at the Dance Center of Columbia College

November 19-21

Nana Shineflug is a choreographer who knows how good it feels to dance–to run, to jump, to be held aloft by another person then gently lowered, to turn on a dime, stomp a foot, swing an arm. And she passes along that joy to her dancers. The Chicago Moving Company show in their faces how natural and good her choreography is.

But as a choreographer she must also work with the beginnings, middles, and ends of dances, and there Shineflug isn’t as strong. In recent years she’s been adding text to her pieces, possibly to give them the additional shape and structure they need. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.

Her 1991 Bewegung, which opened her concert at the Dance Center, comes close to success, but like many of Shineflug’s dances it’s missing one thing. Bewegung begins with an anecdote: long ago, when Shineflug had decided to give up drinking, a friend said to her, “You’re lucky someone loved you when you were little. It saved your life.” That thought is a beautiful impetus for a dance, and the dance itself is quite beautiful–with soft, lyrical movements performed to a bittersweet piano and violin duet composed by Jeff Abell and played by Lezlee Crawford and Monica Reilly.

But beautiful isn’t enough. Shineflug tells a story about her grandmother, the someone who loved her when she was little. Her grandmother was loving and strong even after suffering tremendously as an immigrant to the United States. She spoke no English. Her brother abandoned her, so she was alone in Chicago. Her husband died at a young age. Shineflug talks about experiences that must have been very painful, but nothing in the movement or her tone of voice betrays that pain. This creates a problem: without a genuine conflict, the dance can’t arrive at a true resolution.

When she creates her dances Shineflug seems to shy away from that struggle. So even though the music and movement have ended, the dance never feels like it’s over. Intersections, a new dance incorporating 25 noncompany performers, works a bit better but still leaves me with the gut feeling that nothing really happened and nothing has been resolved. Intersections succeeds on a lot of other levels, however. It’s delightfully whimsical. And by incorporating the movements and ideas of 25 community members, it makes dance a very real and entertaining art form for people who wouldn’t otherwise move about onstage.

In making this dance Shineflug worked with the idea of intersecting cultures, of people whose paths might not otherwise cross. She intersects our culture with that of the Andaman Islanders from the Bay of Bengal and that of the Kwakiutl Indians of Canada; professional dancers with members of the Chicago community; and spirituality with postmodern dance theories.

Her choreography for Intersections basically combines simple dance/theater exercises and childhood games: red light/green light, jump-rope songs, movement-transformation and word-association exercises. As we watch the movement onstage, Shineflug tells anecdotes about gift giving in different cultures. It’s lively and fun, but ultimately unsatisfying because the action doesn’t go anywhere.

I think Shineflug means for it to go somewhere. At one point near the end two ropes are stretched across the stage. The dancers take sides and start yelling and shaking fists at each other. Then one by one they walk off. “We all have our own arguments,” Shineflug’s voice is heard over the speaker. But this wasn’t truly an argument. It was a group of people playing at arguing, just as they played red light/green light.

Shineflug then tells a story about a ritual used to resolve conflicts on the Andaman Islands. As she speaks, the dancers calmly perform a series of steps and arm movements, following each other in a line that snakes down the stage. The last gesture in the series is a relaxed sigh of pleasure. Overall the movement has a soothing effect, but no need to be soothed has been created. If there had been a genuine conflict earlier, this final section would have had a cathartic feel. But because no tension has been built, there’s no release.

Rappu Nui, another premiere, also suffers structural problems. In her program note, Shineflug says her goal was to create movement “that can be seen almost in its entirety by the audience,” unlike the densely layered activity that has come to dominate postmodern choreography. Winston Damon composed the interesting music for Rappu Nui–soothing, polyrhythmic drums and bells–and as in all Shineflug’s choreography the movement is sensuous and soothing. But again, overall it lacked a sense of progression. By the end I felt I’d been sleeping too long in a soft bed.