at the Ruth Page Foundation Theatre

November 19-22, 1987

With its intelligent choreography, able dancers, and pervasive musicality, the Chicago Repertory Dance Ensemble has the makings of a fine company. Often-original music and subtle lighting ice the cake, and the range of Chicago choreographers represented provides a fairly wide spectrum of moods and vocabularies.

Tara Mitton’s 1986 Refraction opened CRDE’s recent program, “Signs of Change–Provocative Dance.” Mitton is CRDE’s artistic director, and this piece did set the tone: it’s buoyant, melodic, with a controlled exuberance expressed in a panoply of leaps, turns, and extensions.

The six dancers are all costumed in warm colors–orange, rust, magenta–and the lighting warms them further. Mitton seems to have chosen for her refraction a limited part of the color spectrum–that which connotes companionship, bodily comfort and ease, emotional intimacy. The dancer unobtrusively featured here, Joanne Barrett, embodies those qualities perfectly: her figure, though small, is generously proportioned but still elegant, and her long red hair, whipping around her, provides a moving, fiery frame. While the other dancers (remarkably) smile through their labors, Barrett’s cooler glance and greater self-possession are the perfect counterpoint to her warm physical presence.

The reflective middle portion of this dance, in which a couple meet, separate, and rejoin, offers some visual and emotional contrast to the rest, but I found it less successful, perhaps because the dance had seemed so abstract–then suddenly it confronted us with a “relationship.” The ending, though remarkable in its way, also had some problems: each dancer (in a rare moment all are onstage at once) moves independently of the others, yet together they still suggest a unity. Mitton has managed to embody a rather difficult and abstract idea–the way in which a refracted ray of light can be both single and diverse. The problem is that the music fades out as the dancers continue their twirlings and leaps, and all the illusion of lightness, of “light dancing,” is lost in the thuds as weighty human bodies hit the stage.

David Hough’s Ninja, first performed three years ago, shows CRDE at its most clever. In this duet for Hough and Mary Ward, a single, not terribly complex idea is exploited to the full. Hough uses a cobwebby red dress to suggest the snares and restraints employed in the battle of the sexes, especially men’s attempts to bind, restrict, and otherwise place their women. More pantomime than dance, Ninja was still a real crowd-pleaser, and very funny.

My favorite dance on this program was a work choreographed by Christina Ernst and Sam Watson first performed in February of this year. The Power of Different Places, danced the evening I saw it by Kenneth Comstock and Bruce Alan Ewing, is that rare thing, a duet in which the abstract dominates the personal. (It’s significant, I think, that on other evenings this piece was performed by a man and a woman.)

As Power opens, we glimpse through a small sculpture (which to me resembled a coral reef) what appears to be drifting seaweed or the waving tentacles of sea anemones. These turn out to be the intertwined arms and legs of the two dancers, flat on their backs like nearly defunct cockroaches. Immediately the dancers are not only impersonal but inhuman. When they get up and dance, their movements are abstract, informed and governed by the music, not by the “personalities” of the dancers. As the dance progresses, the two men dance more with each other, and yet this seems a helpless, cool symbiosis, less like two people “relating” than like chemical elements forced into combination by scientific laws. Finally the men are prostrated before what appears to be an altar, and through some neat tricks of lighting and costume they even seem to become part of the altar’s abstract design. The ideas behind the piece were, to me, mysterious but evocative. Definitely worth a second look.

A duet implies relation, and the dancers in Power do have a connection. But it’s not an emotional connection; in fact it seems organic or elemental. I found this oddly refreshing, as if a human relationship had been washed free of cultural cliches and other debris and presented to me with a scientific clarity.

Moreover the movement, with its strong infusion of jazz elements, was extremely inventive. The dancers’ isolations, the odd juxtapositions of body parts, were unexpected, yet they worked with the rock-oriented original music (by Rocky Maffit and Michael Day). And the piece showcased one of CRDE’s greatest strengths: its accomplished male dancers. Ewing, and especially Comstock, brought home to me one of the appealing aspects of modern and jazz dance: the dancers’ physicality, even athleticism–these dancers sweat; in a quiet moment they breathe loudly, their chests pumping.

Mary Ward’s Upon Awakening (which also premiered earlier this year), although thoughtful and occasionally moving, did not convince. The darkest of the five dances (it was inspired in part by Pablo Neruda’s antiwar poetry), it suggested that CRDE is not at its best in pieces that approach the tragic. In the first movement, to music that I found oppressively anxious, the four dancers appear to be trying to drag themselves from sleep or out of bed. Everything about them–the downcast eyes, their inability to get off the ground–suggests depression. Of course people are sometimes depressed, but to simply announce that depression is the human condition (with no reason for or prelude to it offered) seems unnecessarily bleak and facile.

The second part relies on folk-dance-like movements to lift the dancers from their depressed state. The dancers also literally help each other up; the second movement is filled with lifts. Here the dance has a tacked-on sense of community, of the belief that individuals helping one another will relieve a solipsistic despair. But once again it’s facile. The ending, with the dancers advancing toward the audience in triumph, their arms linked, is unconvincing because it’s unearned.

The final piece on the program, its only premiere, was Isosceles Triangle: Conversations From Purgatory, choreographed by Timothy O’Slynne. It also was a bit of a disappointment, showing plenty of intelligence but perhaps insufficient judgment.

Triangle is nothing if not ambitious. As the subtitle suggests, it’s about reincarnation; O’Slynne has said it “deals with the balance of life and death and the transition between them.” The poetic text, written by the choreographer, was “generated” by “past-life regression hypnosis.” But O’Slynne can’t seem to make up his mind whether he’s dealing with something serious or ludicrous, and the dance is filled with jarring clashes between those two possible attitudes. Furthermore, though it’s difficult to treat such a complex subject without a schematic groundwork–the alternative is incomprehensibility–this one sometimes seems overliteral.

The music, by Richard Woodbury, alternates between the portentous (how do they make that noise that sounds like God bellowing down a culvert?) and the lyrical. In the portentous sections the dancers tend to move in slow motion–but why? Is slow motion meant to suggest the moment before death in which we supposedly relive our lives–an instant that seems to last forever? Or is it merely “important”? To the quicker, more lyrical music, the dancers tend to imitate frenetic, self-involved activity that supposedly characterizes life. At the end, two of the dancers kiss and caress the other four back to life; their loving gestures create a mood of acceptance and peace. But that’s broken by the sudden appearance of a diapered “baby”–theoretically I can see the point, but in terms of any kind of emotional consistency, the baby’s a disaster.

Triangle has its moments. It is intelligent. The division of the dancers into a couple and four others is intriguing, as is the two groups’ alternation (apparently) between life and death. The text (though I don’t like dance to words) is lyrical and evocative. And there are some repeated movements that are lovely. In one, the dancers appear to dive backward–they begin with their backs to the audience and then slowly arch their backs (sometimes supported by another dancer) to end up regarding the audience upside down: we see in a dreamy inversion the back of the head, the brow, the nose, the chin, the throat. The effect is of a soul somersaulting out of life, but with a graceful dignity.

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