Driving Rhythms

Chicago Human Rhythm Project, Dennehy Irish Dancers, Jellyeye Drum Theater, Teresa y los Preferidos, and Zabava

at the Athenaeum Theatre, November 1 and 6; repeating November 24

By Joseph Houseal

Lincoln Kirstein believed that dance is the most ancient art form and the origin of all the others. And a program called “Driving Rhythms,” part of Dance Chicago ’96, is surely testimony to the primal power of rhythm and movement. Some of the forms here are ancient, such as flamenco and traditional Irish dancing, and one is so new it doesn’t fit into a category: the “action drumming” of Jellyeye. All is united, however, by rhythm.

Maybe Kirstein was right: it seems that dance is the arena these days for the emergence of new multiart forms. What is extraordinary about Jellyeye is that they dance and drum simultaneously–or, more accurately, their drumming becomes dancing. Driven by powerful rhythms, it defies classification. An ancient power seems to be rearing its head–evident in the enormous popularity of shows like Stomp, Riverdance, and Tap Dogs (which ran concurrently to sold-out houses in London)–perhaps in reaction to our age of technology, isolation, and commercialism. But the best of “Driving Rhythms” can be distinguished from Stomp by the depth of the performers’ artistry, whether in dance technique or the skill of the musicians.

The evening begins with flamenco: the seven dancers of Teresa y los Preferidos emerge from still poses, black silhouettes against a bloodred background. While the steps are authentic and the musicians excellent–in fact, the whole evening is a great opportunity to hear various kinds of live music–the dancers are clearly not up to snuff. One notable exception is Erin O’Malley, with her crisp technique and natural, relaxed flair: every shape, every sequence, every effect is ideal from any angle. Where the others look artificial in their mock condescension, for O’Malley it’s part of the game. This group offers a pale shadow of flamenco as it’s danced in Spain. But the ancient forms are there, and O’Malley’s solo later in the evening–Garrotin, a dance from the north of Spain–reveals both the wellspring of the ancient form and the dazzling complexity and refinement of its current manifestation.

Rhythm I.S.S., part of the Human Rhythm Project, is a multi-racial group of four women who elaborate on the form of tap dancing. Hip, feminine, sisterly, they dance first to a friendly prologue (that’s a bit hard to catch) rapped by one member. Dressed in colorful caps, shirts, and overalls that seem to express who they are, they take an old tradition and give it a new streetwise sensibility, pulling off the innovation naturally. They use no music other than the opening rap and the rhythm of their feet. Often in a half circle facing the audience, they draw us in. Rhythm I.S.S. expresses the joy of the human body as instrument.

The next act got the audience screaming and hollering in a manner I haven’t heard since Alvin Ailey wowed audiences in New York in the 80s. The Dennehy Irish Dancers are 20 beautiful children who dance flawlessly and relentlessly, a stageful of pale young girls thrilled to be dancing in their purple, exquisitely embroidered caped costumes. The band, Baal Tinne, is authentic and expert. The music builds to fury, but the dancers keep up.

The arms are held stiff in Irish dance, and the dancing is done almost entirely on the balls of the feet. It looks excruciating. I remember Ninette de Valois, founder of the Royal Ballet, saying once, “You see, the farther east you go, the more they dance with the whole body–kabuki is lovely. That’s why Nureyev is such a good dancer: he’s from the east. If you reverse it, you get to Ireland, and they only dance from the knee down!” And I must admit, despite the charms of these girls, that the worldwide craze for Irish dancing escapes me.

The finest work on the program is Jellyeye’s Blood Lotus. Eight drummer-dancers in shimmering white costumes–hybrids of Indian noblemen and Sufi dervishes–play ten drums. Here is talent and commitment and passion and power. Blood Lotus begins with the artists four and four facing each other, pounding their drums, arching their backs, and screaming. The only response to something so primal is to exclaim “yes!” Each artist carves out his or her own highly individual way of moving. Some move with the fluidity of tai chi, others look like skinheads in spasms, still others are so deeply absorbed in their own experience that their movement defies labels.

As the artists begin to play different drums, their movements around the stage fall into choreographed patterns. By this time the performers are filled with an energy that pours forth in the rhythms they create. At times they resemble the skinless Tibetan deities of death: everything wide open to the total force-flow of the universe. Jellyeye moves beyond entertainment to reveal something holy and undeniable. And their ferocious integration with something beyond themselves unites them and the audience. Yes, we see this ritual in a proscenium theater. It’s a safe place to encounter something so savage. The artists’ commitment to connection and transcendence exalts their art to the level of a conduit, and energy and life pour through it.

“Driving Rhythms” includes two other groups. The five-member Especially Tap Company, also part of the Human Rhythm Project, present some interesting crossbreeds of dance and percussion but ultimately have no focused “look”–or rather their image is too clean-cut, almost cheesy. They don’t reflect any reality in the current world the way Rhythm I.S.S. and Jellyeye do. Nor do they show something old and still vital, the way the flamenco and Irish dancers do. In an evening of so much real power and expression, Especially Tap is a bit of cheery fluff. In the lobby I overheard someone put it this way: “They’re proof that we really are a country without a culture.”

Zabava is a Russian folkloric group, originally from Minsk, that dances in the athletic, almost acrobatic style the Moiseyev Company has made famous, performing tricks nonstop with relish. At one point a female dancer did 32 blindingly fast folk-fouette turns (touching her foot between each turn for support). When she finished she screeched, and her colleagues bellowed in approval. No doubt many ballerinas would like to screech when they complete 32 fouettes.

But there’s something sad about watching this company, for all its exuberance and joy. They look displaced. These are dances of a dying culture; they don’t reflect the emerging global community. These dances are not vitalized by new generational infusions, like Irish dancing or flamenco. They’re museum pieces, no longer expressing the spirit of a community, a cultural soul. Zabava’s like an act at Disneyland. Like other forms, such as Arabian and African dancing, that were never intended as concert art, these are danced in the theater as a means of survival. As the lights faded on Zabava’s closing moments, it seemed a sunset to me.

Like other Dance Chicago ’96 programs, this one was far too long. The second half, which gave each group a second (or third) chance to perform, was unnecessary after the triumphant first act. And those poor little Irish girls, dancing yet another jig after ten o’clock. They should have been in bed.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Jellyeye Drum theater photo by Leslie Slavin.