CHICAGO DANCE MEDIUM
at MoMing Dance & Arts Center
April 21-23, 1988
Watching the Chicago Dance Medium’s spring concert was a little like getting a bad bottle of Pouilly Fuisse. I knew I was being offered a superior product, but something was just a bit sour. The dances, although for the most part intelligently choreographed and cleanly staged, lacked passion and commitment. It was as if everyone had shown up only five minutes before curtain, and the dancers had had a hard time getting into the swing of things.
The first piece, On the Water’s Edge, choreographed by Chicago Dance Medium’s artistic director, Rosemary Doolas, never seemed to click into gear. On the Water’s Edge presented two men in cool cotton safari suits lounging in wooden deck chairs, while six women in wispy leotards joyfully pranced about the stage to the strains of a Vivaldi string quartet. While this dance nicely evoked a feeling of late-summer languor–under the smoldering orange sun hung at the rear of the stage, the dancers seemed to dally on the bank of an unseen river–I felt as if the piece had started before everyone was ready. The dancers generally lacked precision, too often performing their movements hesitantly rather than confidently. When two or three of the women were supposed to be dancing in unison, arms and legs were often extended at different angles, making the dancers seem sloppy, underrehearsed.
The choreography itself was at times confused and unfocused. The dance fluctuated between composed elegance and clunky awkwardness. In their quasi-balletic movements, the women generally exhibited grace and charm. Debra Nanni and Ellen Werksman in particular demonstrated great skill, leaping and spinning with such weightlessness they seemed to dance six inches off the floor. Doolas’s unusual use of ballet–pirouettes, jetes–in her (otherwise modern) dance heightened the sense of summer laziness that pervaded it: traditional ballet dancers would have executed such movements with absolute precision and discipline, but Doolas’s dancers softened them, looking a little like ballet students on break. They seemed to be marking the routines, remembering rather than fully embodying the gestures.
All too often, however, in the midst of such delicate work, the dancers would move to the floor and contort themselves into surprisingly ugly positions. These only became worse when two dancers were lumped together, twining about one another indiscriminately, even vulgarly, the dancers all arms, legs, and crotches. In a piece already marred by a general lack of precision, these sections impeded the momentum that the more graceful sections had created.
The second piece on the program, Neta Pulvermacher’s The Mystery, convinced me that I had attended on an off night. Pulvermacher, who usually performs with explosive energy and rock-solid balance, wavered all the way through. Her sharp movements–reminiscent of the martial arts–never captured my attention the way they had when I first saw her perform The Mystery last February. In that performance she had thrilled me by violently attacking both the piece and the space around her, slamming everything from her hands to her entire body into the floor. This time around, I gasped not out of awe but out of concern that in slamming herself down she might have dislocated her shoulder.
Next was Freeway, a premiere by Doolas, danced by Frank Fishella, David Puszczewicz, and Tom Siddoway. Despite the dramatic lighting by Tom Fleming, Freeway amounted to little more than bogus macho swaggering, with Fishella the worst culprit. Set to the pulsating, heroic syntho-pop of Kraftwerk’s Autobahn, the piece unfortunately came to parody itself, as the men tried unsuccessfully to impress us with how tough they were. Except for a hot, snappy duet between Puszczewicz and Siddoway, Freeway disintegrated into a collection of manly poses. The three performers were usually unable to develop any sense of ensemble, either technically or aesthetically.
By the second half of the program, the dancers seemed to find their focus and the evening took off. Untitled, another premiere by Doolas, is easily the most beautiful dance I’ve seen by a local company. Nine women in mottled, translucent dresses and headbands quietly performed a series of elusive, alluring gestures. Beginning with some seemingly random but expertly orchestrated movements, Untitled evolved into a sweet, melancholy celebration of community, as the women danced for one another, touched one another, and finally came together to perform in perfect unison. All of the movements were simple–the extension of an arm, the tilt of a head–but the dancers exploited this fact, keeping their gestures uncomplicated and yet performing them precisely. This was not an exercise in technical virtuosity but an exploration of the beauty of an expertly trained ensemble moving simply. Each dancer so thoroughly kept her place within the piece that the picture formed by the nine women was always consistent and complete–it retained its own integrity–even though the group was constantly transforming and reshaping itself.
It was the dancers’ acute awareness of one another that made Untitled such a success, especially in the context of the other dances. All of the women were performing the same dance, although no two of them performed exactly the same routine. The dancers shared a common style, a sensibility–which was expressed in nine idiosyncratic ways. The only element that seemed slightly out of place in this otherwise seamless piece was a large blue grid, on which three mirrors were hung, at the rear of the stage. This immutable element, with its sharp, rectilinear contours, seemed pasted onto the dance rather than engendered by it naturally. Although not particularly distracting or distasteful, it added nothing to the piece.
Last on the program was a rather light work, Life Is. Six dancers, dressed in 1930s elegance, swirled about the stage to the endearing singing of Karen Akers. Although Life Is was not terribly successful overall–something about a man and two women and maybe jealousy–it was quite successful in its details. Again, Nanni and Werksman (as the two women) stood out, coyly seducing the audience. Fishella performed a captivating aside: planting one hand on a high stool, he slowly pivoted in tiny circles around it, keeping his body and limbs perfectly rigid. And the final section, in which all six dancers performed a simple jazz routine to the song “Life Is” from the musical Zorba, engaged me–subtly alluding to the Broadway musical, evoking that joyful release I’m always suckered into during Zorba’s grand finale. Chicago Dance Medium’s grand finale would have been more gratifying, however, if the earlier part of the evening had shown more rigor, more spirit.