at Puszh Studios

May 17-19

A psychologists’ maxim says that a healthy family is mortal: when the time comes for it to break up or change–when the children are grown, for instance–a healthy family adapts. An unhealthy family tries to be immortal: attempting to solve their problems, its members lock each other into a static configuration. Family dynamics form our ways of getting along with other people; we often treat others close to us as if they were family–friends, coworkers, collaborators. The three women who make up the Fluid Measure Performance Company–whose work centers on families and their healthy and unhealthy breakups–have passed through their own family crisis with flying colors. After creating ensemble work that set the standard in Chicago for intrepid exploration of the territory between dance and language, Fluid Measure has now presented a concert of new works. Each woman, supported by the others in the company, created a work that allowed her individual sensibility to surface.

Fluid Measure bills itself as Chicago’s oldest performance-art company. Formed in 1980 as a collective that included current member Patricia Pelletier, Fluid Measure re-formed in 1987 with Pelletier, Kathleen Maltese, and Donna Mandel, and they presented Three Who Travelled, an evening-length work about three sisters whose oppressive intimacy provoked emotional violence. The same premise served Fluid Measure for two other collaborative pieces created in 1990, We Three and We Like It Here, which were also presented in this “New Works” concert.

In We Three, Maltese, Mandel, and Pelletier pretend to be sisters. They look enough alike for the audience to fall for it at first; but they look different enough that the audience finally figures out the trick. The three act out sisterly love and rivalry. Two embrace, and move fluidly out of the embrace to embrace the other “sister.” Suddenly, instead of embracing, one sister bites another’s hand. The one with the bitten hand pouts for a moment but goes on with the shifting embraces. Injuries are noted and dropped, but not forgotten or forgiven.

In the wittiest section, Mandel dances while Pelletier describes the dance and Maltese tries to reproduce the dance from Pelletier’s description. Of course, Maltese’s task is utterly impossible; movement happens too quickly and is too complex to be completely described in words. Maltese, Mandel, and Pelletier then spat over whose fault the failure was.

We Three contains its own analysis of family dynamics. Pelletier talks about a poet who described things in capital letters, then she starts to describe her sisters in capital letters, such as the Woman Searching for the Next Step. Capital letters let Pelletier see her life spread out before her, as if from an airplane or tall building. But Mandel and Maltese tell her that they want to do the dance in small letters, because then it will have detail and compactness. The capital letters that writers like to use make the dancers feel their lives are so spread out that they become transparent. Though “Dancer” and “Writer” are concepts that an audience understands, the experience of being a dancer or writer is hard to pin down.

We Like It Here, created and performed by Mandel and Pelletier, starts with the same material as Three Who Travelled. Each accuses the other of being the stepdaughter; each claims to be the real daughter. Pelletier tells a fairy tale about a stepmother who’s going to chop off the head of the real daughter at night so that the stepdaughter can have all the pretty things. In another section, Mandel faces the audience and says “I love my sister.” Then Pelletier steps in front of her to say “I hate my sister.” Mandel steps in front, saying “I am afraid of my sister.” Pelletier steps in front to say “I humiliate my sister.” This rapid-fire sequence continues until all of the nice and the ugly facets of sisterly feelings are revealed. We Like It Here develops the ideas in We Three and Three Who Travelled but doesn’t add many new ones.

The slyly humorous We Three and We Like It Here both integrate stories and dancing. Their wit is what immediately engages an audience. To see the more profound meanings requires repeated viewings.

Just when Fluid Measure seemed to have discovered a surefire approach, strong enough to build three careers on, one of the women decided that it was wrong to keep doing the same dance over and over. Instead of splintering, the company adapted to that woman’s decision. Each woman created a new work on her own that showed her personality clearly but kept generally to the theme of families. The effect of all the works together is to deepen the family portrait; we see individuals as well as the company.

Pelletier emerges as the storyteller. In The Yogi, the Midwife and Me, she wakes to discover that she has huge, drooping breasts (caught perfectly in Nancy and Tom Melvin’s costume). Pelletier calls them porno-queen breasts, which leads into a story about her three-year-old son Liam finding a pornographic video at the video store. The video had a picture of a nude woman with large breasts “that she held out a foot from her chest”; her tongue hung out of her panting mouth. Liam looked at his mother and indicated that he wanted to nurse at the porno queen’s breasts. Pelletier’s character is not as clinical as a doctor or as matter-of-fact as a midwife; instead she’s the quintessential mother, who understands that Liam wants to suckle at the porno queen’s breasts but at the same time is mortified by his wish. Pelletier talks sense–she gives the down-to-earth, telling, and funny details of breastfeeding, motherhood, and sex. She’ll never play on Johnny Carson, but she should. Bill Dietz as a possibly lecherous yoga instructor and Mandel as a midwife act out characters in Pelletier’s stories. The dancing and costumes open up the stories–make them breathe easier and give them a visual dimension.

Mandel’s work, Necessary Steps, is about dancing rather than stories. Her beautiful, idiosyncratic movement is different in many ways from both ballet and modern dance. For example, ballet’s pirouette describes the point on the floor where the foot turns and the circles in the air that the knee and arms make. Mandel’s movement is typically filled with sudden off-center turns that describe complex arcs and ellipses rather than simple points and circles. The formal qualities that make her movement so interesting also give it an unemotional quality. Her movement seems to be pure form, but modern dance tends to aim for powerful emotion rather than perfect form.

In Necessary Steps, however, Mandel takes the steps necessary to make her movement powerful. In one section, she holds a knife. Her sweeping motions suddenly seem violent slicing. When four musicians (Frank Melcori, Laurie Lee Moses, Pelletier, and Wild Planet “O” Orlandis Todd Richardson) walk to the back of the stage and begin to splash in bowls of water on the tables there, the sound of the water becomes music, and Mandel’s movement seems like flowing water.

Using these props, Mandel makes a powerfully emotional dance about grief and loss. While she’s dancing with the knife, Melcori comes forward to tell the audience about how upset the musicians are about the knife. Mandel finally drops it, saying, “I would never . . . ” The musicians sing the phrase in a sort of motet. Mandel puts her head on each musician’s shoulder, but each pulls away. Finding no sympathetic shoulder, Mandel is finally left with no place to lay her head. So she puts it on thin air–and drops, catching herself before she hits the floor. She repeats this as the lights fade.

If Pelletier is the storyteller and Mandel is the dancer, then Maltese is the explorer of the territory between them. But as We Three reminds us, capitalized words like “Storyteller” and “Dancer” are so broad that they miss the detail of stories and dancing. The small letters of dancing, its detail and compactness, are what enable Maltese to write.

Maltese chooses poetic language for her Sedimentary Girl. The dance starts with Maltese sitting in the audience, describing the arm of her cousin on the back of a car seat. She says that when they were girls, she and her cousin were so close that when she was thinking about something, her cousin started talking about it. When they grew up they were not as close, a loss that caused Maltese much pain. Her theme is a lovely synthesis of Fluid Measure’s focus on too-close sisters with the theme of loss in Mandel’s Necessary Steps.

Maltese alternates images that have the melancholy of memory with dance sections for three women (Maltese, Mandel, and Christine Bornarth) set to a lyrical jazz score by Laurie Lee Moses and Lauren Weinger. Her movement style is plain and clean, without theatrical or emotional baggage; it has clearly been influenced by the “no excess” aesthetic of postmodern dance. Maltese uses the intense emotion of her writing for direction. Maltese works well with the expressive score, and pulls a lovely performance from Bornarth.

Sedimentary Girl is more tightly constructed than the other Fluid Measure works, with a stronger sense of pushing toward a goal. The tight construction and the clarity and musicality of the dancing give Sedimentary Girl a sense of classical form. (This may be due to the influence of Shirley Mordine, who advised Maltese on Sedimentary Girl, which will be presented June 6-8 at the Dance Center of Columbia College for the “Emerging Visions” program.)

This concert clearly shows several new strengths for Fluid Measure to develop: Maltese’s newfound poetic skills and tight dance construction; Pelletier’s storytelling and humor; Mandel’s newly emotional movement style. It also shows life and art mingling and reflecting each other–like a successful family producing brilliant children, these artists have produced seamless ensemble work. When they were ready to develop their individual sensibilities, the “family” didn’t hinder but supported them. And the world is a much richer place.

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