Zephyr Dance Ensemble

at the Dancespace Performance Center

April 26, 1991

When a new dance company starts, one of its most difficult tasks is building a repertory. Talented dancers are only the ingredients; the master chef is that rare choreographer who finds the company’s personality and makes dances that fit it. The Hubbard Street Dance Company, for example, is actively building its repertory–commissioning works by Daniel Ezralow and reviving works by Twyla Tharp. New companies, without Hubbard Street’s financial resources, cannot afford to commission dances by experienced choreographers. Instead they must work with developing choreographers, and choreographer and company learn together how to make good dances.

The Zephyr Dance Ensemble is going through these growing pains, among others. The company once worked closely with choreographer Julie Salk, but Salk retired from dancing to have children. At about the same time, the company lost some dancers and had to change its lineup. This is the first year the group has had steady work–in Chicago’s Urban Gateways program teaching grade school children.

When Zephyr performed at Puszh Studios last November, Zephyr’s manager, Michelle Kranicke, met Chicago choreographers Maureen Janson and Ruth Klotzer. Janson and Klotzer were looking for dancers, and Zephyr was looking for dances; they struck a deal. For this concert Janson and Klotzer presented their own independently made dances as well as composing works for Zephyr.

Zephyr’s four dancers–Karen Brettschneider, Kranicke, Margaret Reynolds, and Caroline Walsh–are all well trained. Three of them studied at Barat College in Lake Forest; Barat’s known for training dancers well but not exposing them to new choreographic ideas, perhaps because it’s isolated from Chicago’s dance community.

The concert was called “It’s About Time,” but it might justly have been titled “The Education of a Choreographer.” Janson and Klotzer both showed some poor choreography, but they also broke through their limitations to make one interesting dance each, Janson a well-composed work and Klotzer a winning solo that makes use of her own frustration.

The Zephyr dancers are so well trained that Janson and Klotzer both fell into the mistake of making dances that are too technical. Klotzer’s The Fruit of the Vine and Janson’s Anemone are marred by lovely but uninspired movement taken directly from technique classes. Though beautifully executed, the movement is not shaded to fit the dance; as a result it feels vague and generic. Neither dance is well structured; each seems just a wandering long sequence. Klotzer is particularly poor at transitions between movements, which are not made rhythmically clear: unfortunately they make the Zephyr dancers look more inexperienced than they are. Janson’s Anemone is more carefully done, but sustains its tone of deep-sea dreaminess for too long; the dance cries out for a change of texture, for development in a new direction.

Klotzer’s O-oh Say What You See . . . is a solo for herself that mixes funny bits with truly tasteless shtick. Music by Tee Vee Tunes sets the scene: a kid waking up on Saturday morning and watching cartoons. Klotzer comes onstage wrapped in a baby blue blanket. As the TV announcer’s voice says “Wake up, you sleepyheads, it’s morning!” Klotzer emerges from the blanket dressed in a bright red union suit of the sort seen these days only in cartoons. Later Klotzer wraps herself in the blanket, takes off the union suit, and throws it onto the stage. When she tosses down the blanket, she’s dressed in a superhero’s costume. Or better, a supervixen’s costume: tight trunks and a backless brassiere that covers Klotzer’s breasts only precariously. At this point the costume seems to take over the dance. Klotzer often keeps the blanket bunched against her chest, presumably to keep her brassiere on. To communicate a point, Klotzer grabs her crotch; the tastelessness of the gesture is rivaled only by Andrew Dice Clay’s act. The dance starts to look like raunchy stand-up comedy, not the cutesy Saturday-morning cartoon it started out as. The dance veers wildly in tone, betraying sketchy ideas completed in a rush.

Klotzer’s wild inconsistencies are resolved in another solo, Dangling Participle. It starts with Klotzer yelling “Oh, shit” from the side of the stage and rushing out, apologizing for being late. Showing her coat to the audience, she asks them to admire it. While she’s explaining that a friend thought the coat would be wonderful in a dance, Klotzer suddenly groans and collapses to the floor. After a moment, she looks up at the audience and says, “Just like a modern dancer–I couldn’t think of anything else to do.” After taking off the coat, she does some stunning leaps, falls, and flips to drum music. As the dance continues, Klotzer alternates great dancing with comments to the audience, asking them if they’re bored yet. Her quick changes keep the audience’s attention, but they also prevent the dance from going anywhere. When she’s afraid she’s losing our attention, Klotzer grabs her buttocks in both hands. The dance ends with Klotzer displaying a Mad magazine drawing of a dangling participle.

Klotzer can dance beautifully, but the cliches that she finds in most dancing make it hard for her to take dance seriously–it seems like a game to her. She can only lampoon it, with the immature willfulness of Mad magazine. Klotzer is totally inappropriate for Zephyr, but she could become the stand-up comic of modern dance.

Suet May Ho and Jean-Paul Maton dance with Janson in excerpts from You Decide, set to quirky rock music by Camper Van Beethoven. Before each of the three excerpts, the dancers return to a line they’ve marked on the floor with electrician’s tape. The first two excerpts show Janson’s idiosyncratic movement style, which is loose and swinging–quite unlike the precision of the Zephyr dancers. The last excerpt illustrates Janson’s compositional skills: Ho and Maton walk slowly downstage, one on the left and one on the right, making curious, ominous hand gestures, while Janson moves between them, staring at each in turn. When Ho and Maton are a few feet from the audience, Janson unties a black scarf at her waist and fastens it over her eyes as a blindfold. Unfortunately, the dance ends with that disturbing image, which seems to come out of nowhere and throws away Janson’s careful buildup.

Janson’s The Machine Within the Machine Within the Machine Within is more inventive and daring; she also introduces a story that keeps the audience’s interest: three dancers in business dress force a fourth to conform. Though the story is simple, Janson structures the dance well to carry the theme. The three dancers keep returning to a stance like that of soldiers at parade rest, hands behind their backs and feet spread wide apart. Each has a solo, out of which emerges a hand gesture: punching, looking at her hands as if they had blood on them, holding one hand to keep from hitting with it. When the three start to humiliate the lone dancer, their actions seem reasonable and motivated.

In Janson’s three works, we see her learn how to make interesting movement for dancers much different from her. We watch her start to structure her dances, giving them stories and varied textures. We watch her find a tone–a tasteful prettiness that’s appropriate for Zephyr. Janson has learned how to fit this company. I hope she can lead them away from prettiness to more gritty, exciting, risky dances.