Jim Self

at Link’s Hall, October 14-16

“I told him he was the most beautiful man I had ever seen,” a young woman said to her date as they walked out of Jim Self’s concert at Link’s Hall. “Who?” her date asked, looking confused. “Jim Self,” she said.

For the record, Self is an ordinary Joe. You could pass him on the street and not look twice. But it just goes to show you: there’s more to good dance than meets the eye. One might say that good dance meets the heart, or meets the soul, or even meets the gut. Self–a local boy who made it big in NYC and came back for the Link’s Hall Homecoming Series–creates choreography that meets the heart. His Sweet Homecoming Chicago is a gentle, open dance, full of good wishes for the future and wistful memories of the past, all wrapped up in an oddly beautiful present.

In part, the performance is about Self: former dancer with Merce Cunningham, founder of Jim Self and Dancers, choreographer for the Boston Ballet, winner of a 1985 Bessie, a married homosexual deliriously in love with his mate, and a romantic, spiritual creature who’s not afraid to wear his underwear on his head while performing. It’s also about the other dancers: Ron Bieganski, Bob Eisen, Craig LaSota, and Michele Marie White. It’s about Link’s Hall. It’s about homecomings. And last but not least, it’s about each person in the audience.

Sweet Homecoming Chicago is a strange healing ritual in which everyone, including the audience, performs a role. The ritual actually begins before the show does, when audience members are asked to complete a form asking how they feel, what their strongest memory of Link’s Hall is, and what they see in their futures. Bieganski then acts as the doorman, allowing only two audience members to enter the space at once. Inside LaSota silently directs people to the left, where White instructs them to place their folded surveys in her black top hat and gives them a folding chair. Eisen silently greets each person and leads him or her in a circle around the stage. Once they’ve circled the room, LaSota silently greets them again, looking intently into their faces as if they were books to be read, then reaches into his jacket and pulls out a program. People can then proceed to the risers where they unfold their chairs and sit down.

Somehow the experience feels like a trip through a Disney World exhibit. Bieganski, LaSota, and White are dressed in matching black-and-white-striped double-breasted cotton jackets with matching pants and odd black hats. They look like a cross between British butlers and members of a chain gang. The sound of deep breathing is broadcast continuously through the room. And as we circle it, Self silently circles in the opposite direction, arms outstretched, feeling the space as if he were a shaman trying to capture the vibes. Each article of his clothing seems a totem of sorts: black sombrero with a baseball cap on top; dark sunglasses; a tangerine-colored vest and plaid sport coat over his bare chest; aqua-colored pants held up by a silver-studded belt with a four-inch buckle; black patent-leather loafers trimmed in white. He looks like a down-on-his-luck guy from Vegas or a character from a Sam Shepard play. He’s goofy yet so serious and gentle one has to accept him.

Self’s movement is extremely portentous in the good sense, full of unspecifiable significance, exciting wonder and awe. He steps out of his shoes, takes off his glasses, and begins the second phase of his ritual, creating a sort of mandala using three piles of paper, his own clothes, and other articles of clothing. As he undresses, the others bare their bodies, shedding their costumes until they’re wearing only tight-fitting shorts. Self spreads a gray blanket on the stage and pours a bucket of gravel in the center. He talks about what the piece is and isn’t: it isn’t a political statement, it is a tale of patience and unbroken promises. Between his talks he dances three pieces, the first one loose-hipped and wiggly, the others progressively more controlled and graceful.

All this is apparently a ritual preparation for remembering. Self talks about his past–his awards and accolades, comparing the time when he received them to when he was “just a guy in a room over Hamburger King.” He remembers dancing with his lover in Link’s Hall, remembers fucking in the closet, and dedicates the space to his lover. A hodgepodge of activity begins in which all five performers reenact pieces of their memories. And the focus gets lost: their stories are interesting enough, but their unrelated actions thrown together onstage willy-nilly lose any sense of purpose. By the time Self sets up three televisions broadcasting different versions of the film Beehive (his Bessie winner), their performance seems barely worth watching. The four local dancers slide across the floor like worms, picking up Self’s clothing and removing it from the stage. Perhaps it’s a symbol of decay, perhaps it’s all about the wormy jerks who eat away at one’s accomplishments. The meaning behind the movement is lost and doesn’t return until the penultimate ritual, in which everyone onstage shares his or her vision of the future. Self somehow pulls it back together. He talks about how he fell in love, shares his hope “that someday people will realize that the stability of the planet is dependent on dance,” and makes us believe that nothing could be more true than that.

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