November 15

People don’t talk much about the dance scene in Chicago. They might discuss the Wicker Park art scene or the alternative theater scene, but no one has much to say about dance. That’s not because there’s no dance here. There are more talented choreographers and dancers than ever before–certainly enough to create a “scene” if they wanted to–but for some reason dance has a hard time getting acknowledged in this city of big shoulders, home of the Bears, stuffed pizza, and the Sears Tower.

For one glorious night at the Oak Theatre, however, Chicago dance made a big noise. The Oak Theatre Project, organized by Frank Fishella, was flesh-and-blood proof of what the Ruth Page Awards have been trying to communicate all along: Chicago is home to a large, lively, and intelligent dance community.

There were dancers all over the place–onstage, of course, but also at the little round tables in front of the stage, at the bar, along the back, in the lobby, and filling up the balcony. An acquaintance estimated that 50 percent of the near-capacity audience were dancers. With its comfortable cabaret atmosphere and live jazz by the Ensemble of Non-Thought, the Oak Theatre that night was a very happening scene.

But it lasted only one night. That’s a shame, because it was a good show–good enough to give people something to talk about, good enough to keep people coming back for more.

Although basically the Oak Theatre Project was a choreographer’s showcase of seven dances, it felt more cohesive and more significant than that. Fishella diligently organized a balanced sampling of the three predominant styles of modern dance in Chicago: the emotional, intuitive style of Paula Frasz and Fishella; the jazz/modern fusion of Winifred Haun and Keith Elliott; and the more theoretical, problem-solving style of Christy Munch, Rebecca Rossen, and Amy Alt. These three schools are very different stylistically and theoretically. Often they’re at odds with each other. But on this evening there was a sense of unity, a general feeling that, yes, this is Chicago dance.

I can’t pick a favorite, that’s how cohesive the evening was. Wallflower, a minimalist solo choreographed and performed by Rebecca Rossen, was perhaps the most poignant and humorous, challenging traditional notions of beauty as defined by classical dance and as defined by society. The action is simple: Rossen tries to move wearing foot-tall black platform shoes and a red tulle 1950s party dress with a built-in corset.

At first she’s a tall girl at a dance, cringing in her crinoline, feeling ugly and awkward although her arm movements are delicate and graceful. She walks forward, trying to minimize her height by hunching her shoulders. Then she falls flat on her back. Swinging her legs around she tries to get up and can’t–her footwear is too tall and heavy. Finally she does a backward somersault to right herself.

Once righted, Rossen tries some ballet steps. A dainty pique, in and out at the ankles, is sadly awkward in these shoes. Lifting her leg in arabesque is ugly and next to impossible. None of her movements are genuinely graceful until the very last minute of the dance, after she calmly removes her dress and unbuckles her shoes and steps out of them. Then she walks offstage, simply and naturally.

Fishella’s The Landscape of Desire explores an overused theme in dance but does so in an original and thought-provoking way. This is the landscape of desire, not the landscape of love, and the choreography capitalizes on the difference. The dance begins slowly, with Melissa Thodos and Fishella pacing back and forth across the stage, pausing slightly when they come close to each other.

The third time they cross, he grabs her hand. They face off, moving as if to say, “I want you, you want me.” For an exhilarating moment he lifts her and she balances on his shoulder, back arched, arms open wide. Then she’s down at his feet. The Landscape of Desire looks like a mind game, a power struggle through movement. Thodos and Fishella are technically strong dancers and good actors. You can see their characters calculating, planning their next moves. As the dance progresses, the exhilaration drains from their bodies, but the fight continues. Near the end he lifts her again, and she collapses over his shoulder, unable to fly. Moments later they walk apart in defeat.

All of the dances were interesting, and interesting in different ways. That says something for the vitality of Chicago dance. According to a program note, the Oak Theatre Project began in response to the need for suitable performance spaces and evolved into an “association of artists who exchange ideas in order to nurture . . . dance in Chicago.” Let’s hope the collaboration continues.

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