Chicago Mask Ensemble

at Uptown Center Hull House

Call of the Spirit Twin begins with a beautiful, endearing procession of paintings. As a voice from the back of the theater tells us that “the sound of an erupting volcano is not gentle,” a colorful and childlike painting of a volcano slowly floats downstage. The voice goes on to tell us that the earth, despite its apparent permanence, is in a constant state of transition. It is still forming itself, as evidenced by volcanic action. Gradually three more paintings of stylized flora float onstage, and the voice tells us that, like the volcano, we too are churning inside, despite our seemingly unchanging appearances. With this, the paintings begin to spin and performers are revealed behind each, holding the canvases on the ends of long wooden rods.

The sheer candidness of this opening gives it a simple beauty, the dark and somewhat threatening text counterpointed by the delicate dance of unframed canvases. The performers seem empowered by being onstage, like flag bearers in a parade. This opening scene, underscored by Willy Steele’s gentle but quietly urgent percussion, is evocative and open-ended, allowing text and image to complement one another and resonate with associations.

Unfortunately, much of the rest of the piece is more rigidly defined–it’s a rather literal story of two female spirits (Sherree Blakemore and Marianna Buchwald) and their constant attempts to remain together despite the forces (unfortunately not well defined in this performance) that threaten to pull them apart. Buchwald also created the piece, and the story is epic and grand, involving characters like the Mountain Keeper and volcano goddesses. But the characterization in Call of the Spirit Twin is too vague, the staging too pedestrian, to carry the weight of the story. As a result, the performers struggle to achieve a theatrical size that the very structure of the piece will now allow.

It seems as if nearly everything in this piece exists on a purely symbolic level. Two dancers (Laurie Goux and Sabine Parzer) who slowly descend the aisles of the theater, for example, are identified in the program as “lava.” Blakemore in a black headpiece and Buchwald in a white are identified in the program as the Inner Spirit and the Outer Spirit respectively. These assignments rob the performers of authenticity. One can’t be lava or an inner spirit, yet the performers seem to have been directed to identify with these roles. Any sense of presensational distance, any of the acknowledgment of artifice that was so successful in the opening procession, is squelched; it becomes sadly comical to be told to read these stage images so narrowly.

Whether or not one is able to understand the images symbolically–and I admit that I was not–the fundamental problem is that the images themselves are so unspecific. The Inner and Outer Spirits seem interchangeable, except for the obvious racial difference. In a long dance section called “Adventure of the Mountains,” several characters in colorful spiked headpieces dance onstage while the Inner and Outer Spirits watch. Though the masks are beautiful, the choreography for these figures does little to help us understand them. They are simply people wearing masks, without any particular qualities. And since the piece seems to aim at elaborate myth, such qualities must be present or the myth is drained of meaning and power.

Call of the Spirit Twin seems like a young piece in that its images are not explored in much depth. If Buchwald envisions a black woman as her inner spirit–this is only one reading of the piece–then we need to see her probe that idea to begin to appreciate the dynamic behind the choice. As it is, Buchwald’s choices seem arbitrary. And she herself is quite unfocused onstage, moving about rather hesitantly and at times awkwardly, often not clearly audible.

Blakemore’s performance is much more solidly crafted; impressively, she commits fully to whatever choice she makes. At one point she performs an African chant seemingly intended to wake the two dancers asleep on opposite sides of the stage. Blakemore’s voice is rich and beautifully untrained, and her sense of ownership of the chant makes its performance quite beguiling. Blakemore is saying something through this chant, something urgent and timeless.

The rest of the performers–Genero De Grazia, Knud Gottfriedson, and Danny D. Hinds–are generally unchallenged, not given much opportunity to display their skill as dancers. Hinds, who also directed, keeps the story’s theatrical impact low with a muddy staging–with the exception of that opening procession.

Steele’s percussion score, which he composed and performs live at the rear of the stage, is the most successful part of the evening. His performance is tight and focused, his accompaniment carefully shading the stage events. Yet Steele never overpowers, always seems to hold back a bit, creating a sense of tension all too often lacking in the other performances. Most impressive is the wonderfully rich array of sounds Steele produces from his limited number of instruments. That same sense of economy might also have enhanced other aspects of Call of the Spirit Twin. Instead of invoking so many mythic images and characters, the piece might have been better served by examining only a few, but in more careful and passionate detail.