at the Emergence Dance Theatre

January 21-23

Driving out to De Kalb to see Julie Salk and the Zephyr Dance Ensemble, passing endless silos and abandoned tractors, I kept thinking, “There can’t be any art out here. Everyone’s too busy bundling hay, or polishing horses, or whatever these people do.” But within the first five minutes of this remarkable concert, which only nine people attended, I was ready to give up my Evanston apartment and move into the De Kalb YMCA, if there is one.

The concert was literally incredible: it was hard to believe that such complex and evocative images could be produced with such minimal means. De Kalb’s Emergence Dance Theatre is just upstairs from the Duck Soup Co-op. From the outside the building looked a bit dumpy, but inside was one of the most beautiful and intelligently designed dance spaces I’ve yet encountered. Merely a large studio with black curtains hung to mask the wings and an enormous white cyclorama hung upstage, the room’s proportions somehow created the illusion of a great expanse, which was perfect for the first piece, Westward Woman.

All five dances on the program were choreographed by Salk, some for herself and others for the five-member Zephyr troupe. Westward Woman, a solo, presented fragments from Lillian Schissels’s Woman’s Diaries of the Westward Journey (read with engaging sincerity by Marie Lanier-Gandy). These readings alternated with Salk’s simple, typically American dance, full of gestures characteristic of the frontier life: throwing a lariat, doing a square dance, hitching up boots, lifting milk pails. These gestures, performed with the nonchalance of a daily chore, appeared and disappeared arrhythmically, weaving an intricate texture. Three homespun skirts, which lay on the floor at the beginning of the piece, enhanced this textured feel. To mark transitions between movements, Salk would pick up a skirt, languidly put it on, and sway quietly with her back to the audience, evoking a calm and yet lonely mood, as if she were standing before a great plain musing about her uncertain future.

What was most intriguing about Westward Woman was the tension it created between authenticity and artifice. Certainly Salk’s “frontier woman gestures” seemed authentic, but gauged by what standard? Movie westerns, particularly such sanitized visions as Oklahoma! and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, are the obvious choice. And the huge white screen behind Salk, lit with pinks and blues reminiscent of Technicolor glory, put her authenticity even more into question. Was Salk evoking the spirit of the frontier, or its sentimental Hollywood manifestation? Intelligently, she did not resolve this duality but allowed these two strains to play off one another. The dance did not attempt to re-create the “reality” of frontier life, a reality that has been severely compromised by Hollywood. Instead it demonstrated that such a reality is accessible only through fragments of impersonal text and through emblematic, almost mythic gestures.

Second on the program was Anastasia, which the program notes described as re-creating “the beauty and highlights of Greece: its people, culture, and architecture.” Well, no, not really–it couldn’t fill those enormous shoes. It did present some strikingly beautiful, pleasingly asymmetrical images. The Zephyr’s five dancers–Lanier-Gandy, Lisa Gold, Michelle Kranicke, Margaret Reynolds, and Lisa Weyenberg–clad in skintight, iridescent unitards, assembled and reassembled themselves into formal groups, almost architectural configurations in which each dancer was transformed into a different architectural element. An enormously demanding piece, because it was so simple and pure, it required the dancers to hold sharp poses for long periods. And because the movements were so slow, each gesture was open to close scrutiny, allowing no room for inaccuracy. The Zephyr Dance Ensemble, formed only last September, seemed to lack some of the precision and rock-solid balance required. The dancers needed more presence to fill the piece and engage the audience. Still, they performed with great concentration and deliberateness, never hedging but taking the risk of performing even the difficult moves boldly.

The next pieces, two solos by Salk–Did You Ever Wake Up on the Wrong Side of the Bed? and Doux Amere–were extremely physical. Salk ran, leapt, and crawled with reckless abandon. At the end of Did You Ever, she did a breathtaking swan dive onto a makeshift bed, landing just as the lights blacked out. Still, of these two, Did You Ever was the less successful, evoking more confusion than laughter.

Doux Amere succeeded in creating disturbing images of addiction and self-destruction. Set to Billie Holiday’s recording of “On the Sunny Side of the Street,” Doux Amere explored physically images of excess. The piece began with Salk sitting in a chair stage right, dressed in a black camisole, her head bent down in concentration. When she finally looked up at the audience, she began to shake uncontrollably. Dancing seemed at first to alleviate her condition. But ultimately it offered no solace, for whatever movement she performed, she seemed compelled to repeat it and exaggerate it until it became a grotesque caricature. It was as if the dancer had been caught in some sort of emotional spiral or whirlpool, which was physically manifested. In one almost unwatchable section, she sat in the chair, and then slid to the floor and crawled away from it. Immediately she flew back into the chair, and then crawled away again, only to be thrown back into the chair with twice the force. This continued until the crawling and the returning to the chair were almost indistinguishable.

Most impressive about this dance was that it avoided a literal interpretation of Billie Holiday’s destructive life. Certainly Holiday’s presence, especially singing such a mindlessly happy song, added a disquieting irony to the piece, but Salk allowed the music and the dance an equivalence, instead of relying upon the music to give the dance its emotional import. In fact, when the song ended, the dance continued, accompanied only by the sound of the dancer’s feet pounding against the floor and the grunts that occasionally escaped her. Once the music was gone, all that was left was the brute physicality of the dance.

Last on the program was a world premiere, Aesthetic Athletics, which was basically a collection of movements culled from sports and other recreations (football, basketball, aerobic dance, among others). While the ensemble performed the piece with endless energy and enthusiasm, it seemed rather flat. Essentially a mere collage of recognizable sports movements, it centered around referee hand gestures, but Salk’s effort to place these movements in a new context offered little insight. She seemed to want to point out the beauty, so often taken for granted, in the movements of American sports and leisure activities. And a section in which the ensemble performed super-aerobics was quite lovely. But ultimately Aesthetic Athletics was a succession of bits that didn’t seem to communicate much to the audience. This dance needs a stronger visual presence and much greater structural coherence to match the intelligence and daring of the rest of Salk’s work.