at Link’s Hall Studio

November 22-24

Chicago’s performance poets tend to add performance-art elements to their readings. One young poet at the Green Mill’s poetry slam wore swimming fins and a diving mask, though he admitted it was just an attention-getting stunt. Another poet punched and kicked a blow-up sex doll while reciting a poem about an abusive relationship. Most poets simply add some kind of prop to their readings but don’t tackle more innovative mergers of poetry and performance.

Jean Howard, a founder of the poetry slam, takes a more ambitious route, combining her poetry with Alice Q. Hargrave’s photography and Jan Bartoszek’s dances in Dancing in Your Mother’s Skin. Howard’s first book of poetry is illustrated with Hargrave’s photographs; this performance at Link’s Hall Studio, with Bartoszek’s dances, was described as a book-release party.

Dancing in Your Mother’s Skin does not fuse the three art forms–it’s dominated by Howard’s writing, which has serious weaknesses. The strong dance and photography are reduced to mere illustrations.

Howard’s work has the weaknesses common to performance poetry. It treats only a few subjects: urban blight, bad romances, and intolerable parents. It tends toward the lurid rather than the lyrical. Howard’s title poem is dedicated to the serial killer Ed Gein, who murdered women and then wore their skins. (Gein’s case also inspired Psycho and The Silence of the Lambs.) Performance poetry is like the photographic negative of traditional lyric poetry, emphasizing ugliness rather than beauty. Howard’s poetry is seldom cathartic, as Patricia Smith’s poetry on the same subjects often was. Howard’s poetry seems to revel in the ugly subjects rather than seek release from them.

Howard is inspired by surreal images rather than by language. The juxtapositions of images sometimes draw startled laughter, as in “Stars drop dry pastries into our lap.” In other images she seems to strain for effect, as in “More animated than the creature your face becomes at Marshall Field’s on sale day.” Many images are simply puzzling: “It is the interview between rooks and their silence.”

Howard’s occasional rich language, such as “heavy hankies of jade” and “when thickness of leaf dances,” has a complex syntax that makes the poems difficult to understand even on the page. In performance, Howard often speaks too quickly, running her poems together and making them more difficult to comprehend. She speaks slowly enough only in the last poem, enabling us to hear fine lines like “his cigarette a garnet between his teeth” and “his mouth lifted like trousers.”

Each of the three sections in Dancing in Your Mother’s Skin is based on Howard’s poems on a single subject. For a poem in the voice of a women’s bathroom attendant, a beautiful series of Hargrave photographs of abandoned toilets is projected onto the back wall. But the photographs don’t yield any insight into the bathroom attendant, becoming mere dystopian decoration. Using Hargrave’s photographs to illustrate the book works much better, because the photography and poetry can be appreciated separately.

Bartoszek’s dances seem intended to perform a similar decorative function, but they often succeed in capturing the feelings that Howard doesn’t. The section about urban blight, “Home,” ends with the three dancers (Frank Fishella, Holly Quinn, and Rebecca Rossen) flat against the back wall looking like suspects in a police lineup. The section on bad romances has a recurring theme of a female dancer vomiting and a man manipulating her. The first section contains the strongest choreography, with inventive lifts and a nightmarish sense of collapse. When Howard is onstage with the dancers she seldom interacts with them, and the dancers seldom interact with the photographs. (One happy discovery is that projecting slides onto the back wall makes the small Link’s Hall space seem much bigger.) Dance is the innovative element in Howard’s performance poetry, but it has not been sufficiently integrated.

Dancing in Your Mother’s Skin was the first of this Hedwig Dances program; the rest of the evening belonged to Bartoszek’s dances. Waltz was first presented in a workshop production last summer; Bartoszek started it with an individual routine for each dancer, then wove the routines tighter and tighter until they reached unison dancing. We saw the students’ enthusiasm carefully channeled into an accomplished dance, but with the better dancers of this concert we couldn’t enjoy it on that level. Bartoszek has loosened the tight structure of the workshop production as well, replacing the development from individual routines to unison with an alternation between the two poles–a less satisfying structure because it doesn’t develop. Among the dancers–Amy Alt, Fishella, Toby Lee, Quinn, Rossen, and Sheldon Smith–Lee stood out for his quickness and focus.

An older work, Polka, contains many ideas that have been better developed in other Bartoszek dances: the popular dance music of Waltz; a macabre streak that also runs through Dancing in Your Mother’s Skin and In the Home Of; the dolls and sculptures of Flight Distance. Its loose structure can become disjointed as effect is piled on effect. Polka seems very much a work of the early 80s–part Vietnam war protest, with life-sized white cloth dolls evoking corpses; part memory play, with Bartoszek recalling Polish weddings where everyone danced the polka; part postmodern dance, with the performers stamping out a polka rhythm then collapsing to the floor; part modern dance, with dancers slumping across each other like the life-sized dolls but in classical Humphrey release techniques. With sunny good humor Bartoszek threw these disparate elements into the same pot. Years later, the two versions of Waltz show her struggling to find the best form for her dances.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Alice Q. Hargrave.