The Other Dance Festival

at Hamlin Park, through October 18

Gus Giordano Jazz Dance Chicago

at the Merle Reskin Theatre, October 12 and 13

There were three pieces before intermission on the first program of the Other Dance Festival, and every one of them ended with a dead body. (Yeah, so does Giselle, but there are compensations there.) From these works one would infer that Chicago’s contemporary dance community is interested only in pushing and shoving accompanied by cacophony. After considering the value of one’s time, one would walk out and resolve never to return, dismissing the entire show out of hand.

Fortunately, as a reviewer I had to stay for the second half, which included two terrific pieces by members of the same community. So no generalization–whether it’s “Chicago doesn’t appreciate dance” or “the avant-garde is a waste of time”–is worth a damn, including this one.

The evening’s highlight was the premiere of Deseret by Hi! Performance, made up of choreographer-dancers Sheldon B. Smith and Lisa Wymore. It opens with video showing ocean and rippled sand and the two performers lolling, stretching, and dancing on the waves–literally: they move in unison while floating on their backs. When the lights come up, Smith and Wymore are doing the same set of languid, tender movements on the bare floor of the Hamlin Park field house. Gradually the watery video gives way to scenes in the high desert, and the dancing accordingly gets harsher and less life affirming until the sound of rain softens the mood temporarily. Then, as the video performers disappear into the barren distance, Smith comes downstage, picks up a guitar, and sings what sounds like an Appalachian folk tune whose haunting melody underlies evocative lyrics: “I’m goin’ home to see my father…no more to roam.” His song ends this strongly performed, moving work, with its suggestions of the journey from womb to dust. Video (by Superstar Media) and music (by Mark Nelson, Low, and Dave Pajo) contribute significantly to the piece’s power.

The evening closed with Anna Simone Levin’s delightful Mujeres Caidas (1999), set to Latin music by Lhasa. Two women in red slips and two in black first satirize Latin spitfire stereotypes, poking their hips out at impossible angles as they smolder at the audience. They then drag huge tin washtubs to the front of the stage and proceed to tussle with them, get stuck in them, and generally be overborne by yet another stereotype, that of the simple, uncomplaining woman-of-all-work. Finally the two women in black (including the brilliant Sinead Gildea, who’s going to be a big star) confront the hated basins, now filled with water: they dunk their heads and create fountains of spray by flipping their soaking wet hair at the audience. A funnier, more jubilant protest would be hard to imagine.

The second program of the Other Dance Festival (the name is a dance community in-joke, meaning “as opposed to Dance Chicago,” which opens in a few weeks) features different works, which might be as ghastly or brilliant as the pieces I saw. The only repeated item is Cindy Brandle’s Incantation, a good choice for Halloween with its five women in black and allusions to witchcraft. The work contains some clever moves, but Brandle’s vanity about her singing voice–on the program I saw, this was the second piece in which she sang as well as danced–seems to interfere with her attention to choreography; nor is her voice shown to any advantage keening Lance Grabmiller’s annoying music.

There could hardly be a sensibility less avant-garde than that of Gus Giordano Jazz Dance Chicago, but this fall even its concert showed the influence of the new. Sometimes this was good, as in the extraordinary Entropy, a world premiere by Davis Robertson. The piece is as difficult to describe as its namesake phenomenon: the ten ensemble members emerge from fog only to disperse and engage in such seemingly unrelated activities as romantic pas de deux and all-male tumbling maneuvers. When the group re-forms, the men stand cradling the women in their arms, and to something that sounds like birdsong each woman in turn stretches her limbs–an elegant, organic tableau very much in the spirit of Smith and Wymore’s “swimming.” Similarly, the uncomplicated romantic mode is soon disrupted, then abandoned–deconstructed, if you will–as the couples give way to shifting alliances and the moves take on an edgy athleticism.

The piece’s performance challenges were greatly heightened at the Sunday matinee when the sound system went on the fritz. After a pause of nearly five minutes, the troupe picked up from the point of interruption and proceeded flawlessly to the conclusion. It was an opportunity to appreciate the exceptional quality of their preparation, something that might otherwise be lost given how easy they make everything look.

If Entropy represents the salutary effects of postmodern innovation on jazz, Eddy Ocampo’s Black Binasuan (2000) displays the most baleful ones. To grating music by Andy Mitran, six dancers enact scenes of robotic, karate-influenced violence. With the women dressed as dominatrices and the men as their slaves, the choreography’s mechanistic moves and lifts at odd angles (the women are held upside down with their legs akimbo, for instance) convey lifelessness amounting almost to goth-style death chic. Like the worst of nonmainstream dance, this piece goes beyond portraying agony and despair to counseling it, even celebrating it. Ocampo’s moves are more polished than those of the Other Dance Festival choreographers, but what truly offends is not the context or the genre but the sickeningly antihuman sensibility.

The world premiere of Randy Duncan’s Sister Girl revealed a piece more energetic than interesting: five women in dresses apparently inspired by Disney’s Pocahontas dance around to music with strong tom-tom undertones, thrusting their hips and spreading their legs lest anybody forget the original meaning of the word “jazz.” Liz Imperio’s La Raza del Barrio (2000) displays some of that sensibility too, plus a tendency toward literal-mindedness: if the lyrics mention money, a dancer rubs her thumb and fingers together. But the piece also includes a magnificent quartet to Nina Simone’s “Four Women,” and Imperio and Nan Giordano’s form-fitting, subtly varied tie-dyed costumes enhance the pleasure of watching dancers who aren’t bulimic.

The company also reprised Billy Siegenfeld’s charming Getting There (1994) and Jon Lehrer’s Bridge and Tunnel (2001). The virtues of the latter–set in working-class New York to music by Paul Simon–are even more apparent now that it can be compared to Twyla Tharp’s Movin’ Out, set in working-class New York to music by Billy Joel. Tharp’s show is spectacular–and you’ve got to love a woman who can fill a Broadway house for a dance concert with people who would never go to a dance concert. But Lehrer’s piece has two advantages: its uncondescending use of colloquialism and its taste in music. Bridge and Tunnel betters Movin’ Out the same way Paul Simon outstrips Billy Joel.

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