Chicago Moving Company

at the Harold Washington Library Center, April 27-28

By Nancy G. Moore

When Nana Shineflug formed the Chicago Moving Company in 1972, the name had a fresh, revolutionary sound to it, evoking antiestablishment politics: like Big Brother and the Holding Company, the group appropriated the name of a capitalist institution and deployed it within the socialist discourse of the counterculture. But the idea of a people’s moving company–a houseful of itinerant artists who pay the rent by moving folks from one place to another–is now buried in a commonplace analogy between hauling furniture and hauling ass.

Nana Shineflug, 65, exemplifies the idea of “moving” in 1972–which is not to say that her ideas are dated but that she’s still invested in social criticism. For the company’s spring concert, “Places of Meeting,” she’s taken a chance on Atalee Judy, a self-proclaimed bad kid whose choreography recalls the tumultuous social climate from which the Chicago Moving Company emerged. When Shineflug asked Judy if she would make a dance for the troupe, Judy worried that they wouldn’t be up to her “bodyslam technique,” but Shineflug said, “I trust you…do whatever. We’re yours.”

Judy’s dance–Logotype 02, one of a series of confrontational pieces–proved the most riveting on the program. In the solo Logotype 00 Judy associated guns with movement derived from “fall and recovery” techniques she’d learned in the mosh pits of New York City; the duet Logotype 01 featured a video image of a bald head with the top cut away to reveal nothing but static. Logotype 02–the first group dance in her series–uses the image of a bar code being scanned to show the way individuality gets lost in the drive to identify consumers by their purchases. Underneath identical striped work suits, her dancers have bar codes on their backs, as if the scanning process were analogous to the labeling of Jews in Nazi concentration camps–an association confirmed by projections of bombed buildings and gaunt prisoners.

With two notable exceptions, the movement is unrelentingly violent, drawn from Judy’s immersion as a teenager in the punk rock scene, skateboarding, and the martial arts. When coupled with the deafening acoustic environment put together by Claypeople and Esch Marie (Judy and her husband, Robert Hyman), the choreography gives a visceral reality to the impact of electronic surveillance on our lives.

But oddly the piece begins and ends with what looks like butoh dance. We first see Shineflug covered in white clay, hunched over, her fingers barely moving in front of her face. Video close-ups from different angles reveal volcanic cracks in her “skin,” as if she were burning inside. This style reappears at the end, when the sole male dancer, Juan Estrada, assumes the same position, looking rather hopelessly toward the dim lights above: this may be a rebel who’s refused to be scanned or a futuristic being simply shedding his skin. But Shineflug’s and Estrada’s silent, almost immobile sections seem to comment on the ruthless dancing they frame, ensuring that Judy’s critique of massive cultural surveillance will not get confused with the aggression by which she reveals it.

And the dancing can be violent, almost suggesting a flirtation with the totalitarian strategies Judy seeks to expose. After the initial butoh section, a group of menacing women–some wearing gas masks–line up in military formation while a male nonconformist writhes downstage with a bandage covering his eyes. Projected in back is a thin, red beam of light scanning a bar code, accompanied by the shuttling noise of an automatic lock closing again and again. Suddenly, with no perceivable preparation, two of the women fling themselves high into the air, legs kicking out to one side as if blown away. You see their disheveled hair in silhouette as it flies in the opposite direction, layered momentarily over the blurred projection of a couple in gas masks holding a baby. The two women land bolt upright, still facing the audience, as two more dancers are thrown up like clumps of earth. A somewhat confusing struggle between individual and group ensues, in which the women antagonists turn out to be victims themselves; the choreographer’s intention may not be completely clear, but the movement is sharply defined and rigorously executed. With Logotype 02 Judy transforms the company, giving it a new look and energy befitting its birth in the days of Janis Joplin and the Fillmore West.

Just as the title of the concert suggests a common ground between late-20th-century countercultures, it also provokes reflection on what’s happened to the revolutionary character of modern dance. Sharing artistic-director duties with Shineflug is Cindy Brandle, whose meditative, carefully patterned dance for ten, Regret, provided a kind of safe haven after the sensory assault of Logotype 02. This premiere features Brandle’s bright red costumes and a sound score (created with the help of Esch Marie) of spoken as well as musical passages. To a litany of synonyms and antonyms for the word “regret,” the dancers engage in repetitive, decidedly decorous movements suggesting forgiveness and release as well as repentance. Regret is a meticulously crafted dance, but its structural devices–canon formations and picturesque gestural motifs–don’t work as well as they used to unless they are themselves the subject of the dance, as in so much postmodern choreography.

The opening number, Shineflug’s Boom, wasn’t nearly as loud in any sense as Logotype 02. This is a clever, upbeat “North American” dance choreographed for the company’s recent tour of Brazil, and for it and the closing dance–Shineflug’s Love Songs–she chose music that would please rather than challenge her audience. Boom is set to a John Adams piece called “Lollapalooza” that enables the choreographer to dip into jazz dance without calling to mind West Side Story. Inspired by the Magnetic Fields’ rendition of 69 “romantic” tunes, Love Songs has nine sections with such titles as “Acoustic Guitar,” “Papa Was a Rodeo,” and “Time Enough for Rocking When We’re Old.” Judy contributed the costumes, which include blinking red signals affixed to breasts and belly buttons. Judging from the noise behind me, it had some appeal, but after Judy’s Logotype 02, it seemed corny to me.

Of Shineflug’s three works, I liked best her solo improvisation–the first, she claimed, in which she’s attempted to go beyond the “steps she had learned from other people.” Dressed in silky blue violet, with Erik Satie’s “Gymnopedie #3” playing in the background, Shineflug faced the audience almost the entire time, neither melancholy nor impassioned–we saw no expressionist angst or dreamy drifting about like Isadora Duncan riding a wave of Chopin. As in the “tree solo” Shineflug danced a few years ago, she took pleasure in simply standing before us and extending her “branches,” finding countless ways to interrupt herself without losing her place–or our gaze.

The challenge now is for her younger associates to similarly root themselves despite an increasingly unsupportive environment for modern dance. After all, they owe it to their revolutionary beginnings to forge ahead and not simply repeat what’s been done before.

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