Chicago Repertory Dance Ensemble

at the Ruth Page Foundation Theatre

July 8, 9, 15, 16, 22, and 23

A dance concert, like a good meal, is ephemeral, meant to be consumed at a sitting. Like a gourmet meal it relies on established traditions, and often it’s made up of several courses. But the goal of a meal is satiety, while a dance concert–especially a concert like “New Dances ’88”–often whets the appetite for more.

Chicago Repertory Dance Ensemble’s annual showcase for Chicago choreographers this year features 11 new works, with a Friday program that’s almost completely different from the one set for Saturdays. I saw the Friday program, and it was made up of six works by a total of seven choreographers (there were two collaborations). Of necessity the mood shifted often, and sometimes dramatically, and that made for a somewhat disjointed evening. But this is high-quality stuff–if not a fully satisfying meal, then a tantalizing bunch of appetizers.

Some works took a single choreographic idea and ran with it. Wired, a collaboration by Sam Watson and Kenneth Comstock, had the audience plugged in too, literally on the edge of their seats from the opening note and image: two dancers (Watson and Joanne Barrett) sitting in a harsh pool of light clutch each other and jiggle convulsively, as if an electric current were flowing through them, to music by the Art of Noise.

There’s a fascination in the dancer moving without volition–who seems to be activated by light, or sound, or electric current–and that’s what Wired exploits. Dancers are always talking about being centered, about an impulse that comes from within, but here the impulse is external. As we hear a radio being switched from station to station, the dancers act out whatever signal’s being received: they jiggle to the static, tango to Latino music, act out the sound effects of chomping and belching. And however alienating it sounds, the piece does draw the audience in–when we’re splashed with a dancer’s handheld spotlight, for example, or when in a sympathetic moment both dancers understandably collapse, then are reactivated. It’s funny, weird, frightening, and surprisingly human high-voltage material, brief and limited by its nature, but effective.

Jane Siarny’s Mirror Image is the most theatrical, finished piece on the program–which is odd in a way. A program note informed us that Siarny had collaborated with her dancers (Barrett, Laura Schwenk, and Melissa Thodos) in a process that included improvisation–but nothing looks improvised; in fact it’s rather stylized, almost mimed. In a voice-over, a woman muses to herself about a new haircut while another is warned not to blink, presumably because her false eyelashes might come unglued. Meanwhile, the three dancers stand on or drape themselves over three chairs, preening before objects they use as “mirrors”–a footstool, an empty frame. Siarny has shown before a knack for the simple prop used elegantly in a variety of ways. Here towels are first just that, then later whips, swaddling clothes, and floor mats. That same sense for the elegant stand-in also turns up in the dancers. Thodos makes herself into a pool, a shower, a sink in a series of astonishingly effective still impersonations. Of these dances, Mirror Image has the greatest potential for emotional impact, but it’s not fully realized: the intentional trivialities are not deeply enough undercut by the inner lives of these women, which we glimpse only briefly.

In a couple of works on this program, the dancing rather than the choreography stood out. Tunisia, choreographed by Ron De Jesus and danced by Christine Carrillo and Kevin Ware, is overtly romantic and dramatic, emphasizing the woman’s smallness and the man’s power, in a style that seems old-fashioned and even operatic. Their feelings are supposed to be intense, often sexual, but the style of the dancing and the choreography, which are both formal, subverts any true sense of abandon: this was the most balletic dancing of the evening. In one instance the woman caresses the man, but symmetrically and methodically, first one arm, then the other, then his chest. Surprisingly, the opening portion, performed in silence, is more intense than the latter, performed to Bloch’s Concerto Grosso no. 1.

A dance like this requires real conviction in its dancers, and the choreography, with its many balances and tosses, requires near-perfect control. Ware, a dancer with Joseph Holmes Dance Theatre, and Carrillo, an apprentice with Hubbard Street, were up to the mark. Her pliancy and deftness and his strength and sense of balance and manipulation make for a pretty steamy duet. Ware rolls Carrillo around in his arms like a stone, or a twig, but she never seems an object.

If there was a standout dancer the evening I was there, it had to have been Joanne Barrett. She was strong and self-assured in no less than four of the six works, one of which (How Is My Flower!) she also choreographed. Although this solo has an exhibitionistic sensuality and sense of celebration that one might associate with flowers, the silly, almost nonsensical title and the set–several dozen flowers made of metal and paper–seemed a little beside the point. Barrett (who seems decidedly thinner than a year ago) has a predatory grace and come-hither look that didn’t remind me of flowers at all. The choreography was perhaps only lukewarm–a little disjointed, sometimes a bit old hat, with some interesting little arrhythmic fillips–but the dancing was hot. It would be inaccurate to say Barrett danced with total conviction–because that implies a separation of choreography and its performance. She was the dance, and that rightness showed itself not only in an unfaltering technique but, most important, in that infallible barometer, the face. The expressions flitting over Barrett’s were not assumed as part of the choreography but seemed to come directly from the movement and her attitude as she danced it.

Christina Ernst and Sam Watson have collaborated very successfully in the past, and I’ve always wondered who contributed what to the dance and how they mediated their claims. Color, the final work on the program, offers a peek–not into the nuts and bolts but into the alchemy.

In the first part of the dance, colored lights play over the white costumes of the dancers (Ernst and Watson). Although the lighting (by Ken Bowen) and the concept generally are both more subtle than this, a simple metaphor seems at work: two primary colors–here yellow and blue–combine to make a third, completely different color. It’s a refreshing way to embody an old idea–that the whole is not the sum of its parts; or, in this case, a collaboration isn’t Ernst plus Watson but a new entity. Nevertheless, the two do appear to examine their different roles. In one portion each lies quietly while the other dances–but how they lie is telling. Ernst is curled up, turned inward, and when she dances she seems to be reaching inside herself for the right movement. Watson takes his cue from the external–he has an astonishing sense for the striking image. When he drops for his turn on the floor, it’s like an ass-backwards jackknife, and he continues to make interesting shapes with his arms and head even during his time to lie still–and turns his face, upside down, to the audience.

Physically Ernst and Watson are a good team–almost the same size and so a little androgynous, although given Ernst’s smoothness and Watson’s angularity, you’d never really confuse the two. Especially in the second half of Color, their work together is particularly intimate, like a married couple who take cues from each other without knowing it. It all seems to evolve, it’s intuitive, and it’s often humorous as when they dance a kind of sailor’s hornpipe twined together. They manipulate each other–heads mostly–in swirling circular motions that never actually touch, or force, the other.

Color is a quieter work than the others I’ve seen by Ernst and Watson, but no less masterful. John Boesche’s slide projections are evocative rather than intrusive or overwhelming. And although music was originally planned for this piece, on the night I saw Color it was danced in silence. The absence of music may have given the work a more analytical than emotional quality, and the piece ended rather abruptly, but it’s fine to see Chicago has produced such an inventive, entertaining, but still serious twosome.

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