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at MoMing Dance & Arts Center

March 22-25

I’ve come to think of a certain kind of performance as “chamber dance”: performances that take place in an intimate space with no more than five or six people onstage. This kind of choreography can be small and delicate–though of course it can also be big–because the audience is able to see and hear a breath, see the play of small muscles in the face and torso. And a choreographer in this vein can exploit subtle differences between dancers, as a composer might the timbre of his instruments.

Chicago is rich in such dance, partly because for so many choreographers here money is limited and performance spaces small. That means small dances and small audiences; but it also opens up a wealth of opportunity. Bob Eisen and Jan Erkert showed off their mastery of the form on a double bill, including one collaboration, last weekend at MoMing.

Eisen’s work often has a rough, unchoreographed look: he throws flourishes, finishing touches, out the window. Only the big muscles count, and that frees up the body’s smaller, peripheral parts–hands, heads and necks, even arms–to just go along for the ride. As a result his movement has a flung, careless quality; the impetus is more important than how the dancers appear to the audience. The beginning of his new dance, The Crotch to the World Phrase, features Eisen and Joanne Barrett running in big circles around the perimeter of the stage; their bodies carve the space, their thudding feet mark the time.

But despite their distance from each other, these two are not alienated. They open with a conspiratorial look, and as they run it’s obvious each is aware of the other: Eisen might flick his hand at Barrett as they pass, tearing along in opposite circles, like a boy on a merry-go-round grabbing for the ring. Sometimes, when they’re running in the same direction, he seems to chase her, or tries to keep one hand on her shoulder. Our sense of their intense mutual awareness increases as the duet goes on–they’re two forces who bounce off, who use, each other. The effect, whether intended or not, is erotic. Hands are especially important in establishing connection, perhaps because touching with the hands is so intentional. When they stand and Eisen brushes Barrett’s waist, then her neck, lightly with both hands, or she grabs his hips and pushes; when they crouch, arms entangled, knees nearly touching, and Eisen grasps Barrett’s upper arm hard–there’s a sexual twinge, then the moment’s over and they’re back to slinging each other around.

I’ve never seen Barrett as relaxed and happy as she looked in this dance. Wearing an unforced grin, she’s copped some of Eisen’s insouciance. And the tall, loose-limbed Eisen gains by his juxtaposition with this small, precise, but powerful performer, who can bring the movement into sharper focus. So I thought the dance suffered by the addition of two more couples, first Judith Mikita and Anthony Gongora, then John Hoffman and Sandra Sucsy. The choreography for the third couple is limited–they’re there, it seems, mostly to provide for the occasional same-sex trio. The choreography for the second is more visible, but it’s in a style that seems foreign to Eisen: suddenly the air has become viscous, and the dancers move in long, slow, sustained phrases as if underwater. They also seem to aim for a precision that in the context of the earlier dancing has an alienating, even unpleasant effect. Their movement on the floor–and you might expect that to be luxurious–has a rigid, staccato look, as if these two were windup soldiers who’d toppled over still moving. Perhaps this contrast between the first and second couples is Eisen’s point, but the reason for the contrast, its emotional weight, remained obscure to me.

The quality of Erkert’s movement is quite different from Eisen’s usual jagged, abrupt rhythms. That’s most evident in her new piece, Making a Bed for the Dead Cow: in this solo performed by Sucsy, movement is melodic and flowing. Though Sucsy is frequently still, she never stops dancing: early on she’s seated, apparently motionless, feet flat on the floor, but then we see her big toes tapping to the beat. The dance has an oriental look and sound–Pennington McGee’s score is marvelously monotonous but propulsive. The dance opens with Sucsy, in plie, taking tiny steps right on the beat, her hips pumping, and in that manner she glides slowly across the floor like a geisha, her back to us. Later she achieves several meditative balances reminiscent of t’ai chi, seating herself in air, for example, by crossing one leg over the other, ankle resting on knee, elbow resting on crossed leg. Or she kneels in profile, one calf and foot flicked up, and gazes into the mirror of her two palms held before her face. But however still the pose, you sense the dancer’s inward gathering, the measured wait in preparation for the next move.

Sucsy is a great choice for this piece, because she has fine but elusive traits that benefit from the focus given them in a solo. When she scuttles across the floor facing us, her big, slow inhalation and widening eyes are dramatically charged, in part because her performance has generally been so quiet.

In Journal Entry #2, which Erkert made in Taipei last year, Sucsy tends to recede in the presence of the other three dancers. Presumably Erkert choreographed Journal Entry #2 with the same method she used for last spring’s Journal Entry #1: keeping a movement “diary” and then stringing together what she came up with. Journal Entry #2 has an inward, private quality enhanced by the dancers’ occasionally hiding behind the set’s four banners and by shifting blocks of light and darkness (expertly achieved by Tom Fleming), which bring into focus or obscure different dancers at different times.

And Erkert really uses her dancers in Journal Entry #2. I was less aware of the choreography than I was of differences between the dancers, despite their similar sizes and identical white costumes. All four women wear their hair up, so you can really see how their heads and necks are held–the most personal and telling aspect, I think, of a dancer’s carriage. Barrett, small and steely, with long legs and brilliant extension, has a strong brow and jaw and carries her head with raptorial grace. Sucsy is in a way her opposite: with her big, soft mouth and sad eyes, her narrow shoulders and slender body, her chin ever so slightly and diffidently tucked, and her sure but soft attack, she gives an impression of elegant but capable languor. Juli Hallihan’s broad shoulders and long arms communicate strength; her face, held tilted a little up, looks both open and smoothly, blandly closed. What wheels are turning in there? Mikita has a long, sturdy torso and trim, precise legs, which give her an oriental neatness. Her focus is outward; she carries her head earnestly, and fixes her small, bright eyes on us as if willing some mysterious connection.

Trio, the collaboration by Erkert and Eisen, is an interesting failure. Erkert created the “raw material,” the movement phrases; Eisen took them and structured the dance. But Erkert’s continuous, elastic energy is not well served by Eisen’s odder, more broken rhythms: the effect was that of seeing a beautiful vase, which might once have had flowing lines, lying in shards. This experiment suggests that these two “distinct” phases in the choreographic process are not so unrelated as one might think.