at Link’s Hall

May 22-24

Maggie Kast was one of the first Chicago choreographers I saw, in the early 70s. She founded the Chicago Contemporary Dance Theatre, based at the Body Politic, in 1963, and though she’s been making dances steadily since then, for some years she’s worked in the field of liturgical dance. Now, with performances at Link’s Hall last weekend, she’s ventured back into modern dance.

Kast’s choreography is quiet and gentle. Like a soft-spoken person whose near whisper forces you to listen intently, Kast uses soft, flowing movements that challenge you to follow them. Especially in the last dance on this program, Vienna, she seems to give in to the movement, falling into the phrases, almost flowing into them like water into a glass.

In Dance Without Warm-up, the opening number, Kast’s movements are pedestrian and small, but one curves into another: she extends an arm or a leg, then brings it softly in or down in a steady, continuous arc. The resulting curves seem to hug both her body and the air. When Leigh Richey does some of the same movements later in the dance, they’re more angular and emphatic. She places her hands around her in a curve, rather than flowing into the curve as Kast does. Most of the circular patterns seem to happen on the same horizontal plane; to break that even keel, Kast adds little hops and skips. She also occasionally drops to the floor, falling over in a roll on her side to illustrate–in a very natural, relaxed, and “undancerly” way–her liberation from the tyranny of discipline, the dancer’s boon and bane.

Kast and Richey both speak during Dance Without Warm-up. Kast begins alone, stating that after 50 years of warming up so she can move her body in ways neither God nor Mother Nature ever intended, she decided one day to skip ballet class and create a dance without warming up. “This would be a dance I could do anywhere–on a subway, in a neon-lit nightclub in Shanghai, where I was once asked to do a dance as part of an exchange between Chinese and Western dancers. I could do it in whatever I had on, after riding all day in a bus, after a heavy meal . . . ” This is a true effort to create a universal dance.

Richey’s story is more practical: she tells how she drives a $100 Honda 500 miles a week “teaching dance to 300 students under two feet tall.” When she mentions to a friend that the car will be a rust bucket in two years, he replies that then she’ll have to “grow up and get a real job.” Richey falls back into a spread-eagled collapse, stunned. He doesn’t understand that she already has a real job, one that’ll last a lifetime: making dances. It’s an effective moment, a pause in the choreography that makes you both empathize with her and stop to think about your own life.

Richey goes on to explain how she made the dance we’re to see next, Terra Firma Air. “I had a theme, a designer, a composer, a dancer [Kast], but I couldn’t find the dance. Then one day I was taking a shower and everything fell into place. . . . That’s why you should always be able to dance without warm-up: you never know when it’s going to hit you . . . ”

Kast gives Richey’s Terra Firma Air her emotional all–when she brings her hands in toward herself, then brings them back out imploringly, she seems to be drawing emotion out of herself in a mute appeal to the viewer to understand. Kast, who’s had solid white hair ever since I first saw her in the 70s, creates a dramatic effect when she dons a long, loose white poncho/robe over her short, fringed multicolored tunic.

Women at the Well, choreographed by Kast with assistance from Jane Siarny, is a throwback to Kast’s religious choreography. A quartet when I saw it last, in a performance at MoMing, here it was danced by Kast and Richey alone. In the larger MoMing space, Women at the Well was a more expansive, ecstatic dance. In Link’s Hall, the message seemed stilted and the choreography cramped. Kast as the Samaritan woman holds an earthen pitcher, full of blessed “living” water–it’s the day after her encounter with Jesus, and she wants to convey her celebratory joy to her friend at the well, who in turn goes out to spread the news to the rest of the world (Richey sprinkles the audience on her way out). In fact what works best in this dance is the moment of joy at this point–the religious ecstasy rings true as the two women spill water on themselves and the floor and move in time to the now livelier music, beating out the rhythm on their bodies with their hands. In contrast to the more parablelike and laconic section that precedes it, performed in silence, this section offers a joyful release.

But it’s all too short. As Kast and Richey continue the dance more quietly, dousing themselves with water from standing positions next to each other, their breathing comes harder. In this small space, you can’t help but notice the physical strain on the dancers, an effect that may not have been intended but reinforces the reality of the labor involved in hauling water. At close range the water too seems more “real.” Once it’s spilled you can’t forget about it–a visible glistening puddle–and it becomes a more living symbol.

Vienna, directed by Kast but developed by both Kast and Richey collaboratively, is easily the most ambitious piece on the program. Caryn Weglarz’s costumes evoke the turn of the century without being sentimental–I have yet to see a Weglarz costume that isn’t both original and drop-dead gorgeous. Set designer Susan Michod, inspired by Gustav Klimt, has created a cafe with a decorative table and chairs, and has ingeniously turned the three doors in one wall into an abstract floral delight–both panels on the opened doors sport designs, as well as the area inside the doors, offering a peek into another world. The set also aptly depicts some of the lines from the Federico Garcia Lorca poem, “Little Viennese Waltz,” that served as inspiration and text for the dance: “There is a fragment of tomorrow / in the museum of winter frost. / There is a thousand-windowed dance hall.” (Erica Kast’s slide projections at first seem inspired but quickly fizzle–you can’t really see the designs, which don’t appear all that interesting anyway.) Scott Silberstein’s score incorporates a sung version of Lorca’s poem by Leonard Cohen.

With all these moody turn-of-the-century elements, it’s no wonder the choreography follows in the psychodramatic vein of Antony Tudor’s Jardin aux Lilas and George Balanchine’s Davidsbundlertanze (or, closer to home, Shirley Mordine’s Stream of Recollection, which was being performed the same weekend at Columbia College’s Dance Center). When Kast and Richey face each other, playing patty cake and other childlike games, the games turn into lovely, lyrical swoons to the floor at once reminiscent of fainting (all those tight corsets) and the ecstatic giving in to the music of a waltz. The two women also place hands over each other’s mouths–it’s an innocent children’s game, but also an adult’s threat to be silent. Garcia Lorca’s poem and Kast’s accompanying text, inspired by it (she was married to a Viennese man), parallel both strains in the movement. Lorca: “In Vienna there are ten little girls, / a shoulder for death to cry on, / and a forest of dried pigeons. / . . . Ay, ay, ay, ay! / Take this broken-waisted waltz. / . . . Take this waltz that dies in my arms. / Because I love you, I love you, my love, / in the attic where the children play . . ./ Take this ‘I will always love you’ waltz.” Kast: “I began in Vienna. I played in Vienna. I danced and I loved you in waltzing Vienna . . . I love you, I love you, with the armchair and the book of death, doing our turtle dance in a Viennese cafe. The waltz of Vienna closed its mouth and we could not sing. . . . Take this ‘I will always love you’ waltz–it’s been dying for years. Take it–it’s yours now–it’s all that there is.”

The dance’s final note is a violent, destructive, defiant one–the dancers circle the table repeating those last lines, ripping a page out of the newspaper on the table with each round, crumpling it, and throwing it to the floor. It’s at once a dance about regret and the wish for expiation–a yearning to go back–and about the realization that going back is impossible. That place no longer exists, nor does your former self. The waltz of life goes on–gently, softly, but relentlessly–much as Kast’s creative life has over the years.

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