at the Dance Center of Columbia College, April 23 and 24

Margie Gillis is gorgeous. She has hair like a long lick of flame and a bone structure as fine and compelling as a Rembrandt. Her responsive body and face easily record the passage of music and emotion. And she’s smart–she knows what works, theatrically and visually.

This Montreal-based solo artist seems a kind of aristocrat of dance, someone with all the amenities at her disposal. In her opening number at the Dance Center, the 1991 Variations (to a Glenn Gould recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations), she establishes absolutely but with no showing off that she’s got the music in her pocket, matching its mysterious combination of discrete notes and flowing sound with her own continuous but accented movement. Gillis has expressive arms, and one of her accomplishments is to whip through split-second gestures–backs of the hands to the cheeks, fingers to the eyes–that, however evocative, mime nothing. The finishing touch to the piece is Gould’s humming, which can just barely be heard on this recording. Shadowy, a little cracked, it’s an antic human thread teasingly woven into the fabric of the music. Gillis matches that too with her crossed arms and teasing mock-triumphant look at the end.

In the 1985 Slipstream, performed last on this program, Gillis captures the dizzy circling quality of a brief bit of Bach string music, the prelude from the Suite no. 1 in G Major, rolling her hands rapidly around each other, rocking and lurching as if about to lose her balance, heaving into a great tumbling dive backward. (Did I say that she’s athletic too?) Yet somehow by this point in the concert there was almost something too accomplished about her work. The way the floor was lit red to match Gillis’s hair, the way her flowing dress was just a shade lighter blue than the backdrop–I don’t know, it was all in such good taste.

But there’s another side to Gillis, thank God, a side that recognizes her own quaint ladylikeness and undermines it. In the 1983 suite of dances How the Rosehips Quiver, to new-age Irish music by Dalglish & Larsen, she plays with tremendous hilarity the part of a wallflower who can’t keep her feet still. Seated on a stool, Gillis mimes from the waist up the stiff politeness and excessive agreeability of a young person being sociable while her feet do an almost-secret jig beneath her. Then her legs get into the act, flinging out into kicks and stomps, while her upper body remains still and her face registers an increasing dismay. Finally she leaps up from her stool, jigging wildly, and glares horrified at her own legs, saying as clearly as if she’d spoken, What are they doing?

Not all of Rosehips is this wild, and in fact some of it is downright ladylike; even the concept–tracing a woman’s life through dance–is a little academic. Other parts of the piece showed me something else about Gillis’s dancing: anger doesn’t come naturally. When I was a child my mother’s (infrequent) anger always made us kids laugh. And Gillis wears her anger as uncomfortably as my mother did; like a suit of clothes with a hopelessly bad fit, it seems to make her into a clown. When at the end of the “angry” section in Rosehips she throws her fists up and then pulls them down in slow motion to bang on her thighs, somehow there’s nothing at all black or terrifying about it.

Gillis’s quirks, the things about her that are not ladylike, turn up instead in her weird humor. What makes the 1983 Give Me Your Heart Tonight so funny is its shameless obviousness. Playing an adolescent marionette, complete with rouged cheeks, at the mercy of love, Gillis matches note for note the Latin accents of Shakin’ Stevens’s pop music–but she’s lying on the floor, slapping various cheeks down like a just-landed fish inexplicably doing a tango on the dock.

The same kind of literalness pushed to the point of humor marks the 1989 Bloom, danced to Siobhan McKenna’s recording of Molly’s closing soliloquy in Ulysses. Gillis records in admirable detail the quick emotional shifts in Joyce’s stream-of-consciousness prose; more unusual is the way she embodies, moment by moment, the objects named in this stew of words. When the recorded voice says “new-laid eggs” she suddenly lifts her skirts and squats in a wide second; mention of a drunk produces a brief drunken reel; mention of a bull, horns. This kind of wit informs her portrayal of emotions too. Here her anger is comic: jumping up and down in a fit, she squashes an imaginary man like a bug, grinding him into the floor with her foot. Railing against men (“Why don’t they go and create something themselves!”), she’s a windup doll of fury, parodying men’s mechanical motions. Even Bloom’s lyricism is given a humorous touch: to the famous “first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad” she pumps her whole body up and down furiously like a real heart that’s materialized before our eyes.

Gillis’s choreography suits her in a way the work of others just can’t. Though she performed Martha Clarke’s Nocturne and Stephanie Ballard’s Mara wonderfully well, both are essentially one-trick ponies. In Nocturne the dancer’s gauzy costume and impersonation of decrepitude–in particular the use of a ribbon as a cane–are the whole ball of wax, and the wax is pretty darn sentimental. Mara is better, if only in its special effects. Here Gillis plays a sea goddess, something slippery and pliable but with a great lashing force at times; her long black dress makes her body seem to end in a mermaid’s tail, which she flips around dramatically. This dance has some very nice touches: the way Gillis transforms her hands and arms into seaweed; her swaying geisha’s walk, in a deep plie, to express the creature’s essential femininity. But the choice of music–Saint-Saens’–and images is too obvious for anything but immediate impact.

If Gillis is larger than life in Mara, in her own The Little Animal (1986) she’s a creature so small and close to the ground we might easily have overlooked her. Barely visible at first in a glow of red light upstage, she seems a tiny, awkward assemblage of bones. Her eventual slow progress downstage is accomplished only with the most tortured and convoluted motions: a duck walk, for instance, in which her head is lowered and her arms reach with great effort, one at a time, her hands shrunken into claws. Often curled in on herself like something so tender it needs constant protection, Gillis highlights the creature’s occasional awkward playfulness: one of her few expansive gestures is to splay her toes. But overall she inspires pity as a damaged, inhibited thing whose look, when we finally see it near the end, is uncomprehending, subhuman. This is the aristocrat brought low–who’s brought herself low. And completed herself in the process.

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