Haan Dances and Dura Mater

at Link’s Hall, April 12-14

By Terry Brennan

To those of us who stay, Chicago often seems a way station for dancers. Three times in the last five years the Chicago Dance Coalition’s award for best dancer was given to someone who’d already left Chicago. Those people who stay develop mechanisms to deal with the losses. One of them is Link’s Hall’s occasional series inviting former Chicagoans to return and perform. Like a school reunion, these performances provoke nagging questions: Should I move too? Is Chicago really the Second City? Did this person’s talent flower or wilt? Is there hope, for them or for us?

This year Link’s Hall brought to town two choreographers who have great strengths and great weaknesses. Luckily, one choreographer’s strength is the other’s weakness, so the performance as a whole was a satisfying experience.

Mary Wohl Haan uses traditional modern-dance movement in theatrical pieces that tell a story. Her best dance shows the deeply risky nature of intimacy, both its joys and dangers. Nose to Nose, a duet she performs with Kim Neal Nofsinger, starts with male-female sparring: she forms a circle with her arms and draws it over his head to embrace him; he politely but firmly slips out of the circle and moves away. She gives him a dead-level look that means “Men!” and later he rolls his eyes at her as if to say “Women!” He advances toward her; she pulls him by the arm in a circle; he leaves with great leaps. Later they find intimacy: again and again one lies on top of the other, then the other rolls on top; Haan rolls off, then lies touching the top of her head to the top of his head; then she’s up and dancing until he comes to find her. After a section in which they carry boxes filled with clothes comes the final section–a terrible fight, as Haan drags Nofsinger by the arm and he pulls away from her. She makes her body rigid and falls sideways; he catches her before she hits the floor. They still have a relationship but it’s in danger of shattering. They repeat some of their courting movements, rolling on top of each other, but they’re more hurried than before: this is like the last-ditch vacation couples take before they split. At the end, the two run together with their bodies touching, but it isn’t clear whether they’ve actually reconciled.

Haan’s other dances, both solos, are less successful. Throat Song seems to be a shamanistic invocation of some sort, and Pierce My Heart, O Lazy, Lacking Lilies, Touche is a ballet parody about silly romanticism. Haan’s storytelling in Pierce My Heart has too much detail, and Throat Song has too little. In Nose to Nose Haan’s storytelling is richly detailed, but it can be rapid and difficult to follow. Mark Morris, who excels at storytelling, will often repeat a movement at various moments to solidify a plot point–a device that Haan could use more often. She doesn’t invent much new movement, which can leave an aficionado disappointed.

Kriota Willberg has stripped away any storytelling impulses from her dances, which are so simple they can seem naive or faux naive. But because Willberg’s simple movement is endlessly inventive and her choreographic craft is mature, her dances continually engage the eye. Only at the end does their humor become apparent.

Willberg’s best dance, Esther San, is a straight-faced send-up of the soap-opera dramatics of traditional modern dance. The five dancers all wear brightly colored stockings over their forearms and hands, as well as gowns with open latticework around the legs. The stockings make their arms into waving, snakelike things, which Willberg uses to create a variety of images, sometimes bizarre and sometimes striking. In one, a woman lies with her legs on the ground, her upper body propped up on her arms and her head turned away. The other dancers stand in a crowd over her, their arms waving snakily. For a moment she looks like a mermaid being threatened by a sea monster, but the image is so corny that a guilty chuckle slipped out of my mouth. Toward the end the five dancers form a line upstage and advance toward the audience, stopping just a few feet away. It’s an extremely dramatic preparation, but the movement they perform in unison for the next minute is a tiny waving motion of their stockinged hands. The motion is so unexpected that after a few moments of staring openmouthed at the dancers, I burst into giggles I couldn’t stop.

Two of Willberg’s short pieces, Patio and What You See… reveal the same sly humor, though the dances seem underdeveloped. Shiatsu Dance, a work in progress that is clearly unfinished, has a pleasing sense of balance and stillness and interesting movement material drawn from Willberg’s day job as a massage therapist.

It’s through people like Haan and Willberg that Chicagoans learn to place themselves in the dance world. Haan and her husband moved to Boulder, Colorado, when they decided to raise their children in a smaller town. But Haan struggles to keep dance alive there, facing unique problems such as heavy snowfalls in the middle of a dance season that can shut mountain passes and keep people from performances. Haan’s dances are direct and emotional, just right for audiences new to dance. Willberg decided to go to New York City to further her career. Her work is more cutting-edge than Haan’s and requires a sophisticated audience that knows dance history and is looking for the next new thing. The conclusion is obvious: Chicago is an important provincial city, destined to lose its ambitious dancers to bigger places and to provide training for dancers who move to smaller towns. Maybe we should call ourselves the Middle City.

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