For someone who likes to fly by the seat of his pants, Bob Eisen is awfully businesslike during rehearsal. Watching his five dancers walk, crawl, and hurtle through their paces, he looks and sounds grim. He calls out to Dan Prindle that he’s not drawing out a pause in his crawl long enough, and runs down to the stage to demonstrate on his hands and knees. “You lose a little stillness,” Eisen complains. “I’m trying to make a picture here.”

Prindle, a longtime Eisen dancer, is the focus of a lot of complaints and corrections. In fact the atmosphere at the Dance Center of Columbia College, where Eisen is rehearsing his show just two weeks before opening night, seems pretty tense. That could have something to do with the fact that Eisen makes and has performed his dances mostly at Link’s Hall (which he’s managed since 1978), and the Dance Center stage is a much less cozy place. The unsmiling dancers seem disconnected, and the absence of music creates a hovering stillness. Yet when Eisen joins the dance–he’s the sixth performer in this new piece–and another dancer accidentally runs into him, he murmurs a gentle reassurance. And he tells me later, in his abrupt manner, that he wouldn’t trade Prindle for anyone in the world: “What he brings to a group of people is irreplaceable. I like everybody I got now.”

Eventually the new piece, Group Piece, will have music–composed by Michael Zerang and performed live by him and three other musicians. But not until the night before the first performance. Like Merce Cunningham and John Cage, Eisen and Zerang work together without working together: they refuse to synchronize music and dance. Eisen laughingly calls it “potluck chance” but points out that Zerang’s music for the quartet in an older, evening-length piece, Route 142, “miraculously fit. That just tickles me to no end. I mean, there were pauses that happened right at the right time.” He adds, “It’s certainly possible that the music Michael comes up with will look really goofy with this dance. The whole thing may be goofy–you just don’t know.”

Eisen has taken plenty of chances in the 15 years he’s been making dances. In the spring of 1989 he took Route 142 on the road off and on for two months, after cold-calling small theaters and colleges throughout the midwest and asking if he could perform there for a cut of the house. “It wasn’t playing to packed houses–but it was fun. I like to travel and I like to perform, and I like to put the two together.”

Like other seasoned choreographers, Eisen is steeped in the frustrations of dance as an art form: it doesn’t exist unless it’s performed, yet the costs of performing are so large and the audience for dance is so small that performances are often few and far between. “I said long ago that I was gonna try not to do a weekend performance and call it a day,” Eisen remarks. “And yet that’s basically what I’m doing with this [new piece]. What was nice about Route 142 was that the piece grew–pieces develop as you keep doing them. Milwaukee on Friday night, Madison Saturday, Minneapolis Sunday, Fargo on Wednesday, Omaha Friday and Saturday.

“And now I got nothin’ as far as a place to take this new piece next year. And that’s frustrating. You spend hours and hours and hours and months and months and months and money paying the dancers to rehearse, you do it three times, and what the hell.” He shrugs. “I like the new piece–but you don’t really know what it’s like until you do it.”

In Group Piece Eisen has aimed for “something that has a little more finished look” than his other dances. He mentions Cunningham and Trisha Brown as models, adding that he’s “in awe of the task of putting a dance together that has a beginning, a middle, and an end and that looks like it knows what the hell it’s doing, that looks like it makes some goddamn sense. A part of me loves to improvise. The chance stuff, I love that. But part of me wants to see whether I can put together a nice, choreographed dance.” He points out, however, that even for a classic Cunningham-style chance dance like Event #2, in which each dancer draws numbers from an envelope just before the performance, he devised an elaborate system of rules, including wild cards, and the right sequences to provide the dance a structure and a look.

Cunningham’s name comes up a lot when Eisen talks about dance. “Merce Cunningham takes the high road,” he says, “and I admire him greatly for that. You can put on a pretty piece of music and you can put most any dance to it and it’ll work. People relate to music a lot more than they do to dance–you put that music on, it’s got these swells of emotion, and people are gonna just go along for the ride. Cunningham says, ‘Fuck that.’ And he’s been doing it for years.

“I think about aikido a lot. It keeps me humble, I find, in the sense that it’s the sort of thing you can spend a lifetime studying, and maybe then you know a little something about it. The young apprentice would go work with the master swordsman and spend two years not doing anything but cleaning up the hut. Then, after two years, you start to learn a little bit about how to make a sword–10, 15 years down the line, you’re making one sword. That’s how they think in that culture. But in our culture it’s: you can do something in a year, five months. Dance is even worse, you see, because anyone can do it–I mean, the elements of it are walking around in space.

“I have a great deal of respect for the craft of making a dance. I’ve been doing aikido for 14 years, and I still consider myself a beginner. I feel the same way about being a choreographer. How do you put together a dance and make it interesting? The hell with what it means. Just make it interesting.”

Eisen and his dancers perform three works–Group Piece, the quartet from Route 142, and Event #2 (with a new set by Tom Melvin)–Thursday through Saturday, February 11 through 13, at 8 at the Dance Center of Columbia College, 4730 N. Sheridan. Tickets are $12 to $14, $8 to $10 for students and seniors. Call 271-7928.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/J. Alexander Newberry.