patterns have pulled the dancers together, they seem suddenly free to interact: one dancer shoots under a bridge created by the other two, and from there it’s anything goes. Two dancers make themselves into a phone booth and the third tries to make a call, loses his change, and beats up on them in a fit of comic rage. Sparling explores the tension of two-against-one in other ways: in a tug-of-war, two dancers win over one, throwing the third off the stage; but at another time a single dancer, lighter and more independent than the two who are linked, vaults over them.

Rondo’s boyish humor and affection for men make it something more than an abstract exercise. Sparling spoofs machismo by making the dancers do a muscle-bound Popeye walk, clenched fists and forearms dangling from high-held shoulders and upper arms, heads bowed under the burden of manhood. Two solos take an affectionate look at how men move–in the first, Suarez dances with a ready lilt and give, and in the second, Mullaney dances with a brittle explosiveness that goes perfectly with the highpitched, glassy music that accompanies it.

Rondo is off the beaten path for JHDT, but Duncan’s Psalm looks back. Subtitled “Dance for Joseph,” it nearly canonizes Holmes. In this overly literal homage, the Holmes figure (danced by Kevin Ware) begins seated and apparently bound; later he adopts the pose of God from Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam in the Sistine chapel, handing down dances, I guess, instead of the divine spark. Finally the Holmes persona receives a deadly blow that causes the dancer to clutch his chest and stagger. The music, by Ira Antelis, only adds to the melodrama–it’s creaky and stagy and too sweet. The effect of music and dance together was complete overkill–the target obliterated by the massive amounts of ammunition aimed at it.

Most of last year’s Holmes dances seemed melodramatic, and perhaps in Psalm Duncan meant to follow in Holmes’s footsteps. (This year’s Holmes dance–The Long Road, from 1977–has emotion and energy to burn, and it was danced full-out by three women: Ariane Dolan, Kim Gadlin, and Winifred Haun. But it’s not subtle–the characters are well realized but predictable, and the ending is weak. Psalm does have its strong points, however–points that seem characteristic of Duncan’s choreography.

First, Duncan can really get inside a beat. He doesn’t set up a monotonous rhythm, though, with one move for each count. Instead he embroiders the beat–but “embroiders” is too delicate a word for these punchy, clever variations. Duncan’s rhythmic brilliance is what makes his choreography to rock music so hot, what makes it look like jazz dance even when, technically, it’s not. (Pursuit, a brief early work by Duncan that opened the program, has the same impetus.)

Second, Psalm further reveals the differences between Duncan’s choreography for men and what he composes for women. Duncan’s women’s moves are typically adagio, lyrical; women reach for the skies in slow, utterly stretched developpes and arabesques. His female dancers seem to carry all the culture’s burdens–they suffer, long for freedom, and hold their ideals fast. His men are fighters.

They dance low to the ground–from a defensible position–and their moves are defiant and brassy. I don’t necessarily buy these distinctions, but they make for some nice visual contrasts.

The most powerful works on this program were last year’s new works by Duncan: Bittersweet Av and Turning Tides. Bittersweet Av’s variety is what struck me this year–it seemed a much lighter, more comic affair than it had before, though it has its sorrowful side. I especially liked the fifth section, danced by Kevin Ware, a diminutive Robyn Davis, and a strapping Winifred Haun, for the fun it has with the disparity in the women’s sizes. The final section, especially the brief duet for Ware and Ariane Dolan, offers a graceful reprise. Patrick Mullaney, who won this year’s Ruth Page Award as outstanding dancer for his solo in Bittersweet Av, performed with a triumphant virtuosity and spring. Those few minutes alone were worth the price of admission. As my companion said, you’d have to be dead not to like Bittersweet Av.

Turning Tides strikes me as a far more moving tribute to Holmes than Psalm–although it may have been a mistake to give the opening solo, “Adrift,” to Mullaney. Mullaney’s timing, precision, and confidence are something to behold, but he’s wound very tight. He does not look “adrift”; he looks like he knows exactly what he’s doing. His dancing is bright and hard, all sharp edges, in contrast to last year’s performance by Duncan himself, which was softer, more hesitating, and ultimately much more emotional. For this role you need a dancer with orange juice in his veins, someone sweet and slow.

Duncan (who won this year’s Ruth Page Award for outstanding choreographer) and his dancers deserve whatever recognition comes their way. Duncan’s work has humor, a generous emotional expressiveness, and a rhythm that will knock your panties off. His dancers are heartbreakingly beautiful animals. What he deserves now is a bigger audience. Go. Don’t be the last on your block.

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