Chicago Repertory Dance Ensemble

July 10, 1987

When my year-old daughter bounces along to the beat, the pure joy of it splits her face into a grin so big you can see all eight teeth and then some. A similar joy informs the best of “New Dances ’87,” a project of the Chicago Repertory Dance Ensemble. In the performance I saw, the most successful of the five premieres were those three in which the audience laughed and the dancers smiled, or planted their tongues firmly in their cheeks. (This program will be repeated Friday, July 17; the second program, with works by David Hough, Barbara Stein, Melissa Thodos, Mary Ward, and an unnamed work from program one, will be shown again Saturday, July 18.)

Of these three, the lightest by far was Joanne Barrett’s Cindercreepy. I didn’t have great expectations for this dance, both because of the title and because when it began there were shoes all over the stage. Moreover, the program listed the three female dancers (Barrett, Melissa Thodos, and Debra Nanni) as the “Twisted Sisters.” But the silliness turned out to be utterly intentional, and Barrett’s distance from the girlish bonding she parodies ironically made it that much more engaging.

Shoes are hurtled into a spotlighted center stage as the piece begins, followed by three young women with brooms manically sweeping them away. These aren’t your Betty Crocker types; all are dressed in the height of fashion, sporting fluorescent neon tights, socks, and shoes; tight black miniskirted tunics; black “dog collars”; and long black gloves with the fingers cut out. One of the brooms is suddenly upended, magically transformed from a humble domestic device into a spear around which the three young “natives” do a primitive dance consisting mostly of pelvic thrusts. A “collage” of heavy metal music plays throughout, as the young women try on shoes, throw them away, push each other around, and tumble vigorously over each other and the stage.

Rough around the edges as it is, this dance accomplishes a pretty neat trick: it makes you laugh at what it also takes seriously, the efforts of young women to transform themselves, not into Cinderella but into something creepy–“bad,” aggressive, sexual, quarrelsome. Fashion–shoes, miniskirts–is the medium through which this desire is expressed, and also the means by which women bond. The self-parody women so often show in the midst of their obsession with clothes, the self-deprecating humor that may be as much the motive for girl-talk as personal vanity, turns up here to wonderful effect.

Unbreakable, a collaboration by choreographers Christina Ernst and Sam Watson, not so light as Cindercreepy but still lighthearted, is about glass. The original score by Richard Woodbury is made up, according to the program, entirely of glass sounds, and it is wonderful to listen to–lilting, rhythmic, and lyrical. To dance to it looks like heaven, more just plain fun than any dancer has the right to hope for.

This time the stage is littered with glass–not broken glass but bottles, jars, a fishbowl. The music has two alternating themes, each associated with different props. One theme sounds more humorous–the music is clearly produced by the kid’s trick of blowing into bottles. For this theme, the four dancers (Ernst, Watson, Joanne Barrett, and Craig Raclawski) use green beer bottles as props, holding them to their foreheads and “peering” at each other, linking arms in a drunken toast, and in one virtuoso segment, juggling the bottles back and forth as the foursome dances in a square. These portions of the dance are not only humorous but in a curious way breathtaking–we wait for the glass to break (it never did), wait for a bottle to be dropped (one was), and the risk, the possibility for error and recovery, are exciting. To this exhilarating music the dancers go through some pretty jazzy paces, leaps, layouts, and sharply percussive movements.

The second theme is more contemplative. Here each dancer has his or her own prop–glass rods, a section of plate glass, the fishbowl–and each prop is suited to the dancer who manipulates it. (Barrett, who is round, good-natured, and impish, has the fishbowl.) In these more serious interludes, the foursome often breaks into two couples, originally a man and woman but through most of it same-sex pairs. Glass as a metaphor for human relationships is dazzlingly suggestive: fragile, catching and holding light, an unbroken glass object has integrity and completeness (broken glass of course has all the opposite connotations). The transparency of glass suggests lucidity, even generosity; in one remarkable segment, the two women dance together, one directly behind the other, performing similar but not mirroring movements of great fluidity; you seem to see one “through” the other.

The emphasis here is on the unbreakable: the piece ends with the four dancers literally walking on glass, as they balance on a row of jars downstage, moving gingerly from one to another. Eggshells, steppingstones, all the precious, fragile things in our lives are evoked. It’s a remarkable image, if a bit abruptly introduced; the worst I can say about this dance is that it’s too short.

Jane Siarny’s Interlace has a more limited intention but a more complete execution than Unbreakable. In this solo danced by Siarny herself to music of Telemann, she uses as a prop only a stretchy scarf long and narrow enough to outline the periphery of her body, hand to hand, foot to foot, much as Leonardo encircled his perfect man. As the piece begins, Siarny is discovered in a still, upright pose, her head lifted and her hands covering her breasts in a traditional gesture of modesty. But ironically the pose calls attention to the dancer’s breasts; what looks at first like a constraint can actually define and liberate.

In the rest of the dance Siarny explores the ways in which constraints, in this case the scarf, can free the imagination. It is at different times a classical drape, a moving frame for the dancer’s poses, a set of chains, a swinging hoop skirt, and an entangling web. As a frame, the scarf becomes purely geometric and formal, a line that sets off the perfection of the dancer’s arabesque. As a set of chains, the scarf has more emotional connotations, immobilizing the dancer with her “chained” arms extended in a supplicatory gesture. As swinging skirt, the scarf exaggerates the dancer’s leaps and pirouettes. In some segments, a voice-over adds another layer of constraint, readings from some 18th-century instructions for performing the minuet. (These culminate in a warning that “to move impulsively, explosively, or exuberantly is a breach of etiquette.”) Siarny, the obedient dancer, tries to follow these directions but ends the piece in bursts of rapid, joyful movement all over the stage. Elegant, witty, and exuberantly danced, Interlace leaves us in some pleasant doubt about whether the dancer has broken her chains or, by exploiting them, transcended them.

The two remaining works, Frank Fishella’s Forgetting and Tara Mitton’s Heirs, are gloomy in comparison. Of course dance can treat, and often does, the serious, even the tragic. But Fishella’s piece ends in an unearned orgy of self-indulgent breast-beating. Set to vocal music by Philip Glass, it begins promisingly with six female dancers whose poses and movements emphasize their lovely womanly arms, usually raised up and open in a manner suggesting receptivity, offering, or supplication. Another segment, in which they lie on the floor with legs open, suggests sexual availability or giving birth. Altogether it’s a not unloving picture of what women can be. Then a single man enters (Fishella), and the flowerlike passivity of the women suddenly seems inhuman: he thinks, he feels, he suffers, and they simply exist. The women, presumably past lovers of the man, in the second half become sleepwalkers, dead brides, mourners in a funeral procession, and when he lifts each in turn they’re like boards.

Mitton’s Heirs may be too personal for ready comprehension by an audience: in the choreographers’ forum after the performance, she explained that she knew three of the five dancers very well and played off their personalities in the choreography. And although Mitton stated in the program notes that her motivating concept was the way in which we’re all influenced by others, the dancers moved mostly in isolation, their only contact as if by chance. (One dancer “accidentally” backs into another, they link arms, back to back, and he lifts her.) To me the dance expressed anomie, not connection. Despite the marvelous dancing of Melissa Thodos, it opened up no new vistas, set no fires; we waited in vain for a little efflorescence.

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