Columbus Chicago Dance Connection

Balinda Craig-Quijada and Emily Stein

at Link’s Hall, August 17 and 18

Dance for Life

at the Skyline Stage, Navy Pier, August 19

Watching dance is often an intimate experience. Some might argue that it should be, given the form’s spiritual and social roots–even ballet started out in ballrooms, the performers often members or guests of the court. Maybe that’s why I like to see dance in small spaces like rehearsal studios and Link’s Hall. And because the dance world itself is small, the people in it can seem a community, almost a family.

Of course sometimes an audience is literally made up of family and friends who haven’t seen much dance, and their partisanship can sabotage a concert–I’ve even been turned against the performers by unearned cheering and clapping. A lot of folks obviously knew one another at the “Columbus Chicago Dance Connection” show, made up of works by Chicagoan Emily Stein and current Columbus resident Balinda Craig-Quijada. But in this case, where the quality of the dancing and choreography was high and the acclaim respectful and deserved, the family atmosphere was an advantage.

It was also appropriate, because the dances tended to be personal. Craig-Quijada even made a solo for her husband, Physical History. Philip Brooks’s bio reads, “He is not a dancer or choreographer. But he married one. Thus, his appearance here tonight.” Craig-Quijada seems to have been motivated to heal, not exploit: Brooks begins by whispering, then announces out loud that this is “the secret physical history of my family.” The often-humorous text, which he wrote, reveals a dysfunctional family obsessed with appearances but not very good at maintaining health: a father with hair transplants, a mother with a nose job and subsequent addiction to nasal spray, an anorexic sister. Brooks’s matter-of-fact delivery and rather offhand movement enhance the humor at the same time they underscore the sadness at the heart of the story: after Brooks describes embracing his sister–lifting her off the floor without realizing it because she’s so light–he briefly cups his hands and puffs a bit of air at us. Craig-Quijada’s simple movement is suited to a nondancer and to the text: an implied family insistence on perfection takes the form of walking a tightrope or trying to balance lying on the knife-edge of one’s side.

Craig-Quijada’s Mangoes and Red Dirt explores her “Venezuelan and Oklahoman roots,” but I’m not sure I’d have known that without the press release. No matter. This two-part quartet set to music of folk harpist Juan Vicente Torrealba and Johnny Cash sets up musical and choreographic counterpoints evocative enough on their own. Craig-Quijada’s strong suit isn’t structure, however; it’s intuitive, inventive, often repetitive movement. Her Solo, which she performs to music by Tom Waits, is sensual and inward, marked by a phrase that looks like skating, low to the floor with a sultry curve of the hip in.

Craig-Quijada’s way of moving is connected but loose, and she plays that looseness for laughs in Scant Playground. Danced by Ohio State undergraduates Telly Fowler, Emily Pope, and Susan Sanborn, it feels a bit like an exercise for students: it has a single movement idea and, again, not much structure. But it’s very funny, subverting the usual dancerly ideal of muscled yet efficient movement: here the dancers are either falling all over each other or trying to move in inefficient, ungainly ways, hopping with arms crossed before them or squirming facedown across the floor on chest and toes. Fowler is an especially good comedian–he gets laughs just standing and letting his head fall back like an orange off a table–but all three perform well in this dance for narcoleptics.

Stein, currently a member of Zephyr Dance Ensemble, has a more upright, contained, line-oriented style and a better grasp of overall structure: her clean, accessible dances usually reveal a clear progression. The clever 1993 Numbers Game, obviously about dance itself, goes from rigid, imposed rhythms to more syncopated personal rhythms. It’s a dance that moves right along; but Stein’s premiere, Normal People Don’t Have Conversations Like This, doesn’t. A duet for a man and woman (Stein and Todd Michael Keich) about flirtation, it has a seesaw structure overall and in individual phrases. But the movement isn’t varied enough and the dancers’ alternating inwardness isn’t sufficiently motivated to sustain our interest.

Like Craig-Quijada, Stein also makes clearly personal dances. A solo she dances herself is called Missing Audrey; unlike Stein’s ensemble works, it’s somber and still. She enters holding a candle that seems to have a life separate from hers, then proceeds to tie herself into wrapped, introspective shapes–peering under her own knee, for instance–perhaps intended to express grief. But the dancing is too diffident to create much emotional energy. Her 1994 Songs for My Sister works better. A sextet nicely performed by Zephyr members Jill Dema, Cecilia Fano, Michelle Kranicke, Amanda McCann, Caroline Walsh, and Stein, it rings the changes on sisterhood, from a rather formal section in which all six link arms and take decorous poses a la Isadora Duncan to a section set to a Big Time Sarah blues number that’s confrontational, honky-tonk (McCann is particularly good at eyeing the audience). The different kinds of music provide variety, while certain motifs–lines of dancers, a precise Irish jig, extended legs and pointed feet that suddenly flex aggressively–tie the work together. Looking girlish in their white gym clothes and slips, the dancers briefly, delicately partner each other in ways that take your breath away. Even without “knowing” the dancers or choreographers, I felt I’d come to know them.

There was nothing genuinely intimate about another sold-out performance, “Dance for Life,” the fourth annual benefit for Stop AIDS and an auxiliary fund that provides support to HIV-infected dancers. Arguably this concert also draws together a community–those interested in working against AIDS–but that’s a large and varied bunch of people, and the show itself has become a big event. Performed now at the glitzy Skyline Stage (it started out at the Organic Theater in 1992), it’s also about money, and about jumping on the bandwagon: money attracts money, and “Dance for Life” is now supported by such big hitters as American Airlines, the Chicago Tribune, and WGN.

The dances that worked best here were the bigger, jazzier ones. Unfortunately I missed Muntu Dance Theatre’s performance and half of Ballet Theatre of Chicago’s due to a misunderstanding about the show’s starting time; but of the pieces I saw, the best received were Hubbard Street’s hip-hoppy The Murk Groove, River North’s sultry Thief, and Randy Duncan’s finale, Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me. Works that suffered because they’re smaller or less accessible were Kevin Iega Jeff’s Church of Nations (performed by Joseph Holmes Chicago Dance Theatre), a big work in a modern idiom about an issue–war–not immediately concerning this audience, and James Kelly’s sextet Love, Elvis, whose parodic 50s gestures were too small on this stage to be funny.

Most of these works have been shown before and were known quantities. But not Elaine McLaurin’s piece for Hubbard Street. It employed a crowd of dancers–the entire company–often moving in unison, but it didn’t feel anonymous, maybe because I know McLaurin and her dancing and The Murk Groove’s wriggles, undulations, and popping motions convey so well her outrageous half-campy, half-straight seduction of the audience. It’s a perfect crowd pleaser for Hubbard Street, and I bet they got it cheap: McLaurin is a little-known local dancer, teacher, and choreographer, and the costumes are credited to “the dancers.” Duncan’s finale, also new, both flew and crashed on the basis of its size. Nineteen dancers onstage are going to make an impression, and the gospel rendition of “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me” is moving in itself. Add Duncan’s general feeling for spirituality and the prayerful approach of this piece, and the audience was in heaven–they didn’t even seem to mind the modern dance. But too often the corps literally obscured the solos or trios inexplicably set in their midst, or the stage was confused with too many competing movements. Still, this ambitious dance was sometimes undeniably powerful, especially when Duncan’s sweeping, swirling contingents of dancers worked.

If the dance world’s small size is often an advantage, there’s another side to that coin: add competition to intimacy and you’ve got sibling rivalry. When the artistic directors of the “Dance for Life” companies assembled onstage for a raffle, it looked like a family reunion, and not necessarily one where everyone was happy to be together again. James Kelly, ballet master when Randy Duncan headed the Joseph Holmes company, was perhaps his potential successor; but Iega succeeded Duncan. Frank Chavez, who used to dance with Hubbard Street, has never made a dance for his old friends, even though his clever, accessible choreography for River North seems perfectly suited to them.

Hubbard Street’s Lou Conte, who once hoped to dance with the Joffrey and first got hooked on Twyla Tharp when he saw that company perform her works, was positioned next to its current artistic director, Gerald Arpino–the Joffrey didn’t perform, but clearly his appearance was a feather in the benefit’s cap, given the buzz about the company’s possible relocation to Chicago. Yet that move could undermine Hubbard Street’s own fund-raising. As far as I can see, the Joffrey wouldn’t be competing with Ballet Chicago, which doesn’t have much support to steal, but with Hubbard Street, and a bloody battle between the two over the same resources is not a pretty prospect. “Dance for Life” made me think of such things because, for all the generosity of these companies coming together for a good cause, this was not a concert about the unity and intimacy of the dance community. It was about making money, attracting money–about competition.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo/Eileen Glenn.