Rebecca Rossen seems to have Frankenstein’s monster in mind as she describes the festival she’s organized with fellow choreographer and dancer Asimina Chremos: “It reminds me of a horror film. You have this creature–it sounds like it’s going to be great, despite all the horrible conditions of its birth. You want to harness it, but it’s a little out of control.”
The Movable Beast Dance Festival began as a gleam in the eye of Bob Eisen, another local choreographer, last summer. “Bob started this whole thing,” Rossen says, “in a very Bob way. He approached me at the gym, and Asimina on the train.” It seems the Chicago Dance Coalition was thinking of organizing a “spring initiative project” to accompany the Spring Festival of Dance–the granddaddy of Chicago dance fests. But of the 11 troupes performing this year, only 4 were from the area. The coalition originally wanted to showcase a wider selection of local talent at the same time as the festival, March through mid-May. But things didn’t come together quickly enough for the Beast to run side by side with the Spring Festival this year.
As the Beast evolved, it came to include more out-of-town than in-town talent. Rossen and Chremos had always conceived their event as an opportunity for performance workshops and as a venue for experimental artists, but the small world of experimental dance is far-reaching. Somewhere along the line they decided to invite folks from other cities: 7 of the 12 performers or groups are non-Chicagoans. “There’s a global cultural dialogue,” Chremos says, “and you have to be aware of where you are in that dialogue. If there are people studying postmodern dance in South Africa, I want to know about it.”
Both Rossen and Chremos had studied with performance artist Ishmael Houston-Jones in college and after–in fact he gave Rossen’s number to Chremos when she moved here from Philadelphia about a year and a half ago. They badly wanted him as part of their project, and he was eager for a little respite from New York, his home base. Both choreographers say that his nontechnical approach to dance and “great methods for generating material” profoundly changed their vision of performance. In one of his improvisational exercises, “The Politics of Dancing,” the dancers gather in the middle of a room with their eyes closed and imagine a train bearing down on them. Each person is supposed to jump to one side or the other as Houston-Jones (or the leader) yells out some harshly divisive personal characteristic: “Have you had an abortion?” “Are you black?” “Are you gay?” Rossen, who used the technique in a class of her own, says it’s wonderful for addressing ethnocentrism, sparking passionate debate. Chremos says of her early experience with Houston-Jones: “I luxuriated in the dark side of the psychological space he’d go into. At a certain point in your life it’s great to slam yourself on the ground.”
Rossen and Chremos believe that, even though experimental dance doesn’t necessarily follow the rules and may actually challenge genres and cultural conventions, it can have mass appeal. “It’s all marketing,” says Chremos. “Just down the street, people are paying $75 apiece [actually $46] to watch men painted blue.” Chremos calls what they’re doing “pandering to the highest common denominator,” putting their faith in the audience’s interest and intelligence.
But the Movable Beast is caught in a strange conundrum. By definition experimental artists don’t focus on selling tickets or making money, yet this festival is dangling on the sort of shoestring budget that can be very demoralizing for artists: it turned out the Chicago Dance Coalition could provide only a small amount of money, which could be used only for marketing. All the artists have agreed to perform for free. Costs will be covered by ticket sales, and if there’s any money left after expenses, it will be divvied up among the performers. The Beast is “movable” partly because the artists are resigned to vagabond lives. “The beautiful and horrible thing about it is that we have to gather with other artists to create opportunities to perform,” says Chremos. “What made it easy to organize also makes it deplorable.”
The Beast is also movable in the sense that it’s peripatetic. There’s an opening cabaret show and benefit party featuring all the performers, “Little Beasts,” Thursday, June 18, at 8 at HotHouse, 31 E. Balbo; it’s $20, $15 for students. Most of the artists will create site-specific performances next Friday, June 19, at 7, and next Saturday, June 20, at 2 as part of the Museum of Contemporary Art’s summer solstice celebration; that’s $5, free for kids 12 and under. And two completely different evenings of performance are scheduled for next Saturday and Sunday, June 20 and 21, at 8 at the Chernin Center for the Arts, 1001 W. Roosevelt; each show is $12, $10 for students, or $20 for both shows, $18 for students. A festival pass is $30 and includes “Little Beasts” and both Chernin Center performances. Workshops, running June 17-23, take place at Link’s Hall and the Chicago Cultural Center. The out-of-town artists are Ishmael Houston-Jones, Pedro Alejandro, Jess Curtis, Anthony Gongora, Hijack, Li Chiao-Ping Dance, and Kyle Sheldon; the locals are Peter Carpenter, Bob Eisen, Rebecca Rossen Dance Team, Sheldon B. Smith and Julie Hopkins, and Chremos’s Wonderslam Dance. Call 773-327-9762 for tickets and information. –Laura Molzahn
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Rebecca Rossen, Asimina Chremos photo by Randy Tunnell.