at MoMing Dance & Arts Center

July 29, 30, and 31

On my way down Clark Street to MoMing I was thinking that I should move out of the city–it’s too hot, it’s too depressing, and it’s too hot. But by the time I left MoMing, “Dance Expo ’88” had transformed the city for me, brought it back to life. Where else could I have seen dozens of young dancers–hot and probably stricken with stage fright–working hard to interpret dances that resonated, and where else could I have seen them in the midst of an appreciative audience that, however hot, fanned itself with its programs only between dances?

The three dances presented were the result of MoMing’s summer workshops, conducted this year by Jan Bartoszek, Tim O’Slynne, and Bebe Miller, a guest artist from New York. In the few weeks allotted them, all three choreographers had managed to set intelligent, accomplished, and moving dances on the students who happened to sign up. No small amount of credit for this evening goes to these often inexperienced but uniformly dedicated dancers, who put their hearts and bodies on the line.

The first work on the program, Bartoszek’s The I Depend On Tango, opens with four couples on the floor, one dancer of each pair seated and holding the other sprawled in her lap. The fifth couple, a bit separate and further downstage, is actually a dancer with a large, soft-sculpture doll that she cradles in her arms. As we hear the dictionary definitions of “depend” read aloud–it derives from a Latin word that means “to hang from”–each seated couple goes through a series of manipulations and caresses, one person always active and tender, the other–like the doll–passive, limp, and vacant. It’s a masterful and complicated image of dependence, which has so many connotations for most of us, from the comfortable and loving to the terrifyingly abject.

The dance advances through some leisurely, meditative sections to conclude with what must have been its conceptual starting point, a familiar image from the tango–as the couples are standing clutched in each other’s arms, one of each pair throws her head back, eyes closed, in a stylized evocation of passivity and blindness, while the other, eagle-eyed and glaring out from under her brows, directs their steps.

Bartoszek–with her dancers’ help–seems to be musing about dependence and independence, about how we stylize and dramatize those frightening polarities. But she does it with gentleness and humor. At one point all nine dancers, who’ve retreated to the rear of the stage with their backs to the audience, turn suddenly to face us, roses clenched in their teeth. The dance doesn’t always work–the second section is like a nine-ring circus, each dancer doing his or her own thing, trying to look independent, while we hear a voice reciting what are presumably the dancers thoughts about what they depend on.

But occasional muddles are more than made up for by a structure that is, overall, careful and subtle, and by some committed dancing. Lydia Charaf was especially good; she played the dependent, passive role with a marble-eyed vacancy that was almost too convincing, and yet her tango was elegant and precise, with just the right edge of parody.

Tim O’Slynne’s piece, The Night Patsy Ruth Died, had the most overtly emotional theme of the evening–a friend’s death–but perhaps the least emotional impact. Patsy Ruth shares with O’Slynne’s Isosceles Triangle a preoccupation with life after death and an iconoclastic approach to the subject that shades from the playful to the downright farcical.

The dance introduces us to a group of people who’ve been friends since childhood and whose happy, somewhat trivial lives are disrupted by the untimely death of one of their number. O’Slynne himself plays a caustic, rather cynical friend who appears to have already passed on when the dance begins. He’s waiting for one of his old chums–he’s not sure which one–to join him. The music–excerpts from Peter Sculthorpe’s String Quartet no. 8–is modern and heavily anxious, but the lines O’Slynne speaks to the audience are cheery, humorous, or matter-of-fact.

The piece opens with O’Slynne shouting, trying unsuccessfully to drag escaping dancers back onstage. He then walks toward the audience and, seating himself, begins to speculate aloud about his friends. Each one dances on as he or she is discussed. His remarks are unnecessarily cutting, even snide–one woman, he says, is too busy being an overbearing, bossy sister to have time to die, another is too busy catching a husband. It further undercuts the dance’s potential emotional jolt to have the dancers gather in trivial, facile poses of high school togetherness–everyone draped over everyone else in mounds of puppyish friendliness for the camera’s benefit.

But the dance does have certain hot spots of emotion. At one point when the stage is rather dark, the dancers begin to stamp their feet–at first just a few of them, and then all together and hard, creating a sound like the pattering of raindrops changing to a downpour, but also like heartbeats. Patsy Ruth is beautifully played by Marisa O’Neill, and her role has a particular emotional charge since the dancer originally intended for the lead, Lisa Dershin, died unexpectedly. It couldn’t have been easy to step into that role, but O’Neill had great dignity and a serene otherworldliness; her face was delicate and luminous, her eyes full of a mysterious pity.

Bebe Miller’s piece, Sensible Allies, was clearly the most polished of the three. She took her somewhat ragtag group of 13 dancers and, using a surprisingly gentle hand, made us see patterns, a structure. Sensible Allies is about partnering, and Miller’s approach is rational, a little detached, and yet sensitive to emotional overtones. The evocative music, by the Penguin Cafe Orchestra, gives the piece a rich emotional undercurrent.

I wondered whether there’d been some interaction between the workshops, because Sensible Allies had things in common with Depend On Tango–an interest in the psychological underpinnings of partnering and an approach to structure that involved choosing a well-defined problem or image and exploring it in such a way that the dance could end with that problem solved or that image explained. In Allies Miller seems to ask: how does one person, the choreographer, create a duet?

In the first half of the dance, Miller simply shows us various ways–sometimes rather odd ways–to partner. Two dancers seat themselves on a third who, on her hands and knees, has made herself into a bench. One dancer, standing upright, holds another by one arm as she spreads over the floor like an ungainly human sandbag. Or one dancer on her back on the floor, arms and legs upstretched, supports another, also on her back with arms and legs upstretched–playing dead in precarious duplicate.

But as the dance nears its conclusion, what had been a kind of chaos is suddenly ordered. Two lines of dancers are formed, six in each line, and a 13th dancer (Linda Lenart) emerges slowly from the wings. After so much activity, all is suddenly still and uncertain as the single dancer eyes her troops and they gaze back. Like a teacher, she then performs for her class a series of idiosyncratic movements: swinging arms; pointed hands, twisting like snakes; a curious weaving of the torso, eyes cast down, as she wrings the loose shirt hanging around her waist. The dozen dancers repeat her moves, first remaining in their lines, then breaking apart and performing the moves in isolation, and finally, fluidly and organically, shifting and evolving into twosomes and threesomes.

Lenart proved an excellent choice for the 13th dancer. As the choreographer’s representative, she provides a still, constant center for the conclusion of the dance, a focus for the once-again frenetic activity around her. Lenart has a powerful but subtle and even diffident presence–one we might not distinguish without the choreographer’s help. But with her spooky, gaunt face and sly, syncopated moves, Lenart’s a figure to watch.

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