In the Water

Chicago Moving Company

at the Dance Center of Columbia College, through June 24

Two small straw baskets flanked the entrance to the Dance Center. Holding burning sticks of incense and small mounds of flower petals, cooked white rice, and fresh fruits, the baskets seemed completely out of place on that cement sidewalk in Uptown. Where they belong is the Indonesian island of Bali, where it’s a Hindu tradition to leave gifts for the gods before beginning a ritual or performance. The baskets were choreographer Nana Shineflug’s suggestion that we were not going to watch a modern-dance concert so much as go with her on an imaginative trip to Bali, an approach that might frustrate the dance fan, because the piece is short on dance and long on ideas. But others may well be drawn into Shineflug’s Bali, and deeper still into her meditative exploration of Bali’s Hindu and Buddhist religious traditions.

In the Water, an evening-length piece, is structured a bit like a Balinese performance. It starts with a procession of musicians and dancers–a mad clatter of drums and other percussion that begins in the lobby and makes its way onto the stage by the two aisles in the auditorium. Six musicians from the group Ulele playing drums precede six women holding small straw baskets containing flower petals. The musicians retire to a corner of the stage, where they play for the rest of the performance.

The six women begin “Dance to Bless the Space and Welcome the Audience” by running in two intersecting circles, holding the baskets full of flower petals high. Setting them down, they begin a dance with Shineflug’s characteristic sturdy steps embellished with arm shapes taken from Hindu and Buddhist statues. While some dance companies seem to slip through the performance space like fish through water, Shineflug’s dancers seem to eat up the space with hearty steps that connect them to the ground each time. After a leaping circle, the women pick up their baskets, run in two intersecting circles again, then scatter the flower petals over the first few rows of the audience and bless them in the Hindu manner, with palms pressed together at the breastbone, fingers pointing upward. Though the program note calls this “a dance of Yin forces with a dot of Yang: compassion, love, joy, strength,” this section seems to be more about a Western notion of femininity–that women are both as soft as petals and as strong as athletes.

The program note for the next section, “Warrior Dance,” says that it’s “a dance of Yang with a dot of Yin.” A solo performed by Shineflug herself, it’s essentially a series of shapes with wide stances and definite arms: drawing a bow, holding a weapon above the head. The forceful personality conveyed again accords with a Western understanding of masculinity. It’s followed by another solo, “Mask Dance: The Warrior’s Shadow,” in which Holly Quinn wears a blank, shimmering mask to play a drunken strumpet. She continually falls down, tries to seduce a musician, and keeps pulling flowers from her sleeve like a magician. This section implies that the shadow of masculinity is an endearing tart. It’s a provocative idea but seems more closely related to the American debate on gender roles than to Balinese life.

Shineflug narrates the middle section of In the Water, describing her trip to Bali. “Art is so much a part of the Balinese life that they don’t have a word for it,” she says, and “When you meet a Balinese, you know instantly that they respect you and love you.” She shows a video and tells about going to a cremation, a ceremonious public event where visitors are given sweets and something to drink and many men carry the casket on a tower atop bamboo poles. Shineflug describes the Balinese understanding of the precise sequence of death (the body becomes water, then earth, then fire, then air, then consciousness itself dies in a final moment of union with the Buddha) as the six women from the opening procession begin a section named after a Buddhist temple, “Borobudur Dance.” Ulele plays mournful, murmuring music on didgeridoo, saxophone, and percussion, and the dancing again combines shapes from Buddhist statues–kneeling with hands held in a delicate symbolic gesture, back arched with arms falling away in supplication–with wide stances and long strides. The dance has an almost physical light touch, as if we were being gently moved into a dentist’s chair and made ready to face unpleasant things.

Less affecting is a section with two boys dancing. Although Shineflug introduces them as the American analogue of Balinese child dancers, it’s at first comical to watch them because they’re too small to make anything out of Shineflug’s meaty steps. Their ending sequence–quicksilver cartwheels–conveys more effectively the charm of child dancers. The section that’s most purely Balinese is a little heavy-handed: it retells a story from the Hindu epic Ramayana. Dennis Wise depicts a prince who accidentally kills the only son of an aged blind couple, then is banished to the forest because of his karma. Later, with a deafening thud, Shineflug supplies the moral: karma equals responsibility. The story and movement alone were sufficiently eloquent to demonstrate that point.

The final section, “Kembali,” is pure dance–powerful dance that illuminates Balinese philosophy much more clearly than words. The program note says that the first half represents the yang force while the second represents the yin. The yang half features big, satisfying movement. When Wise and Wendy Taylor spot each other from opposite corners of the stage, they smile and saunter through thickets of dancers into the center to begin a pas de deux with some lovely lifts. The backdrop, which had shown clouds against a blue sky, becomes saturated with an intense mustard yellow that reaches out and envelops the dancers: the fierce appetite for life and joy in living present in many of Shineflug’s dances fill this moment as fully as the yellow light saturates the space. This is truly yang, not masculine so much as what the I Ching calls “the creative” and describes as heaven’s movement.

Throughout the yin section Eileen Sheehan repeats a fluid phrase in a bar of light downstage. She dips her cupped hands as if into water, then lifts them above her head and seems to release the water; she releases herself, falling to the floor, rolling, and rising in a single movement. While Sheehan continues this phrase, other dancers come onstage singly and in small groups, repeating some of the yang movement but with the fire banked. Finally, when the entire company is onstage, the light bar dissolves and Sheehan joins the others. She then disappears into the darkness in a corner of the stage, and reappears in a textured block of light where the other dancers join her; all repeat the movement of dipping cupped hands into water. Most affecting about this section is Sheehan’s devotion to dancing her phrase, even when the other dancers are doing more attention-getting movement–it’s a lovely image for yin, which the I Ching calls “the receptive” and describes as devotion. In one of the most natural endings in Shineflug’s work, yin conquers yang–devotion conquers power–through its gentle persistence.

In “Kembali” Shineflug passionately depicts Taoist ideas of yin and yang, not confusing them with Western notions of gender. Devotion, the essential nature of yin, is not the same as femininity; a man who works 40 years at the same job shows a depth of devotion that is not less than that of a woman who devotes her life to her family. And the essential nature of yang–creative movement–is not masculine, as Shineflug’s own yang-filled movement demonstrates.

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