James Kelly Choreography


at the Harold Washington Library, June 28 and 29

Connolly Dance Company and Janet Skidmore Harpole

at Link’s Hall, June 28 and 29

By Maura Troester

In 1991 the name seemed temporary, as if James Kelly didn’t want to create a dance company, he only wanted to make choreography. Five seasons later, Kelly’s project is revealing itself to be much bigger than the name implies. In essence, the James Kelly Choreography Project is not quite a company; it’s a growing collection of excellent work. His dancers are not really an established troupe, although some have performed with him since 1992. They’re a collection of dancers who perform Kelly’s dances beautifully.

Because he’s focused on keeping the choreography–and not the company–alive, Kelly’s collection of dancers and choreography has grown richer each year. This performance was one of the most professionally danced of the season, by any company. Although the James Kelly Choreography Project doesn’t have the stature of Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, it has the same vitality–the same penchant for intense, sometimes dangerous, movement.

This is not to say that Kelly’s work is flawless. Some of his pieces are too long, and his new ones seem to lack an overall shape, although individual segments are stunning. I think Kelly’s choreography needs time to ripen. It’s Not Where, It’s Me bored and even annoyed me when it premiered last year. But this year the dance seemed to have some meaning–even the enigmatic title came clear at one point. As the dancers were lifting one another to hang from a bar that stretched across the stage two feet above their heads, suddenly the thought crossed my mind: it’s not where the dancer is, it’s how the dancer is. The point is not the props themselves but what they bring out in the dancers. For example, to the best of my knowledge the movement in It’s Not Where, It’s Me hasn’t changed. But this year the dancers–especially Nancy Allen–attacked it with gusto. They occupied the same space onstage, but they did so with a different energy. This year some of Kelly’s lifts and leaps were almost frightening. At times it seemed Allen was careening headfirst to the floor, only to be deftly caught and spun in another direction by one of the four men in the dance.

The most satisfying piece of the evening is Kelly’s 1993 Untitled Duet. Performed by Arturo Alvarez and Jason Ohlberg, the dance has a jaw-dropping, goose-bumpy, other-worldly beauty. Again, this seems to be a dance that ages well. There’s a richness to Kelly’s choreography that emerges only over time, as the dancers learn to bring it out. Untitled Duet begins simply and gently: two men walk shoulder to shoulder. One lifts the other, gently and helpfully. Then the second lifts the first one, gently, helpfully. The dance grows more complex and intense but without ever losing this gentle energy–even when the lifts demand enormous, seemingly unreal strength and the leaps are so risky and unexpected it looks as if one false move could lead to death.

Kelly is also a choreographer who has no qualms about trying new styles. Strings/4/Glass/Dance, one of his two premieres, couldn’t be more unlike the five-year-old What’s Your Hand Doing There? Choreographed to the music of Philip Glass, Strings/4/Glass/Dance is a vibrant, smart piece of choreography despite the extensive borrowings from Twyla Tharp. The dancers often make direct eye contact with one another, as if the piece had been made explicitly and entirely for their enjoyment. They run backward gently, clap their hands together once, and lunge backward with the front foot flexed–all Tharp’s inventions. But the piece successfully captures a delightful, airy sense of freedom, and Kelly’s seven dancers perform it beautifully. This too seems to be a dance that will improve with age: Kelly is great at shaping smaller sections of movement, but the overall structure of this piece has yet to emerge.

Contrasted with this gentle work is the harsh, jazz-oriented What’s Your Hand Doing There? Either times have changed or Kelly has changed or both since he made this piece about a woman’s right to control her body, which takes a quote from Supreme Court Justice Harry A. Blackmun as its starting point. Like much of Kelly’s early work, it’s dramatic, emotional, and political. The movement has a hard, angular edge. At one point the women lie on the ground, legs spread, knees bent, backs arched in pain. Another time, the women stand and the men kneel behind them, stick their hands between the womens’ legs, and grab their bellies. The point is clear, but the movement is so fast paced and skillful that the dance rarely seems heavy-handed.

The one piece of the evening that simply didn’t work was Don’t Move My Mountain, a lyrical dance performed to traditional gospel music sung live by Tyrone Block and Love, Salvation and Devotion. The choir was incredible. The problem was that Kelly placed them smack-dab in the middle of the stage at the rear, and their presence was so strong that they stole the focus–even when they weren’t singing and were watching the dancers. When the choir did sing they swayed, and the dancers moving in front of them seemed like little tugboats tossed on a big, strong sea. It was an interesting contrast that simply didn’t work.

The Connolly Dance Company and Janet Skidmore Harpole are the folks who bring us Add Water & Stir, the improvisational dance troupe. Unfortunately, their shared concert of choreographed dance didn’t offer much to get excited about.

The evening opened with Harpole’s Close Proximity. Five dancers stand close together, then one knocks up against another and the energy runs through the group in a wave. This happens two or three times until the group falls apart, the dancers dropping to the ground as if they were pickup sticks. This part is interesting, but what follows is your basic academic modern dance. Dancers push and pull one another in what ought to be a classroom exercise in weight sharing, not staged choreography. Movement phrases are repeated in a textbooklike manner and not because they send any message that needs to be heard again.

Harpole’s On Turning Forty (With Apologies to Isadora Duncan) and This Tomato have the potential to be funny: they could look for the unusual in ordinary things–birthdays and tomatoes. Instead, Harpole dances the obvious. In On Turning 40 she attempts to poke fun at her own fear of aging with a melodramatic rendition of Isadora Duncan’s scarf dance, and even includes segments of that ol’ standard “Happy Birthday to You.” The problem is that we’re all afraid of aging, and the dread she enacts is nothing new. Similarly, This Tomato sings the praises of growing a beautiful tomato without doing more than saying “This is a beautiful tomato.” Harpole even puts a pile of dirt on the stage–a device with enormous potential–and does nothing more interesting with it than plant tomatoes.

The Connolly Dance Company hails from Madison, Wisconsin, and most of the performers are university trained. Thankfully, they’re young and might be able to shake themselves free of that bland, safe style seemingly nurtured by academic institutions–there seems to be some potential here. The movement in Patrick Connolly’s Walk in My World, for two women, has a gentle, sweet quality, although the choreography takes no interesting risks. Kristanne Connolly’s Tempest, a powerful solo for her husband Patrick, incorporates some interesting variations on the Irish jig and makes good use of his skill and energy.

All the same, something is missing from this and Patrick Connolly’s other two dances on the bill. Perhaps it’s a sense of poetry. Maybe it’s a sense of urgency–a need to communicate an idea that hasn’t ever been developed in just that way before. Hopefully the missing element is simply experience, on the stage and in life. Because experience will come. But as parts of this concert show, making something beautiful out of one’s experience isn’t easy either.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Uncredited photo of James Kelly Choreography Project.