at the Civic Theatre

March 3-6, 1988

The Civic Center gambled that a seven-year-old local group, Chicago Repertory Dance Ensemble, could attract a broad public to this large downtown venue as part of the Civic’s Spring Festival of Dance. And the past full weekend of performance showed the risk was worth it: CRDE’s 16 dancers, all with track records of technical virtuosity, know how to present themselves with theatricality and imagination. Out of ten works on two programs, nine were created by CRDE members, and they offered a pretty impressive demonstration of the ensemble’s creativity.

Lar Lubovitch’s Big Shoulders, created for CRDE in 1984, was the only piece not choreographed by a member. It remains a vibrant, athletic, friendly celebration of Chicago’s architecture and of the men and women who struggled to build the city. Lubovitch gives this struggle wit and whimsicality: his cast of 12 speedily and entertainingly alternates between stints as construction workers, crawling in and out of tight spots, as steel girders being put into place, and as the bricks and mortar that go into arches and basements and around windows. The entire piece moves with speed, energy, and great good humor, greatly assisted by John Holabird’s evocative set. The work was effectively accompanied only by the sound of the dancers’ feet on floor, their occasional grunts, and a recording of voices and sounds of riveting at a distant construction site.

The two most innovative, clever works on the programs were collaborations by CRDE members Christina Ernst and Sam Watson. Unbreakable is a dance for eight, who play amusing games with glass in various forms. The stage was littered with rows of bottles of varying sizes, which the performers tossed back and forth or skipped in and out of with an illusively carefree charm, since the piece required considerable control and balance. The fragile glass contrasted sharply with the uninhibited dance, and the two choreographers contrived some very interesting patterns. Richard Woodbury’s brilliant synthesizer score, consisting of glass sounds–tinkling, breaking, clinking against other glass–was the perfect accompaniment.

Ernst and Watson also created and danced a fascinating pas de deux, The Power of Different Places. A sculpture by Tony Padilla is an integral part of the dance: they emerge from it as from an egg. Ernst and Watson are superb dancers–extraordinarily agile and acrobatic, and their unison spins, battements, and body lines showed a split-second timing. Whether the dance had some symbolic significance–having to do with Adam and Eve, or emergence into the world of sentient beings–didn’t really matter, for the performance itself was stunning.

Timothy O’Slynne, a well-known dancer-choreographer who recently joined CRDE, contributed Sudden Summer, a new work, and Isosceles Triangle, a 1987 piece. O’Slynne, who thinks in dramatic, psychological terms, didn’t disappoint. Sudden Summer, a trio for himself, Beth Bradley, and Brian Jeffery, is a study in simmering fin de siecle relationships, with Bradley as the object of repressed desire. The work opens provocatively: the three, clad in turn-of-the-century garb, try to bite into an apple hanging from a string. Finally Bradley simply grabs and bites into the fruit, which seems to tell us something about woman’s ability to act forthrightly (and about Bradley as a sensitive actress–a talent she has never before demonstrated).

But the mood soon changes and becomes Grand Guignol–Bradley, prone in rags, has presumably been gang-raped offstage; the men are bare-chested conquerors. Or are they? In the final scene, the three are dressed again as in the beginning and have returned to their respectable flirtation. Did anything violent really occur, or did we simply glimpse a dangerous corner of the mind, a secret wish or fantasy? O’Slynne leaves it to the viewer to decide.

O’Slynne’s interesting choreographic ideas for creating psychological nuances could almost have had the impact of Antony Tudor’s, but O’Slynne weakened the piece with lengthy blackouts between sections that destroyed the continuity. The piece would have been stronger, too, if it had been more subtle, without recourse to the bizarre and violent that O’Slynne seems to find so compelling.

Then, too, Paul Solberg’s original score was too contemporary for the atmosphere. Several years ago, Crowsnest presented The Garden of Villandry, which dealt with mysterious, unconsummated relationships in a similar trio. The music was a Schubert trio, which heightened the period mood and helped focus the erotic tensions, jealousies, and passions implicit in the three protagonists. Still, O’Slynne is rarely dull, and Sudden Summer had a fascinating concept.

Isosceles Triangle was interesting mainly because of a large triangular structure that the dancers slid down onto the stage. Although O’Slynne is always provocative in the way he mixes spoken text with movement, he sometimes becomes too cryptic and pretentious in the process.

Melissa Thodos danced her Reaching There, a cute, witty, acrobatic solo in which a large circular tube served as her partner. This dance avoided the sin, common to most other pieces on the programs, of going on for too long. It simply exhibited how imaginatively an artist can use a prop, and it was great fun.

Inner Tides, created by CRDE’s founder and artistic director, Tara Mitton, unhappily included portentous program notes about “random forces which change our lives.” It might have been more effective without those instructions, as sheer abstract movement that pleased because it was nicely crafted. Solberg’s original taped score was the accompaniment.

A major work, one of two presented at all performances (Unbreakable was the other), was Mary Ward’s A Night in Ballydesmond. This piece for 12 dancers was inspired by an evening she spent in a Ballydesmond pub. Ward may have thought she was offering a large-scale choreographic tribute to Irish culture and lore, but there was too much to absorb in this much-too-long single dance, which included three Irish drunks whose characterization was not only uncomical but offensive. The jigs were fun, and the fairy sprites were attractive in Brian Jeffery’s costumes–but this fantasy scene was unconnected with the rest of the dance, as was a scene of mourning, a graphic reminder of Ireland’s travail over the centuries. Ballydesmond has a goodly amount of inventive dance of Irish flavor and a wonderful score brilliantly arranged by Mike Kirkpatrick, but it needs tightening. With work, it might be one of CRDE’s liveliest, most accessible dances.

Ken Bowen’s lighting, here supported by a sophisticated light board, contributed greatly to all the pieces’ theatricality, and CRDE looked simply wonderful–sleek, stylish, and accomplished on the Civic Theatre stage.