at Mundelein College Auditorium

May 19-21


Shaun Gilmore at MoMing Dance & Arts Center

May 19-22

OK, so maybe it’s not fair to compare two choreographers on the basis of a shared costume designer. But coincidentally, Joel Klaff (aka Guy Taylor, ace fashion designer and media celebrity) turned out costumes (both remarkable) for pieces in two different dance concerts last weekend. And both dances treated subjects near and dear–and occasionally terrifying–to the dancer’s heart.

When I was a young girl, my friends and I would sometimes both tease and comfort each other by saying “You’re not fat, you’re just fluffy.” And that’s how Klaff’s costume made the dancer (Oxanna Tschaikowsky) look in David Puszczewicz’s Fat. The blimpy costume, roughly humanoid, covered her from the neck to the wrists to the ankles with a plain white muslin fabric (why do we always think of fat people as pale?) stuffed with something airy, perhaps shredded toilet paper.

Inside it, the slim young dancer struggled to emulate a fat person’s moves: widespread legs in a waddle because the thighs are so huge, arms projecting from the body because the gargantuan midriff doesn’t allow them to hang straight down. In one very funny section, Tschaikowsky managed to lie down–lowering herself to approximate a near-prone condition and then collapsing–and, even harder, got up again–with maybe a push from the hand of fate. Then the fat lady “leapt” for some tantalizing restaurant menus lowered onstage in a kind of menu mobile while a slim little aerobicizing bitch (Rachel Burton) worked out downstage.

Dancers, even more than the rest of us, hate and fear fat. Like aging, it’s a serious impediment to the body’s expressive capabilities. And if I’ve made Fat sound like a humorous insult to the obese, that’s not the whole story: Puszczewicz is very sympathetic to the overweight person’s plight, particularly when she has a yen to dance. The mood of this piece shifts from the comic to the pathetic when two slender dancers (Ellen Airi Hubbell and Emilly Stein) enter in skintight leotards to move gracefully and quickly all over the stage while the fat lady, stationary, looks on longingly.

Periodically throughout Fat, a filmed head shot of a fat man talking is projected on the head of a fat dummy sitting to one side of the stage. At first I hated this guy, sitting there mouthing platitudes about how no fat person is truly jolly, or even happy. But gradually I became more sympathetic, especially as the fat lady onstage struggled to dance with the two others. She fell, of course, and couldn’t get up, but by then it wasn’t funny anymore. The utter contempt of the two dancers for the fat lady was exactly right: one ignored her, running offstage; the other helped her up but reluctantly and as if fearful of contamination. Alone again, Tschaikowsky finally shed her costume (she wore a bright red unitard underneath) and performed a “normal,” lyrical, whimsical, gentle dance with lots of stretches that showed off her slim, youthful figure. At the end she held the costume up before her, in effect reassuming her “fat” identity.

Unquestionably there’s a place for pathos in dance as in other art forms, but it’s possible to take too many shortcuts to pity. Why didn’t the fat lady remain fat? Is it really impossible to empathize with an obese person?; do we really require a slender, attractive representative for our feelings? Or was the slim girl in the red unitard the “thin person” said to be struggling to get out of every fat one? Do we buy that? For every miserable fat person there must be one who’s quite content to be overweight, thank you, especially if everyone wouldn’t make such a big deal out of it.

As a simple statement with a single point of view that produces a clearcut response, Fat works. And yet Puszczewicz’s dances have a certain emotional straightforwardness that can stop us in our tracks. There’s no place to go, no opening out, too little room for imagination in works that are circumscribed by conditioned cultural responses.

This emotional straightforwardness can also have its charm, however. There’s something innocent and open in Puszczewicz’s choreography: the arms and legs regularly flung out or fully extended, the heads and torsos so often flung back to expose the chest and throat. And on this program were several works that showed off Puszczewicz’s knack for the easy, casual upper body characteristic of the tap dancer. At the beginning of Changes, dancer Hubbell is poised in second-position releve. As her feet pat the floor, seemingly beyond her control, she looks down in wonderment at them, her relaxed face, arms, and shoulders light years away from her taut legs and martial feet, Puszczewicz also has a nice feeling for the occasional surprising, humorous image. In Introduction a dancer (Burton) falls out of a rack of clothes being trundled across the floor–like a dress that’s escaped its hanger. And the fat lady, after first “capering” onstage before stage curtain, is whisked before our eyes back behind it, the apparent victim of her own out-of-control stagger.

Us & Them was my favorite work on this evening’s program. These young dancers–most with a fine if sometimes uneven technique–really soared, especially at the dance’s fast-paced end. At the same time, there were lots of visual contrasts: two dancers turned across the stage simultaneously but at different rates, or one group performed high-flying leaps while a second rolled along the floor.

Still, during the lyrical, meditative section that preceded the end I felt Puszczewicz was reaching for drama: too many pointed balletic flourishes, too many careful positionings of the arms and hands after an overdramatic pose had been laboriously achieved. Genuine emotion doesn’t require curlicues.

Klaff popped up again in Shaun Gilmore’s dance/theater collaboration with Sharon Evans, The Hypochondriac–another exploration of the interaction between body and mind. Here his work is the Pill Lady’s costume: a black-widowish outfit, complete with dark stockings and net skirt–and topped off by three hovering clouds of pills, one above her head, the two others off to each side of her hips. (The pills were red wooden pellets suspended on flexible wires–a little like the insect-feeler headgear sold at parades and other outdoor gatherings–that clinked and swayed as the dancer moved.)

Although Gilmore herself played the Pill Lady, there was considerably more distance between the choreographer and her creation than between Puszczewicz and his fat lady. The Pill Lady, the first character onstage, is affected, positively oriental, her elaborate hand and arm gestures exquisitely refined. (Later we find out why.)

After the Pill Lady lets down a giant plastic banner emblazoned with a giant rendering of the human body and its mazes–muscles, blood vessels, nerves–a doctor (Sharon Evans) walks onstage and begins reflecting on the human body. A med student’s skeleton is only a collection of matchsticks until properly suspended on its wire. A patient looking at an X ray of his own lungs sees willows, familiar trees by a familiar stream. The doctor’s soliloquy is not entirely lyrical or, perhaps, ultimately reliable, however. She makes it plain that the medical profession is a means of systematizing mysteries–of providing road maps for uncharted territory.

Then the Hypochondriac enters (Mark Richard). Wearing a partial mask that gives him a pronounced hook nose and downturned mouth, the Hypochondriac is both infantile and aged. He’s every mother’s nightmare of what her coddling during a child’s illness might produce: a dependent whiner who extorts sympathy with his aches and pains. His monologue reveals that the Pill Lady is a fantasy of his mother’s. One day when he wouldn’t take his medicine, she told him that the magic Pill Lady had left a special treat for him under his pillow–pills, of course. From that point the fantasy takes on weight and shape, and it becomes clear that the fantastic vision we see onstage is a child’s idea of the beautiful lady impossibly elegant and refined, and tremendously seductive because she seems invincible and immortal.

Richard’s very adept interpretation of Gilmore’s choreographed movements gave the Hypochondriac a comic turn indispensable to our sympathy for him. And this is a surprisingly sympathetic portrait, a little like an 18th-century character sketch (of the “Coquette,” the “Pretty Fellow,” and so on), but more psychological, of course. It seems the Hypochondriac has split his mother into two powerful female figures–the Doctor, the representative of the body, who dispenses disapproval along with her pills and attempts to administer a little dose of reality as well, and the Pill Lady, the representative of the mind, a silent and constantly receding mirage of unlimited comfort and love.

In a program note, Gilmore said she had “become interested in . . . presenting the two languages of words and motion side by side in order for the audience to get a clearer sense of their relative meaning.” Although Richard’s movements definitely enhanced the Hypochondriac’s character, they seemed mostly a mimed ancillary to the story telling. And although I loved the Pill Lady–the choreography and its realization–I was not sure how her movements related to the words spoken onstage. Still, I liked this piece partly for its mystery, not its clarity.

I also liked The Hypochondriac for the intricate gestures given arms and hands. Gilmore’s most intriguing choreography seems to focus on the hands and feet–in fact, limiting the dancer’s range of movement over the stage seems to open up vistas for her. In the 1986 Boxlife (3 Square Dances), each of three dancers is imprisoned in his or her own small box, one side open to the audience’s view–like three babies in wombs, three ant farms except with a person inside. To marvelously claustrophobic music by Miles Davis the dancers writhe and kick and twirl in their spaces, apparently defying gravity. Now we know what infants in the womb are doing to produce all those bulges and discomforts.

The 1986 White (Buttercream Deluxe) imposes a similar limitation: two dancers (Eileen Sheehan and Mario Ricoh) perform a duet while their feet are embedded, immovable, in the middle of a white platform. In beautiful gleaming-white costumes that look a little tattered, the two resemble a Road Warrior version of the plastic couple atop the wedding cake. Their movements–obv ously mostly for the torso and upper body–are juicy and sweet, exuding a virginal sexuality. Their final embrace makes it painfully obvious that because their torsos are forever oriented in opposite directions, their relationship is unconsummatable. And what longing and sensuality these dancers give the final, necessarily platonic embrace.

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