at the Harold Washington Library, December 3 and 4


at N.A.M.E., December 11 and 12

I first saw Maggie Kast in a ballet class–she was hard to miss. Her age (50-something) and full head of white hair set her immediately apart from the teens and young adults there. During the class I saw that she moved almost as well as a 20-year-old and loved flamboyant, romantic gestures of the sort classical ballet discourages. I also met and talked with Kast at dance functions, where she was usually accompanied by some gentle-spirited young choreographer–the faces changed every few years–she’d taken under her wing. Kast generally had a fair but kind viewpoint on what was happening in the dance community. I learned that she’d won three NEA grants in the early 1970s for her political dances but had dropped out of the concert circuit to earn a divinity degree and to focus on sacred dance, often performed in churches.

Kast has been an inspiration to other dancers both for dancing well beyond the usual age of retirement and for her thoughtfulness. I had been looking forward to seeing her dances, hoping they might show the same maturity she has, a hope sharpened by the recent Liz Lerman Dance Exchange concert, which used mature people as sentimental figures rather than as dancers.

Kast’s dances at the Harold Washington Library definitely showed a contemplative spirit. But they have the kind of placid pace–as if looking at the slow unwinding of years–that tempts a critic to say crossly that her dances need ruthless editing to eliminate their cliches and sharpen their messages.

The first dance on the program, Dance Without Warm-up, is a throwaway. Kast’s idea was to make a dance that could be performed without warming up. It’s not a great hook, and the dancers looked already warmed up to me. But they talked while they danced, telling stories of how they came to be dancing, so the piece served as a chatty introduction to the dancers and the other dances.

A short solo, Cool of the Day, is well done but more a sketch than a full painting. Rebecca Wright Phillips starts by lying on her back in an upstage corner with a hood over her head, weaving her arms and legs above her. The weaving turns into sensuous rolling, which continues until Phillips is in a sitting position and pulls off her hood. She continues rolling until she’s standing, when she finds a rose in a downstage corner. After a few lovely bent-leg attitudes that turn into slides to the floor, she leaves the stage clutching her rose. The later sections are accompanied by a religious song by Trapezoid about keeping God’s garden pure. In retrospect, the dance seems the archetypal story of a girl, from helpless infant to young woman in love. But the dance lacks dramatic conflict or tension: it’s as pretty as a prayer book.

In the duet Vienna Kast asks a hard question–is love really possible?–that’s much more interesting than the usual pop-song questions (Do you love me? Am I sexy?) asked in so many dances. The piece is set in a fin de siecle Vienna living room (suggested by Susan Michod’s simple set) where an older woman (Kast) and a younger woman (Sabine Fabie) live. The women share the difficulties of love, as expressed in Kast’s text, based on Federico Garcia-Lorca’s poem “Little Viennese Waltz” and Leonard Cohen’s song of the same name. The women sometimes recite Lorca’s lines–“Vienna was the body of my mother / The map of my first country of love”–and at other times we hear Cohen’s recorded voice, praying for “a shoulder for Death to cry on,” for example. These saturated images set the action in some country of the emotions that the word “Vienna” names but does not explain.

The dance alternates text, accompanied by gestures, with dance solos and duets. Its composition has interesting formal elements–Fabie’s impressive double-speed variation on a movement theme originally stated by Kast; text collaged like movement, where one woman echoes the other after a six-second lag–but the dancing does not make sense on its own, only as part of Kast’s story. Even the story doesn’t jell until the end, when both women make a slow exit, repeating a sequence of reaching out with their heads bowed, pulling back an extended hand, falling and rising again. The last sequence is a good image of the Sisyphean ache the women feel as they continue to look for romantic satisfaction, knowing they will never find it.

Although the sections of Kast’s Ritual Play are labeled “joy,” “funeral procession,” and “struggle,” it seems more playful than ritualistic or emotional. The dance was originally created for 12 nonprofessional dancers and performed at Saint Thomas the Apostle Church, to an organ score by Jehan Alain. The dance took place in the sanctuary, along a winding rail between the sanctuary and the pews, and in the aisles, pulpit, and organ loft. Kast’s version for the stage uses the five women in her company and a few set pieces to re-create the church–a short wooden rail at the front of the stage, an altar made of ladders and flags, two rope ladders suspended from the ceiling. Most of the dance is a response to the church’s visually intriguing spaces, and I felt a little cheated by the stage version; I kept imagining the church. Kast fills each stage space with an intricate dance lasting long enough to state a movement idea, then moves on to the next idea. The best section is the end, as the dancers struggle up the rope ladders and are pushed down by invisible forces; its emotional message may be overwrought, but the visual image is stunning. The dance has lots of intriguing movement but not much substance.

While it’s a pleasure to see a mature person ask the difficult questions, Kast somehow manages to avoid answering them. In Vienna her literary references push the work of communicating emotions off onto a writer; in Ritual Play she prefers playing in a church’s spaces to actually creating a ritual. The ruthless need to make truthful acts is not part of Kast’s palette.

An urgent need to communicate is not a problem for the two independent choreographers who presented pieces at N.A.M.E.’s performance space in the South Loop. Kathleen Maltese and Paula Frasz have a lot to say–the only problem is getting it across.

Maltese is helped immensely by her collaborator, Patricia Pelletier, who wrote the text for the solo Comfort, about Maltese’s family. As Maltese moves between a white chair, a white sheet laid on the ground, and a black screen on which slides are projected, she tells the story of her Sicilian grandmother, who worked like a dog when she came to America to buy houses and land for her children and herself. The overprotective grandmother convinced her entire family that only their few acres of land were safe; as a child, Maltese was driven to school by a different route every day. But Maltese’s Aunt Teresa wanted to cross Ogden Avenue and see the world, and she pulled Maltese into her struggle. Pelletier’s deft writing shows the child’s perceptions side by side with the adult’s understanding. Maltese’s skimpy movement does not compete with the strong story; Eileen Ryan’s minimalist slides and setting establish the domestic scene well.

Frasz’s new solo, The Black Swan, is a melodramatic version of Michel Fokine’s melodramatic The Dying Swan, featuring a gangbanger from the south side (Ron Wilson); Saint-Saens’ music for the original, a section from Carnaval des animaux, is played as an electric-guitar solo by Ken Bernstein. The swan here is a black teenager trying to dodge bullets long enough to grow up. While it’s impossible not to feel the strong emotion poured into the dance, Frasz’s choreography–a series of fighting postures, fetal positions, and hands clutched to the heart–doesn’t convey the tragedy of the young man’s certain death.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/William Frederking, Will Higgins.