Chicago Moving Company

at the Harold Washington Library Center, April 7 and 8

By Charlie Vernon

In the penultimate piece of an evening of dance works called “Fresh & New,” Chicago Moving Company director Nana Shineflug takes the stage alone in paisley-appliqued blue jeans and a nearly backless top to perform a parable based on a story by Franz Kafka. Her movement in Gandy Dancer is bouncy, liquid, and refers frequently to Siva, the dancing Indian god; she smiles the smile of a student hoping for enlightenment; her costume refers not only to the East but to the 60s and all the awakenings one might have wished for.

As for the parable, Shineflug speaks as one who approaches a gate she would like to pass through and is told by the gatekeeper that it would not be advisable to do so. It turns out the seeker sits outside the gate all her life, never venturing in. And though I couldn’t fully hear the words, the moral of the story was clear: there will always be gatekeepers suggesting that it is not advisable to proceed. But if we don’t wish to sit on the sidelines throughout life we have to ignore their warnings and go for it.

A bit corny for sure, but when you see Shineflug–the grooving grandma whose dance company is two years shy of 30–commit to her bobbling, bubbling motion, you feel the personal truth of her story and are amused and touched. And her body serves her well.

For years Shineflug has been listening to her inner voice, ignoring the naysayers and going for it, at times against all odds. How lovely, then, to achieve this evening, this payoff, after a lifetime in lesser venues, lesser circumstances, and frequently with lesser material. The Chicago Moving Company (some may remember long-ago photos of dancers in moving vans) seems indeed fresh and new, with clear and clever performers, an entertaining array of choreographic styles, and stunning production values.

Rust Proof and In Passing are inventive pure-movement pieces by CMC assistant artistic director Cindy Brandle. The first is for four women in shimmering pants outfits, set to Santana: “I ain’t got nobody that I can depend on.” Witty and glib, the piece demonstrates a fine eye for the design and manipulation of phrases. The dancers clearly convey all the sharpness and contrasting floppiness of the choreography, the unison and the canon elements. In Passing is a modern-dance white ballet, lyrical, abstract, and pretty, for a man and four women. Is there a trace of mourning? A bit serious, it complements the rest of the evening, cleansing the palate.

Brandle’s gifts are evident; the dancers enjoy their tasks. But in both works she seems overpowered by her musical choices and has problems getting the endings right. While the closing moments clearly come out of the dances, she imposes them in an unsatisfying, inorganic way.

Compare Shineflug’s musical choices in her two group works, Red Piece and Approaching 9. She selects music by contemporary composer Pauline Oliveros, whose sound washes over the space, creating textures not unlike the fluid spatters projected on the cyclorama in Red Piece: this dance is never tethered to the dictates of a pop music riff. It begins and ends with Brandle alone onstage–perhaps as an homage to her contributions to the company over the years. Red Piece relies on the clean execution of its gestures and on the mathematical mind of the choreographer (who was once a math teacher): Shineflug lets us see these phrases and variations from several satisfying angles and in fine combinations. The brilliant red costumes add to the clarity of the movement, which glistens jewel-like against a backdrop of grays and ocher.

Approaching 9 is a trio, casual in rehearsal clothes, serious in purpose, and funny in its contrasts. Walking patterns begin the work–nothing new here. Yet there’s an interesting evolution into complexity, a touch of non sequitur, a modest goal well realized. And look how swell the ending is–just a mutual agreement that the interlude is over. The three dancers hold hands upstage, move forward as if to bow, but the lights go down.

Kriota Willberg, a former CMC member now working in New York, has set three miniature works on the company marked by arresting or amusing music, costumes, and lighting. Interstitial Sweet is a duet featuring Brandle (with a sensual Peggy Lee-like presence here) and Peter Sciscioli, dressed in hooded plastic; it’s set against an abstraction of waves and to wavering, watery music. In this brief screwball comedy, the two seem inseparable yet not quite in sync. Interstitial Suite is a trio with Elizabeth Lentz, M.K. Victorson, and Sciscioli dressed in sequined, bustled outfits reminiscent of far-out folk-dance duds. Here Willberg’s ideas–quick strokes, quirky jabs, and clear arrangements–are perfectly realized. Least successful is Interstitial Sweat, performed by Tiffany Bowden, Mindy Meyers, and Victorson. Set two against one at opposite ends of the stage, the dancers wear baby-doll nightgowns, and their movement vocabulary is limited. The piece is mostly a light and music show with the dancers acting as little more than reflectors.

Sheldon B. Smith’s Untitled Pastorale closed the evening. Set primarily to Vivaldi and popular songs and performed by the entire company plus apprentices Juan Estrada and Diana Garcia and guests Kay Wendt LaSota and Smith himself, the piece begins with a voice-over before the curtain opens. Smith describes a stage set (or is it a dream?), his perfect composition: a field of pure green grass with a huge tree, the roots touching down stage right, and a flock of sheep, 40 of them–a picture of bliss. Then the curtain opens to a brightly lit, empty space enclosed by a backdrop of black velvet drapery. The dancers, all in white-fringed, diaphanous costumes with inset squares of puffy clouds against a blue background, move as a flock in and out of games, a twisted reel, keep away, couple’s dances. For a moment Smith, the artist, is prevented from meeting his muse, separated from his inspiration. Clots of bodies coalesce and evaporate. There is not a phrase in sight.

Dancers break off, move to the apron, and look down into the pit. They sing and hum “You Are My Sunshine,” jump into the pit, and watch how the dance proceeds. Smith’s solo ends when he finds his flock again, winding up in the pit himself. It seems the artist, now on the wrong side of the footlights, has lost control of his work.

Fragments of two other sunshine songs (“Sunshine on My Shoulders” and “You Are the Sunshine of My Life”) pepper this dadaist dream about grass being greener. As the black backdrop opens to reveal a brilliant blue sky, the choreographer crawls onstage from the pit, trying to wrest back control of his enterprise. Shineflug, wearing an over-the-top Little Bo Peep number, drags a stuffed lamb on wheels across the space as the flock of white scampers a bit sophomorically across the stage. Will Smith tame the forces of nature? Can the artist take charge again? Can he pull a dance out of a dream? Or vice versa? The curtain creaks to a close and we never quite know for sure.

By relinquishing movement phrases Smith allows himself a looser, freer, more lyrical hand, invoking Watteau and Fragonard as well as Sir Frederick Ashton, among others. It’s quite an achievement using splotches and globs–and a palette of white, sky blue, and black–in the service of a classical landscape. He manages to comment on the artist, the audience, the actor, the flock, and yet avoids his reflexive reliance on cynicism–though there’s irony, yes, enough to create something like purity, something like affection, even bliss. He doesn’t seem afraid of or need to make fun of the softness and satisfaction of lambs in a landscape.

“Fresh & New” revisits various stops on the modern-dance time line, from abstraction to storytelling, from personal saga to group geometry lesson, each place carved with the clarity of a long-lived group directed by one who hasn’t always listened to the gatekeepers.

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