at MoMing Dance & Arts Center

January 13-15

Concerts featuring several choreographers are casually called “mixed bills,” but some are more mixed than others: the dances presented in MoMing’s “Best of Dance for $1.98,” and its successor “Best of Dance & More for $1.98,” are as diverse–and often as perverse–as any we see in Chicago. The first weekend of this year’s “Best of” concert treated us to two surprisingly lovely dances, Sheldon B. Smith’s Amelia and Winifred Haun’s Endings.

Smith’s solo Scatterbrain builds phrases of increasing length and complexity from very simple movement material: his arm thrown across his body, his body thrown to the floor, galumphing hops, high leaps with straight legs and flexed feet, great arcing entrances, straight-line exits, and gestures suggesting exhaustion, puzzlement, and frustration.

Seen a second time, Scatterbrain looks less surprising, less daring, and more derivative. Still, Scatterbrain’s exploration of typical postmodernist concerns–how to build movements into phrases, how to connect phrases, what is physically possible, how to convey to the audience a sense of the process of choreographic composition, how to make a highly structured dance without the traditional structures of canon, retrograde, etc–is interesting in and of itself. We need to explore the structural and intellectual underpinnings of dance now and then, especially when Chicago is dominated by dance companies of critical acclaim and virtuosic but vapid technique.

Both Scatterbrain and Smith’s new work, Amelia, are set to music by Radon Daughters, Smith’s own one-man band. In both works, the relationship of music and movement is reciprocal: sometimes the dancers seem to follow the score’s dictates; at other times, they forge ahead and the score lags behind. Amelia begins with four dancers–Lezlee Crawford, Cindy Helfand, Bryan Saner, and Dennis Wise–crossing and recrossing the performance space in simple, uninflected walks punctuated by small jumps. Crawford and Helfand break from the pattern, two brief duets emerge and fade, trios form and dissipate. The dance moves in and out of unison at the speed of perception, as Smith toys with the possibilities of pairing and re-pairing, of phrases repeated at different tempi or danced along different, crisscrossing paths.

At first glance, Amelia is as simple as the plain white trousers and shirts and vaguely 40s black-and-white print dresses its dancers wear. Like Scatterbrain, the dance complicates itself slowly, steadily, and almost imperceptibly. Smith’s chosen movement vocabulary is deceptively simple; it only looks like ordinary walking, stalking, or running. Smith poses many of the same postmodernist questions in Amelia as in Scatterbrain, but finds answers that are more sophisticated and intriguing to watch.

Long Lunch, choreographed by Darrian Ford and Winifred Haun and danced in this performance by Monica Blackman and H.L. Tate, looked less spontaneous, less amusing, and less interesting than at its premiere last summer. We see bits reminiscent of a Graham class, gymnastics, a Pilobolus-like spider, but none of the argumentative tinge, the covert competition–as if each performer were staring into the mirror, vying with the next dancer or the man on the next Nautilus machine–that had made the dance so wicked and irresistible.

Haun’s new work, Endings, is a duet for Blackman and Tate set to a score by Michael Zerang. Endings contrasts taffylike movements of contraction and release in the upper body with angular limbs and quick, syncopated steps. Much of it suggests the influence of African dance–a certain hopping balance; the rocking pelvis, straight torso, and sharply bent elbows, one hand placed on the hip and the other on the head; a tilted torso, raised knee, and two quick stamps. One particular movement image recurs–two hands facing each other inches apart, fingers spread and taut, vibrating violently. It is not an image with a distinct or specific meaning. But although it lacks literal content, it does supply emotional content; it may suggest struggle, sobbing, throttling, or a grand mal seizure that wrenches the dancer to the floor, but the audience cannot remain unmoved. The dancers’ hands form an image of great, unspecified visceral strength, altered subtly with each repetition.

While we often see interesting dances in Chicago, we seldom see dances this well crafted. Endings is both entertaining and provocative, simultaneously abstract and affecting, and evokes a powerful kinesthetic response. It’s a dance of thorny beauty.

Into a New Light, the new dance by Ford, Haun’s collaborator on Long Lunch, opens with Oxanna Tchiakovski huddled in a pool of light while an ill-articulated taped narrative establishes her character and introduces the Aretha Franklin score. The timing of the dance–its underlying rhythmic pulse as well as the length of its pauses and phrases–mirrors the score precisely. The movement very often illustrates the lyric, phrase by phrase and angst by angst. The opening and closing narrative presents a particularly troubling misogynistic stereotype–that the unhappiest woman in the world is the woman without a man.

Ford dances with the Joseph Holmes Dance Theatre, and Into a New Light is obviously shaped by Ford’s exposure to Holmes’s work. The late Holmes was a master of popular form: he knew just how to resist the pull of the predictable, to use the vernacular to challenge his dancers and his audiences. Holmes seldom allowed the dance and the music to work in tandem. Even when he used the most familiar of musical material, its relationship to the movement was surprising, often fraught with dramatic tension; the music and the movement illuminated one another. Ford’s Into a New Light forces us to recall Holmes’s dances–The Long Road and Aretha especially–and doesn’t bear the comparison well.

Lynn Brown’s Similar Orbits is a satiny, smooth-surfaced dance. The sextet, set to a Talking Heads score, comprises three distinct, unrelated duets (well, they do occur on the same stage). Similar Orbits moves the dancers from place to place, from position to position, from pose to pose, with little or no emphasis on the movements and spaces between them and little or no change in energy level–a peculiarly one-dimensional dance.

In Brown’s new dance, Bang!, set to a score by Jean-Michel Jarre, movement and music progress in one great convulsive crescendo. Bang! begins with a series of slow, tedious slides and seated spins that move the dancers on a huge diagonal across the stage; the dance builds relentlessly to impossibly fast chaines and high kicks before the dancers collapse and the lights fade.

The dancers layer a new bit of clothing over their black jumpsuits each time they leave the stage–shirts, ties, blazers, socks, and oxfords. And the movement acquires another layer of forced cleverness with each new layer of clothes: the battements get kickier and the swinging hips get hipper. Like Similar Orbits, Bang! focuses attention on the product rather than the process–it’s the dancers’ destination, not their journey, that matters. Legs fold and straighten rather than contract and extend, almost as if there were no muscles involved. Such dancing sometimes looks effortless but falls to evoke a kinesthetic response: we don’t feel our muscles stretch or our breath catch over some risk. Ultimately the feverish crescendo of Bang! is the dance’s undoing: Bang! quickly grows predictable, and then quickly more tiring than entertaining.

The second weekend of “Best of Dance & More for $1.98,” January 20-22, will feature works by Emily Knowles, Julie Mayer, and Krista Willberg.