Chance Dance Fest

at Link’s Hall, through August 28

By Laura Molzahn

Pundits often decry the ignorance of voters who choose a candidate not on the basis of what he says but for how he looks and moves. But shouldn’t we voters be given more credit? After all, talk is just talk–promises the elected official will most likely break as soon as he’s in office. And, as Martha Graham once said, the body doesn’t lie. Maybe voters should congratulate themselves on their common sense in examining a candidate’s face and gestures for clues to his character.

Live performance gives us the opportunity to stare, to judge a person solely on his or her looks. And more than other performances, the annual Chance Dance Fest at Link’s Hall is laid-back, a lazy August showcase we’re invited to take or leave: stare or don’t stare, it makes no difference to these artists. The show I saw was made up of Bob Eisen’s dance New Quartet, which will be shown on every evening of the fest, and a solo performance piece by Jeff Dorchen, which will not.

Despite its nondescript title, Eisen’s quartet has a faint odor of political commentary. For one thing, part of the sound track is a short political speech complete with cheering; repeated three times in a row, it sounds a little more false, a little less passionate and committed each time, despite all the ranting about the “voice of freedom endangered.” For another, at one point the dancers change into costumes that recall the bright, geometric, skintight designs that jingoistic Olympic athletes wear. But these costumes, with their diamond patterns, also suggest the harlequin. And this section, with its surprising grabs and jazz layouts, is more athletic and crazy than the one that precedes it: Olympic athlete as puppet on a string.

New Quartet falls into discrete sections marked by the stop-and-go sound design (a typical Winston Damon creation, it recalls many noises, among them the surging, angry buzzing of flies amplified many times), the dancers’ costume changes, and their going into or coming out of one of the Link’s Hall closets, doors, or windows. The first section, danced in twilight, is formally beautiful, aloof and a little cold; the dancers wear flowing pants and short, loose tops. Then they spend a long time in a closet, banging, shrieking, and talking loud: it sounds like either a party or some disaster, perhaps the Titanic going down. They emerge in their harlequin garb and clown around for a while, but this section concludes with a slow, gentle seduction between Eisen and Felicia Ballos that’s really no seduction at all, ending in an eyes-averted change into loose, flowing costumes again. (This “seduction” reminded me of one of those nonrelationships that seems to be heading somewhere fast and then abruptly doesn’t, as the right moment comes and goes.)

At times I thought Eisen was commenting on male-female relationships–perhaps because the male-female roles here don’t seem interchangeable the way they often are in his work. He apparently focused on the fact that he was choreographing for two men and two women, even though he’s closer in size to Amy Alt than he is to the other man, Krenly Guzman, or than Alt is to Ballos. Moreover, sometimes the women seem oppressed: the first section includes long phrases in which Eisen puts his palm to Ballos’s face in a way that isn’t quite violent but doesn’t look friendly. The men often vault over the women’s backs. And at one point the women lie curled on the floor, Ballos as if sleeping, Alt as if crumpled by some blow.

But more than anything New Quartet communicates what it’s like to be excluded. When the dancers are banging around in the closet, the audience is forced to “eavesdrop” on them–and whether this is a party or a disaster, we vaguely want in on the action. When the speech was being repeated, I was suddenly aware of the dancers’ isolation from the politician’s meaningless words and from the recorded cheers. With all the going in and out of closets and windows (Eisen and Ballos even pantomime a closet), the piece seems to comment on public and private lives, on what’s hidden from view and what’s not.

Yet any sense of exclusion is eradicated by the final section. As usual, Eisen is using strong, idiosyncratic performers like himself, and this section ends with a kind of ceremony that reveals both the dancers’ differences and their common purpose. Each stands in one of the four corners, and they walk together to form a tight knot facing in; holding hands, they kneel and fall sideways into a rolling circle that breaks their hold on one another. When Eisen places a hand on both women’s shoulders, Guzman takes a running leap from behind them and rockets through their ranks. Then, as Eisen watches–the artist surveying his work–the other three dancers spin in unison.

Maybe Eisen’s New Quartet examines the way we maintain a sense of community even as the political world excludes us, maybe not. But if it does, it’s by indirection. Elusive and dense as the woods at night, this piece is full of shadows and mysterious light–heavy, pervasive perfumes and delicate scents that vanish. It’s a masterful work from a choreographer who’s spent years focused on his craft.

By contrast Dorchen’s The Island seems slight. His props are an electric guitar and a small tent; after adjusting the amp for feedback and finally achieving a wash of rhythmic sound, he surprises us by announcing, “They told me not to bring an electric guitar to a wilderness island.”

The brief Island almost seems a sketch for a longer work, though its rather monotonous structure makes it an unlikely candidate for expansion: Dorchen alternates tunes on the guitar with bits of his clever monologue, accompanied by the tuneless wash of sound. The monologue itself, in which Dorchen describes a 24-hour solo camping trip on an island, reiterates this structure: he describes running in and out of a lake, as if in and out of a piece of music, and actually scrambles in and out of his onstage tent. Though the monologue is often funny, there’s something sad about it too, as Dorchen repeatedly wishes to dissolve in the lake or the night–wishes to achieve peace and a sense of union–yet restlessly, distractedly moves from one activity to another.

As The Island went on I was increasingly aware of how different Dorchen seemed when he was talking and when he was playing guitar. Talking, he was almost tiresomely self-deprecating, delivering phrases like “union with the oneness” ironically. But there was a great sweetness in his earnest, straightforward playing, when he stopped addressing us and, eyes cast down and lips twitched up, focused on his music. Unlike Eisen’s New Quartet, Dorchen’s The Island hasn’t a shred of political commentary. But like Eisen’s piece, Dorchen’s confirms Graham’s truth, which runs so radically counter to our culture: the body doesn’t lie.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo of three dancers.