Chicago Repertory Dance Ensemble and guest artists

at Ruth Page Foundation

July 8, 9, 15, 16, 22, and 23

Hatchlings resemble their parents, and most of the works premiered in the Chicago Repertory Dance Ensemble’s choreographic incubator New Dances, now in its sixth year, share the ensemble’s virtues and vices: its careful attention to production values, its strong sense of theater, its attractive and athletic dancing, its certain nostalgic cheeriness, and its unfortunate tendency toward the melodramatic and the banal.

David Hough’s Melody Ranch–the second dance on the Saturday program–differs little from his A Round at the Ritz, the Dance Ensemble’s ever popular signature piece. Hough has changed the jazz club of the Ritz to a western dance hall, added a cowgirl here, a mule there, a couple of animate cacti. It’s camp, it’s kooky; danced in this performance by the Kanopy Dance Theatre, it’s just the sort of thing the Dance Ensemble does so well.

Frank Fishella’s A Change of Worlds deteriorates in spite of all the care and craftsmanship of its production and the power inherent in Fishella’s dancing. A Change of Worlds begins when the video monitors surrounding the performance space flicker to life. A video of ambiguous images unspools: a man’s face and bare shoulder, a room with altarlike appointments, a woman enacting an unknown ritual with steaming cup, flowers, and feathers, the man motionless, facedown before her. When the video blurs to static, Fishella enters, wearing chaps and a painted loincloth. He crosses the stage with slow, controlled steps in plie, arms stretching straight sideward or bending at the elbow to slice and scoop the air.

The man and woman reappear on the video. She sits cross-legged on a beach, cradling his arching, pulsing torso across her lap; she soothes him. Fishella enters from the upstage corner and cuts across the stage in a great diagonal–arms reaching diagonally forward and back, his legs moving in opposition. He draws his weight back onto a bent leg, one arm contracting to the shoulder as if to draw a bow. He stamps a small circle, torso slightly rounded and head lowered, one arm curved overhead, the other curled behind his back.

With the repetition of these two motifs, the imagery grows trite; the mystery of A Change of Worlds drains away. Fishella’s face loses its introverted quality, and the dancing shifts from being meditative and experiential to being exhibitionistic and theatrical. The “worlds” of the title grow increasingly literal–the suggestion of an animal in the balance with torso tilted forward and foot pawing the ground is obvious. The ritual application of streaks of face paint, ankle bells, and feathered headband are precisely what Hollywood has conditioned audiences to expect of Native Americans (is this why the dancer caresses the blank video screen? if this dance is about the images that white culture forces upon Native American culture, then why are those images presented without question and without comment?). The Native American culture portrayed in A Change of Worlds is a sanitized one, little more than raw material for mainstream, popular art.

Beth Bradley’s Withinsight is highly theatrical, but lacks coherence. The dance begins with the four performers swathed in immense black capes, stalking back and forth across the stage almost at random; they walk parallel paths, never crossing, encountering, or relating. Eventually, parts of bodies appear–a hand covers a face; arms reach, fingers spread, while the dancer turns in plie. In the second section, a black-clad Mary Ward sits on a black chair upon a black table coolly contemplating a wineglass, while Frank Fishella gesticulates behind her, then strides diagonally across the stage exhibiting unspecified distress. They switch roles: he takes the wineglass and sits on another black chair, while she sinks to the floor, rolls, wraps her arm around her head, slides her hand down her thigh or slaps at it–all movements suggesting frustration and frigidity.

The third and fourth sections of Withinsight are more spatially complex. The third, a duet danced by Jane Siarny and Brian Jeffrey, contains the most interesting movement of the entire dance: gentle and sustained partnering performed sitting, kneeling, even lying, all traveling along a diagonal path bathed in warm, orange light. They rock back and forth, roll and tumble like a single egg; Siarny trickles off Jeffrey’s back like water. The duet also contains the most memorable image of Withinsight–he kneels and straddles her, rounds his back, reaches under and lifts her neck with a gesture sudden, gentle, urgent, and erotic. The final section, danced by all four, reiterates much of the material from the first two sections, but spreads the dancers about the stage, changes the directions they face, then groups them–a herd, a diagram, a frieze. Withinsight is a suggestive dance rather than a coherent one.

Melissa Thodos’s Ivanko is not at all what one expects to see choreographed by a member of the Dance Ensemble: it is entirely unself-conscious, intensely musical, and athletic even beyond the ensemble’s norm. Thodos, Joanne Barrett, Greg Lane, and Patrick Mullaney establish character and set the scene the moment they enter with basketball, skateboard, jump rope, and juggling balls, and suddenly see the silvery construction, equal parts uneven parallel bars and swing set, at center stage. They are children–exchanging conspiratorial glances, playing hand-over-hand up the side–but never have any children anywhere moved with this much flash and fire.

A changing trio weaves, leaps, and scoots around the stage, while the fourth dancer tries out the equipment. Stan Nevin’s score impels their every move. Soon they’re all four bouncing from bar to bar–in ones, twos, even fours–doing cherry drops, hip circles, eagles. They cartwheel over the structure, dive from bar to bar, dangle and drop. Seeing all those feats, memories of childhood joy rush in (remember the ecstasy of swinging all the way across the monkey bars for the very first time?). Of course, no playground in the country has ever seen this kind of virtuosity. Dance theaters seldom see it either, and even less seldom see virtuosity married to such an honest pleasure in moving for the sheer joy of moving.

Barbara Stein’s A Party in America is a surprising work for several reasons. The dance frustrates the very expectations its title arouses: this is not a simple narrative, and certainly not a pretty party story like the wedding at the end of Sleeping Beauty. If this is indeed a party, it’s a peculiarly macabre one; the dance itself is darkly seductive. Small groups coalesce and dissolve, individuals butt in and drift away, a dancer remains aloof–the choreographic groupings are not unlike the conversations at certain parties–but that’s as literal as this dance cares to get.

The dance begins with seven droopy dancers placed randomly about the stage. Suddenly they’re everywhere, hauling each other out of their chairs, flinging each other into different seats–risky throws, dramatic partnering, precise athleticism. They pair and re-pair. One dancer caroms, interrupts, interposes. Three women “hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil.” Brief moments of ensemble movement and square dancing emerge. A backward pirouette and spiral jump appear and return. A phrase materializes momentarily on six of the dancers, then the three duets disappear without a trace.

A Party in America is not without humor: one dancer mugs while he unpins another’s chignon, another yells “I am Oz,” one manipulates her own head and her partner’s by tugging on their ponytails. They trade high fives, dance a tribal stomp.

A Party is an unconventional dance. The design elements–Ian Rosenkrantz’s shifting, moody lighting; Tara Mitton’s very trendy, casual party clothes in deep teal, maroon, royal, and umber; the (uncredited) set’s scattered chrome-and-black chairs and six oversized black-and-white portraits hanging at the sides–have little or no relationship to one another or to the choreography, but they add interest. The choreography itself makes only limited use of the kinds of structure and organization–ensemble movement, canon, retrograde, repetition–that make most dances work. A Party encourages its audience to scan rather than focus, yet the dance coheres. A Party in America is not an easy dance to watch, but it is a rewarding one.

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