at the Weinstein Center for the Performing Arts

January 8, 9, 29, and 30

Every choreographer walks a fine line between exploring new territory and staying close enough to home to be understood–in dance the distance between cliche and obscurity just isn’t that great. Two new works by Winifred Haun, whose troupe appeared recently at the Weinstein Center for the Performing Arts, illustrate how this young but immensely talented Chicago choreographer is negotiating that line.

Haun prefers difficult contemporary music, often string music–the Kronos Quartet, Anton Webern, Paul Hindemith–and it’s easy to see why: the attenuation, variety, and innate drama of strings are perfect for her stretched, precise, angular choreography, which often turns unexpected corners (two abstract works from 1990 on this program, Next and Trials, are good examples). The lugubrious comic side of string music is also appropriate to the understated humor of Haun’s 1991 barroom drama Close My Eyes and the 1992 tongue-in-cheek love duet Other Sides (Section II). But in her two most recent works Haun seems interested not in movement for its own sake but in shaping movement to communicate her ideas.

In one of them, East 90/94 (first shown last November), Haun really starts to mix things up, a process she’d begun with Offer Void, a solo for herself that alternates her usual balletic strength and reserve with a staggering, spastic floppiness we’ve rarely seen in her dancing (Haun performed for several years with Joseph Holmes Chicago Dance Theatre). East 90/94 is a big work for the entire seven-member company–Tammy Cheney, Zineb Chraibi, Cora Donaldson, Heather Girvan, Haun, Malcolm Low, and Lara Tinari–and compared with Haun’s earlier dances it has a lot of partnering, some of it pretty wild. There’s a freedom to East 90/94 missing from some of the earlier works, a willingness to take a tumble, perhaps a literal tumble; to pull dancers off the stage and throw them back on at whim. Even the score–a sound design by Scott Silberstein composed of 20th-century classical music, rock, and recorded sounds (radio news reports, liquid poured into a glass, children’s shouts and laughter)–shows Haun’s wish to stretch out, open things up.

East 90/94 explores the hardened, harried quality of modern life, which Haun dramatizes by pitting the individual against the crowd (Ariane Dolan’s costumes–prim white turtlenecks and black or gray skirts or pants–have a corporate look). The dance opens with Haun alone in an upstage corner performing sustained, quiet motions like t’ai chi: their focus, balance, and continuity seem to epitomize a serene, collected state. Then two anonymous silhouetted dancers roll on, thrusting their legs into the air–literally knocked off balance, upended. They’re pointedly not self-contained: in this work Haun sometimes imports the vocabulary and burlesque conventions of jazz dance, and at this point one of the two rollers eyes the audience seductively.

More dancers come on, and Tinari–a tiny woman–seems to try to draw Haun into the maelstrom by hurling herself at her; but Haun continues her dance meditation, simply throwing Tinari off. Eventually Haun becomes part of the chugging machine, however, as the entire group moves in unison. In later sections others take on the “outsider” role: one dancer stands in the midst of others running, watching them swirl around her; another starts a phrase with the group but lags way behind them, completing only the opening gesture while they finish the whole fast-paced thing. These people often look dehumanized: two dancers pick up and lug a third like a battering ram, for instance; or the group suggests the parts of an engine, thrown out of whack by a dancer who slips out of alignment and pulls everyone else with her. A romantic trio (set to the Melissa Etheridge song “Similar Features”) is somehow not fully human either: the two women seem interchangeable, their choreography merging at times as one slips into and the other out of the man’s arms. Again, the individual is at risk of being consumed by the crowd.

By the end of East 90/94, however, Haun has effected a strange about-face: the crowd has come to seem a community, a community that buoys and supports its members. A mysterious transitional section–dancers riding one another like rajas swaying on elephants or holding aloft someone as stiff and unyielding as a religious icon–introduces the ecstatic ending, when the dancers’ shifts into and out of unison suggest a different kind of machine, a well-oiled human machine working in harmony.

The premiere on this program, Who’s Child?, is not a big work in the way East 90/94 is despite Gene Coleman’s original score, played live. The program tells us the dance was inspired by a true-life story about a girl named Genie, whose parents kept her strapped to a toilet seat in a room by herself from the age of 2 to 13; she was an object of curiosity to linguists because she had no language when she was discovered. Coleman’s music (for percussion, bass clarinet, cello, and invented instruments) is well suited to the subject, its tentative sounds as soft, subtle, and varied as a baby’s squeaks and creaks; but it’s not exactly easy listening.

As if to compensate, Haun has created a clearly etched narrative whose drama is readily apparent. And she shows herself a master of the finely drawn detail, the image that encapsulates an entire emotional situation. As the dance opens we see a woman (Cheney) leaning against a man (guest artist Leslie A. Jones); suddenly a person (Tinari) seems to flow head first from between his straddled legs to lie face down on the floor. In an instant we know this family: the passive, dependent mother; the father so powerful and controlling that he’s the one to give birth; the daughter who’s a tabula rasa. The father manipulates the child, often putting his hand to her face, especially her mouth, and pushing it; meanwhile the mother slowly paces upstage. Eventually the girl sits on a chair while he hovers over her, holding her from behind; she falls forward, hanging from the waist, and her hands sweep the floor–a rag doll pathetically searching for life, for stimulation.

With complete authority Haun establishes meanings for certain crucial gestures–a hand pressed over one’s own mouth or another’s to indicate speechlessness; hands clapped in simplistic, childlike ways to suggest the impoverished spoken language the scientists would like to teach the child once she’s in their care. But though Haun draws the emotions very well, she doesn’t go much beyond the pity for the girl and the anger at her parents and the linguists that the program description of the story automatically summons up. At the same time the text for Coleman’s score (“Nevertheless, music cannot be equated with a language” and “To my mind the origins of music should not be sought in linguistic communication”) suggests an intriguing path Haun hasn’t pursued.

Despite its limitations, Who’s Child? is both well choreographed and well danced. Cheney is icily withdrawn, Jones the picture of menacing strength, Tinari a delicate, vulnerable, but sturdy presence, and Donaldson comforting, womanly, and strong despite her role as an aloof scientist. Indeed, one of Haun’s talents seems to be training her performers: though the troupe is so young–just over a year old–the dancers look marvelous, both technically proficient and expressive. Chraibi has a lush, exotic fullness that’s innately dramatic, and the impish Low and stolidly deadpan Girvan disclose a comic flair in Other Sides that’s all the funnier because it’s low-key. Haun’s elegant, sure touch–revealed both formally and dramatically–marks all her work; she’s like a sculptor chipping away at the unnecessary detail, the extraneous choice.