at Centre East

May 7, 1988

Chi-Town Jazz Dance, which boasts of being Chicago’s newest jazz dance company–it was formed in 1983–affirmed its novelty Saturday in a program in which the seven company members seemed at times to have all the sobriety of cheerleaders. Although technically unspectacular, the troupe was decidedly fresh, irrepressibly eager, and undeniably entertaining.

Artistic director Meribeth Kisner is no dance novice–she has been an apprentice to the Harkness Ballet in Dallas, a principal dancer and associate director of Gus Giordano Jazz Dance Chicago, and a dancer in numerous Broadway and stock productions. Now in her mid-30s, Kisner stands out among her dancers because of her willowy height and assured attitude.

But despite Kisner’s experience, her choreography is almost sophomoric, steadily measured to the beat, the music determining the next move more than serving as a backdrop for interpretation. This is no doubt deliberate. Because her dancers are at varying levels of competence, Kisner’s dances play to the middle ground–where a few dancers were on shaky, and some on none-too-firm, footing.

The program opened with Phrase Three by Kisner, using new-age jazz music by Pat Metheney and Michael Convertino. Kim Tunstall, in a white top and black chiffon skirt, and Bill Stewart, in black top and white pants, streamed onstage for a sultry duet. Actually, Stewart did little but pose and support his partner as she spun and strutted, batting her leg up to tap her nose. Tunstall has exotic, catlike features: a wide brow tapering to an elongated chin; large, tilted eyes; pronounced cheekbones. She is the most secure of the dancers, relating to the audience with head-on directness. The couple were joined by Julie Cartier and Robert DeLeon, who spun in slower, softer attitude turns and extensions as the runaway piano-and-snare-drum score softened. They exited as petite, dark Sharon Freedman entered for a brief, spirited solo. Kisner and the other dancers then joined Freedman in leaps across the stage and slow extensions, ending in a circle of reddish light, arms and faces lifted to the rafters.

Kisner was spotlighted in the second movement; the music was slow and sad as she ran around the others, who stood motionless. She was searching for something, never found it, and finally sank to her knees, covering her eyes.

In the third movement, the full company (those named plus Jill McConnell) were in blue pants and black, iridescent tops. Their heads snapped to the booming samba beat, shoulders pumped up and down like pistons, legs flashed high. This finale aroused enthusiastic whistles and applause from the audience, but the dance’s purpose confused me–the three sections were entirely disjoint, from the movement to the musical themes.

Freedman choreographed Four Ladies Only, a pretty bauble dedicated to the choreographer’s mother for teaching her, according to a program note, “a lot about what it is to be a woman.” Cartier and Freedman, in pastel T-shirts and white tights, drifted through the first section, “Contemplation,” to an acoustic Elton John ballad. Tunstall made it a threesome in “Competition,” accompanied by Rickie Lee Jones’s “Easy Money.” “Competition” had wonderful touches of humor, as each tried to outdo the others in primping and preening before invisible mirrors. Although Freedman quivered through the slow extensions and turns, her deadpan wit was right on; Cartier and Tunstall were confidently catty. Van Morrison’s “Moondance” capped the third section, “Cooperation,” in which the three women seemed happily innocent.

The tap dancing in On Tap was not especially showy; but above the rolls and shuffles, the three dancers (Cartier, Kisner, and Tunstall in red, white, and blue) had easy, teasing faces as they tried to one-up each other with lots of rolling eyes and curled lips.

The only narrative work on the program, Ask Me If I Care, was by Tunstall. This story of a gang leader’s choice between her man and her gang used music by the Yellow Jackets; the dancers wore black, punkish costumes by Joan Egloff. Tunstall ran onstage and stopped, casting a daring look at the audience; she snapped her fingers and ran off. As the pounding jazz began, she and rival gang leader Cartier entered and clashed, joined by gang members Freedman and McConnell. There were some very good fight scenes, with high kicks, tumbling, and leaping. The two men entered, and Stewart immediately pursued Tunstall. He ripped off her glittering arm band, apparently as cherished a badge as Marion Brando’s racing trophy in The Wild One–without it, Tunstall’s authority was shaken. She ran offstage with Stewart; Cartier filched the arm band; Freedman raised aloft a clenched fist in despair. After a protracted series of “I’ll go for the arm band–no, I’ll go for the guy–no, the arm band . . . ,” Tunstall finally retreated with Stewart to a corner cluttered with crates and inner tubes. As the lights went down and the others darkened to silhouettes, the two lovers were seen lavishly making out, his hands firmly planted on her rump.

What point was this piece trying to make? Rejecting her gang’s scepter, Tunstall throws herself at a man whose only motivation seems to be to drag her over to his lair and paw her. What does this say about her strength and independence? She can rule a gang but not her destiny? Much of the jazz on this program fell into the Fame category of lusty moves and sexy costumes; Ask Me If I Care was no different, and any statement it might have made was cheapened by this superficial presentation.

In Monarch, Kisner broke away from Chi-Town’s vision of jazz as crotch-and-thigh exhibition. In this piece, inspired by a species of butterfly that lives only 24 hours, the dancers wore mud-colored unitards adorned with brilliant gold butterfly-shaped vests (sashes for the men). The dance was introspective and slow, shaded by David Sanborn’s wailing saxophone. Instead of the expected joyous, “seize the day” message, it expressed the idea of knowing one’s purpose in life and carrying it out nobly.

At the Big Club Hall capped the program with a ruffle of styles and costumes that all drew on the big band era, with music by Les Hooper, Les McCann, and Peter Herbolzheimer. Tunstall dominated the stage with her expansive, joint-popping technique, legs to her eyebrows. She dances with such force her accessories have a hard time staying put–in On Tap she had to cover, and did so beautifully, for a lost derby, while in Big Club Hall her tuxedo jacket sprang open with her first high-flying kick. At the climax, she led the pack of dancers downstage in a high-stepping, shoulder-shimmying charge, white-gloved fingers waving high. The audience returned the favor with a standing ovation.

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