Forward Motion

Dance Chicago ’97

at the Athenaeum Theatre, October 25; repeats November 5 and 26

By Molly Shanahan

The Dance Chicago festival, now in its third year, is a smorgasbord of dance intended to broaden dance audiences by presenting packages of stylistically diverse pieces slickly marketed. Festival promoters Fred Solari and John Schmitz of SCT Productions want to offer something for everyone, and with that goal in mind have assembled a roster of 300 artists on ten programs with such intriguing titles as “Breaking Boundaries” and “Jazz It Up.” The program I saw, “Forward Motion,” promised Chicago’s most “trend-setting modern dance companies” in a program of “lyrical movement, biting social commentary and brave artistic insights.”

Programming a festival of this kind is a difficult task full of compromise–and Schmitz and Solari have made improvements over the years. But somehow in their attempt to offer something for everyone, no one is truly served, and least of all the artists whose work is after all the event’s meat and potatoes. I think our collective effort to be broad-minded and diverse in our sensibilities too often obscures other equally important concerns–like excellence and integrity. Dance Chicago’s mission is partly to “exhibit and feature the best and most diverse representation of Chicago’s new dance talents,” but how can a festival that includes more than 60 Chicago dance companies and independent choreographers out of a local dance community that’s approximately twice that size represent the best?

I wonder how this generous definition of “best” serves the constituencies involved (except, of course, the producers). Festivals like this one risk losing the support of artists, whose faith in such programmatic politics can be easily shaken. Equally counterproductive is fooling dance audiences into thinking that a one-stop shopping smorgasbord is a bargain: in this case, audiences are not served when they’re being catered to. Dance Chicago is taking strides toward programmatic and presentational excellence. But to an unfortunate degree artistic excellence has been sacrificed to the “necessary” evils of programmatic inclusion. “Forward Motion” is a melange of stylistic and aesthetic approaches successful in many ways, but its successes are qualified.

Jan Erkert & Dancers present a duet by company member Jason Ohlberg, The Bella Pictures, which he danced with Paul Cipponeri. Set to music by Vivaldi, The Bella Pictures is characterized by lush athleticism and slippery partnering. Constructed like a finely woven rug, it uses deceptively simple patterns of movement only hinting at shape, repeated with subtle variations to produce a wash of soft strength and flesh. Though the piece loses its momentum briefly near the middle, when Ohlberg and Cipponeri begin dancing with less connection, Ohlberg reasserts his vision later. I’ve seen The Bella Pictures a couple of times (it was performed in September by Ohlberg and dancer Leif Tellman, who’s given special thanks in the program), and each time I’ve been satisfied with the work’s sensual playfulness and happy that it never crosses into quaintness or cuteness but stays on the level of boundless, bounding energy between two people.

Bounding less successfully is the second work on the program, Melissa Thodos’s Rebounding Blue, a crowd-pleasing dance for four women manipulating large blue rubber balls. For me this work is a showcase of tricks, some obvious, some blessedly subtle. Unfortunately the choreography remains overly symmetrical and simplistic throughout: the spatial relationships between the performers become repetitive and predictable, and the vast possibilities represented by the balls are never realized. The piece has a few highlights, though, including a short solo by Jennifer Lande (sans blue ball) in the middle of the work, repeated at the end. Lande captures the waterlike softness of the piece as well as the classic Grecian forms hinted at by the balls throughout. Like its New Age music by Vangelis, the work has a soothing lightness that sticks with you despite the piece’s inability to rise above the saccharine and predictable.

Loop Troop–the umbrella entity that supports the work of Carrie Hanson and Rebecca Rossen among others–has two works on this program. The first is Ruby’s Geometry, a solo choreographed and performed by Hanson, who received a Ruth Page award this year for performance. A character study, this dance is commendably not simply a showcase for Hanson’s ample bag of dance tricks. With the help of Margaret Nelson’s high-contrast lighting, Hanson creates an atmosphere of tense, splintered drama, juxtaposing angular arm and hand movements with the sensual rocking of her pelvis. The piece opens with Hanson seated on a skateboard hidden beneath her full skirt and sliding from side to side. The skateboard–whose usefulness is quickly over–sets up the side-to-side spatial constraint Hanson adopts throughout. Clad in a raucously ingenious red ensemble complete with femme fatale wig, Martha Graham-like skirt, and corset, Hanson’s Ruby reminded me of the main character in the macabre short story, “A Rose for Emily.” I admired the subtle blending of clues at the abstract heart of the work: the color red, the dancer’s subsexual neurotic motions, the restriction to horizontal movement, and the intriguing title. Still lacking is a way of elevating her unique, engaging movement ideas to the level of meaning suggested by the production elements.

Loop Troop’s second offering, a quartet called Splice choreographed by Rebecca Rossen, is second to last on the program. And on the evening I attended, Splice was interrupted by a calm announcement that the audience should evacuate the theater because of a possible fire whose source was unknown (preceded by a distinct burning smell). I later found out that the problem was quickly solved and the concert restarted, but not before a hefty segment of the audience, myself included, had left; therefore I didn’t see Splice in its entirety and didn’t see the program’s closing work, Systematic Error by Thodos, at all.

Bob Eisen’s latest work, The Neighbor Enters, is a remarkable celebration of the ordinary presented without much in the way of theatrical trappings. A piece for six women with sound by Michael Zerang, it begins as a study of self-conscious pedestrian movement as the dancers walk and run through a series of spatial juxtapositions randomly highlighted by simple linear movement motifs, which recur throughout. As the piece gradually gained momentum, I was struck by the plain beauty of the dancers, quietly flaunting their individuality in the abstract realm of this dance. Zineb Chraibi, Karen Fisher, Tiffany Bowden, Wendy Taylor, Kari Job, and Felicia Ballos have the makings of a powerful company; I hope they stick with Eisen and vice versa. In their physicalization of his choreography, they transcend the tasklike quality of the opening to create a canvas for their individual strengths, which Eisen gives exultant play.

Eisen’s work can be viewed on two levels. On the first, you sit back and allow the dance to wash over you, creating a kaleidoscope of color and skin. On the second level, you sit on the edge of your seat, scanning for detail, nodding in surprised satisfaction as motifs long gone but not forgotten recur. Eisen’s seemingly chance-filled dances, characterized by wry humor and extreme dramatic reserve, have been compared to Merce Cunningham, a comparison that’s complimentary, God knows, but doesn’t give Eisen enough credit. More times than mere chance would allow I’ve seen in Eisen’s work the hand of an artist with a profound sense of when to give his viewers a hook, a morsel–when to snap them out of complacency. These morsels, producing deliciously fleeting “ah”s in the audience, might be a smile between two dancers, or a repeated touch in an otherwise connectionless piece.

Xsight! Performance Group presented The Illicit Keyhole, a bawdy but sophisticated collaborative work for five by Peter Carpenter, Marianne Kim, and artistic director Brian Jeffery. Never cliched, The Illicit Keyhole is characterized by in-your-face sexuality and shades of sadomasochism contrasted with refined, formal costuming and movement ranging from subtle, nuanced gestures to the large, sweeping style that’s a hallmark of Jeffery’s work. Duets give the piece structure. Sometimes merely punctuating group movement, sometimes the central focus, they harmoniously link sections of pure movement with dance-theater scenes.

As the piece opens, Jeffery “frees” Julia Rhoads from the confines of two steel box frames, which remain instruments of restriction throughout, an insistent contrast to the dancers’ angry vulnerability. Holly Quinn performs a tantrumlike duet with Peter Carpenter, but most striking, and ultimately most satisfying in its simplicity, is the ending, when Jeffery, Carpenter, Kim, and Rhoads walk slowly downstage almost nude, with thick black belts strapped just below their ribs pulled increasingly tight. The music fades, and the dancers’ rhythmic breathing in unison is the only sound to break the charged atmosphere created by the work’s hard sexuality. This closing image makes the rest of The Illicit Keyhole fall into place, as we see the dancers stripped of everything but what makes them human.

Following Xsight! is the least successful programmatic choice of the evening. Summertime Suite, by the Cerqua/Rivera Art Experience, is a hodgepodge offering from choreographer Wilfredo Rivera, muralist Matt Lamb, and artistic director and musician Joe Cerqua, who sings and conducts a 16-piece orchestra arrayed across the rear of the stage. The dance is a sweetly abstracted “enactment” of Gershwin songs performed by Cerqua and vocalist Carol Loverde. Rivera’s derivative movement is in the ballet and jazz tradition, with little choreographic originality or innovation. Midway through the piece a solo female figure emerges who seems to be “playing” a young girl comforted and cradled by the group. This puzzling suggestion of drama only cemented my impression of the work as a misplaced musical-theater revue. Lamb’s mural is poorly lit, and though I’m not usually one to sweat pedestrian choices in costuming, the musicians’ casual attire is in discordant contrast with the dancers’ off-white cotton costumes. In the program the Cerqua/Rivera Art Experience promises a “memorable, compelling, on the edge event that will stay with you for a long time to come”–unfortunately setting up false expectations. It seems they don’t trust the work to stand on its own.

Undoubtedly Schmitz and Solari make difficult curatorial decisions for Dance Chicago. But it seems that the desire to please everyone, in the audience and dance community alike, inhibits their commitment to the “best.” People eat at smorgasbords not to luxuriate in a fine meal but to fill up. Here the audience is not allowed to savor the shape, texture, mood, or style of one, two, or three comparably fine artists or companies but rather given a taste of several. Are they leaving the theater nourished, or simply full? o

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Melissa Thodos & Dancers photo by William Frederking.