at the Weinstein Center for the Performing Arts

January 31 and February 1

Mime can be deadly in dance. A little goes a long way: the occasional naturalistic gesture may provide the hook for a dance, and a gesture out of context can be piquant, a stimulant to the imagination. But whole sequences of mime are too easy–there’s no challenge, none of the surprise or wonder that the best dances provide.

Still, when mime is done well it has its own kind of fascination. And the Zephyr Dance Ensemble, a five-year-old Chicago troupe, showed a talent for impersonation in several of the eight works it danced at the Weinstein Center for the Performing Arts. But in some pieces the mime sprang from sexual stereotypes, and that made for some pretty dull stretches.

Take Maureen Janson’s The Machine Within the Machine Within the Machine Within, which conflates two male stereotypes: the businessman and the gunslinger. The Zephyr troupe, made up of four women (Tammy Cheney, Margaret Reynolds, Caroline Walsh, and artistic director Michelle Kranicke), don white shirts and ties and baggy pants for this one. Reynolds mimes the avaricious businessman, reaching into the air, grabbing handfuls of invisible stuff and pulling it into her chest, and guarding it suspiciously. Then the troupe launches into the cowpoke stereotypes, tucking in shirts and straightening ties like cowboys after a fight, smoking, spitting, tossing a cig to the ground, and wiping sweat from their brows. Doing it in slow motion doesn’t make it any less a western-movie cliche.

Seeing women reproduce macho gestures so faithfully has a certain interest, but not enough to carry the dance. The Machine Within is also burdened by a plot in which one man resists the tough-guy role, and another is hurt or killed, a source of triumph to the others. It’s all easy enough to read, but ultimately this kind of sexual stereotyping–businessmen are machines of aggression, cogs and wheels in the great machine of cultural aggression–is not only boring but destructive to both sexes.

I take Janson’s Anemone to be the feminine counterpart of The Machine Within: soft, circular, floating motions appropriate to the title predominate. Michelle Kranicke’s Men Don’t Have Hips exploits another female stereotype: the three women here check themselves out in invisible mirrors, apply lipstick, then adopt tough-gal poses: arms crossed in a death grip over the chest or fingers splayed aggressively on hips, arms akimbo. They recite short texts (by Kate Wrobel) with a moll’s bored anomie, though the words tend to reveal women’s vulnerability to men. It’s the same old story–women aren’t really tough, it’s just that they’re so vulnerable, such victims, that they have to protect themselves. The piece ends with the women clapping their hands to their mouths; perhaps their lipstick, their armor, has worn off.

Winifred Haun’s solo, Offer Void, also appeared on the first half of the program (with Todd Michael Kiech’s Three Birds, One Stone), and it was like a little gust of fresh air in a stuffy room, appealing in part because Haun danced it. The score alternates between an Elliott Carter violin solo and Joe Cocker’s rendition of the Beatles’ “She Came in Through the Bathroom Window”; the dance contrasts the classical movements of ballet with the contortions and exaggerated emotions of expressionist dance (very like Cocker’s emotional, self-dramatizing singing). Haun begins the piece almost literally tied in knots, standing in a half-crouch balanced on one leg; she jumps softly in place with her legs crossed, and later jumps with her hands on her ankles. Touching herself in one way or another almost continuously, she’s a quirky, self-absorbed, possibly tortured presence–though she also exploits that torment (as Cocker does his) for its interest and humor. She’s more serene in the balletic portions, though these never last long.

Haun recently left Joseph Holmes Chicago Dance Theatre, where she’d danced that troupe’s eclectic mix of styles since 1985; and Offer Void explores various vocabularies and artistic possibilities–it both expresses Haun’s wish to break new ground and breaks new ground. Episodic and rather fractured structurally, this dance nevertheless reveals an unusual and strong intelligence, a choreographer with a gift for quirky gesture and clear, simple movement. Haun’s physical gifts too are considerable: she’s tall and skinny with a large, expressive, beautifully sepulchral face and attenuated limbs that etch the space cleanly, and she’s secure enough in her technique to play with balance and momentum.

Haun’s Haze, performed in the second half of the program by the four Zephyr dancers, is unfortunately even more fractured than Offer Void: it starts with what sounds like sacred vocal music, moves to classical string music played by the Kronos Quartet, then to the Kronos Quartet’s version of Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Haze.” The dancers start out in short green hooded monks’ robes slit up the sides, and end in white unitards. The movement, costumes, and humor of the first section recall David Parsons’s The Envelope (most often performed in Chicago by Hubbard Street), but in the later sections Haun strikes out on her own, using stark lighting changes and tableaux to make transitions from one section to another.

My guess is that the string version of “Purple Haze” inspired the dance. The Kronos Quartet manages to capture some of the druggy slowness of the original by twisting their normally nimble playing into something a little dissonant and ragged. Working from this musical pastiche, Haun set herself an intriguing choreographic puzzle: how to dance to music that the viewers are essentially hearing twice–on the tape and in their heads in Hendrix’s rendition. As in Offer Void, the question is how to bridge the gap between classical and contemporary. Haun tries to knit the two together with large, open, full-out movement that sometimes seems to follow the emphases of the Hendrix original rather than the music we’re actually hearing.

Keith Elliott’s interesting Altered Egoes and excerpts from an evening-length work rounded out the concert. Scenes in a Saloon was jointly choreographed by Kranicke and Haun, and has some of the qualities of each. There’s plenty of mime–but that’s appropriate for short sequences framed by a barroom setting. True, we’ve seen many, many dance-hall dances before, but this one is enlivened by the onstage presence of the Texas Rubies, a honky-tonk duo made up of singer-songwriter Kelly Kessler and Jane Baxter Miller. Scenes in a Saloon is danced by the four Zephyr members and Haun, so what we see is a gang of seven women–women whose toughness and strength are not poses but intrinsic qualities. The dancers are dressed in dirty shades of black, brown, and beige; they wear belts and, for some dances, scruffy cowboy boots.

Of the six “scenes” presented here, the most striking were the opening ensemble work, danced without accompaniment in boots; the closing ensemble piece, danced to the familiar “Home Grown Tomatoes” but with rap interludes; and two duets, “Old Love Song” and “Blue Diamond Mines.” Kessler wrote the lyrical “Old Love Song,” whose close harmony for two female voices is piercingly beautiful; so is the dancing–Cheney and Walsh often shadow each other so closely one almost disappears behind the other, and at musical high points they draw their arms across their own stomachs or clasp each other about the waist with great feeling. In “Blue Diamond Mines,” danced by Haun and the more petite but still attenuated Reynolds to Jean Ritchie’s music, one woman repeatedly bears the burden of the other’s weight. The musical refrain is “I worked my life away,” and the dance looks like work–and like a deeply felt kind of companionship. (I couldn’t help comparing it to Randy Duncan’s Women’s Work, which the Joseph Holmes troupe performs with a good deal of unnatural bounce, considering the title.) Scenes in a Saloon, scheduled for a full performance in May, is a dance of genuine promise. I look forward to the rest of it.

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