The studio in the Ruth Page building is cheery–yellow walls, bright lights, plants hanging in the windows–but it’s cold. The dancers look like children dressed a little too warmly for bed: some wear long underwear, and all are in long-sleeved tops, often layered, with leg warmers and socks. There’s a big puddle in the middle of the floor from a leaky pipe, and when no one comes to mop it up, Tara Mitton runs out for a mop herself. One of the dancers quips, “Not only is she artistic director, manager, and booking agent–she does floors!” A few minutes later Mitton’s swabbing the deck, and the dancers are down on their hands and knees drying with paper towels.

The Chicago Repertory Dance Ensemble is about to rehearse its “New Dances ’91” program, to be presented at the Dance Center of Columbia College this weekend and next, the ninth “New Dances” for this ten-year-old group, which Mitton has directed from the start. As in the past, several choreographers with various levels of experience have created several dances, but this year Mitton and the members of her company are weaving the works, which have related themes, into a single more-or-less seamless piece.

“The intent was never to make a story of the evening,” says Mitton. “The intent was always for connections to be more abstract, to knit together repertory pieces so you don’t have that stop-and-start of an ordinary program–you see something for ten minutes, the lights come up, you pull out your program, you wonder what’s coming up, you wait for the gels to be changed, and the next dance is a completely different thing.” Among the themes that evolved for this “New Dances” are homelessness and other forms of isolation, the rapid pace and machinelike quality of the workplace, and human roles, especially sexual roles.

At this rehearsal Mitton and the dancers are working on the transition between a group work and a solo choreographed and performed by Anthony Gongora. Much of the discussion focuses on how the group should leave the stage and how Gongora should enter it: How much overlap should there be? Should they all look at Gongora at once, or one by one? Should their looks be caring or uncaring? How to convey a lack of caring? Should Gongora look at them? Will he be too well lit? Should he be onstage for “their” music? It takes a full 20 minutes to negotiate what will probably pass in five seconds on the stage. (Later I discover that the group piece is being dropped anyway.)

Mitton seems both frazzled and confident, saying in one breath “It’s kind of falling into place,” and in the next “I have no idea what it’s going to look like.” She explains: “Always, ten days before ‘New Dances,’ I think everything is dreadful. Everyone gets sick, they can’t be here, nothing is coming together, the choreographers hate their pieces, the dancers don’t know what they’re supposed to do–there’s all this tension. But somehow, during those ten days when everyone’s running around with their heads cut off, tremendous growth happens and it all comes together.”

Though Mitton choreographs, CRDE is definitely a repertory company–it dances the works of many choreographers, and in recent years, many local choreographers. “Being in a repertory company and dancing in the works of your peers is about the most difficult thing you can do,” Mitton says. “In repertory every choreographer wants you to do something different. To go from one dance where the choreographer is interested in gesture and theatricality to the next, half a minute later, that’s about sheer movement and athletic feats, and then the next one’s about pedestrian movement and no music–that’s a hell of a challenge for a dancer.”

That’s one of the hidden assets of “New Dances,” she says. “If dancers know what it’s like to choreograph, when they get back in the studio as dancers they’re going to be a lot better–because they’re going to understand how difficult it is to be a choreographer. Just movement won’t be enough–they’ll feel “I have to give more as a performer.”‘

Then there’s the difficulty of working with your peers. “The rehearsal situation is very demagogical–you say ‘Yes, sir’ or ‘Yes, ma’am’ to the choreographer. You want me to stand on my head and do a pirouette? Fine, I’ll do it. You can’t go: ‘Oh, that’s too hard,’ or ‘My neck hurts, I don’t feel like it,’ or ‘Are you sure you want to do that here?’ You have to do it. But if they’re your peer, and in the last rehearsal you were telling them to do that, you have to be able to drop that role and become again the dancer, the tool, the instrument.”

Mitton likens her troupe to a democracy–and says she’s like a president. She speaks often of the environment she’s trying to create, referring to the company as the dancers’ home: “We will support you in your growth, but you in turn must think of this as your home. And if this is your home and where you grow, you keep it clean, you take care of it, and you give something back to it. We want an environment where we challenge yet support each other.”

“New Dances ’91” will feature the choreography of CRDE members Mitton, Gongora, Shannon Raglin, Mark Schulze, and Melissa Thodos as well as of nonmembers Tim Noworyta and Jan Erkert. Stan Nevin, Scott Silberstein, and Richard Woodbury composed original music for some pieces; lighting is by Ken Bowen. Performances are December 13, 14, 20, and 2l at the Dance Center, 4730 N. Sheridan, at 8 PM. Tickets are $l2; call 27l-7928 for information.

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