at the Dance Center of Columbia College

November 5-7

You can watch dance as carefully as you like, trying to catch all the slippery little details, and still feel that the body remains a blunt and opaque medium, yielding up meaning grudgingly if at all. Many choreographers try to help us out by giving their material a clear-cut formal, thematic, or narrative structure, but Adriana Castanos, artistic director of the five-member collaborative group Antares Danza Contemporanea, is not one of them: her intuitive, organic choreography not only allows the body to keep its secrets but enhances our sense of its mysteries. The works performed by this Mexican troupe, the second of four participants in the Dance Center’s New World/New Art ’92 festival, offer few toeholds to meaning, yet their warmth, musicality, drama, and humor make them accessible in other ways.

Cantatas, the first of two works on this program, follows closely the supple lines of Bach’s music, reproducing its emphases and rhythms; often the dancers peel off one by one into canon movement, each following a separate voice or instrument. The women’s filmy skirts (costumes by Miguel Mancillas) underline the music’s light, floating qualities, while their black shoes and socks ground them. Such choreography can be deeply satisfying to watch, especially when the music is as lovely as this.

But Castanos doesn’t stop there. She gives Cantatas a comic twist, playing up the sanctimonious side of the music to play it down. The dancers’ carefully lugubrious expressions set off the mistakes she’s built into the choreography: a dancer falls slightly off balance, then looks around to see if the others noticed; several dancers gaze about bewildered or scramble into position when they realize they’ve lost the right formation. Castanos also avoids any consciously graceful movement, choosing instead pedestrian, casual, and pop motions–a jazzy little swing of the arms, the actions of running a race. At the end of the first section, danced to the familiar “Wir eilen mit schwachen, doch emsigen Schritten,” the performers exit surreptitiously one by one until only one is left, and she runs mortified into the wings: who would have thought the closing organ notes of this music could underscore a joke? Deflating the serious texts and intent of this classical Western music Castanos leaves only its joy, the breathless feeling of barely contained laughter.

The three-part Winter Through Heliopolis is a more sustained and serious effort. Based on the life and work of the surrealist painter Remedios Varo, who was driven out of Spain in the 30s by the civil war and eventually settled in Mexico, it has a theme and story of sorts, but Castanos’s approach is so intuitive, her logic and choices so dreamlike, that this work too resists interpretation.

Significantly, Castanos has chosen to treat an artist who also simply plucked images from her imagination–from dreams and the thoughts that popped into her head. The first section of Heliopolis, “Astral Hunter,” opens with a letter Varo wrote, read in voice-over, expressing her concern that she’s been introducing “unexpected elements” in her paintings almost against her will–a little ladder on a sheep, for instance. The dance that follows emphasizes the search for enlightenment and the misguided wish to control one’s creative impulses. Four seated dancers facing upstage slowly make their way toward the light there; one finally stands and we see he’s carrying two flashlights. He shoos the others off, and something springs into an upstage corner: a staring woman with wild bushy hair wearing a bright floaty dress like a bird’s plumage. He discovers that when he flicks a light up and down this awkward, otherworldly creature flicks her foot. But when she tries to approach him he makes the sign of the cross with the lights, as if warding off a witch: he wants to control her–and she’s to have no autonomy or influence over him.

I wouldn’t read this as a feminist statement, however. One of the most interesting things about Heliopolis is the way Castanos ignores gender but uses the mysteries of erotic life to explore the mysteries of artistic creation. In the second section, “Exquisite Corpse,” a woman wearing the short dress and shy manners of a little girl is instructed by four sullen peasants in drab black dresses–two of them men. Meant to represent “memories from a repressive Spain,” as a program note tells us, this section employs Varo’s whimsical “Recipe to Stimulate Erotic Dreams,” spoken in voice-over during the dancing–and fortunately also translated in a program insert. Using such ingredients as “strong roots,” veal livers, one corset with stays, and “hats to taste,” it instructs the “cook” on how to prepare the bed and oneself. “This simple recipe,” Varo writes, “gives always good results and the normal persons can go with pleasures from kiss to strangling, from rape to incest, etc., etc.”

In the choreography for “Exquisite Corpse” Castanos reproduces Varo’s wonderful tongue-in-cheek approach–in the way the “women” lift their skirts and peer at their own knees, for instance, or prudishly pull the little girl’s skirt down to cover her bottom as she tries desperately to crawl away. Like Varos, Castanos pokes fun at efforts to force an erotic response: while the men dance ludicrously together, the women clap along–out of time with the music. Finally all four angry-looking grown-ups dance for the little girl, and their clenched fists and arms protectively encircling their chests are the visual analogues of gritted-teeth will and personal and social repression.

Yet maybe that kind of repression does produce erotic dreams, surprising and frightening images that surface despite or because of efforts to extinguish them. “Exquisite Corpse” ends with the hallucinatory entrance of a man in Mexican garb so bright it hurts the eyes; he offers the little girl a slice of plastic watermelon that positively glows. And the third and final section, “Vigil . . . I Dream Yesterday,” takes as its subtext–and literal text, according to the Spanish-speaking person behind me–a dream Varo is quoted in the program as calling “erotic but scary . . . filled with steam, stairs, rigid feet, cozy cellar.” This is by far the most mysterious portion of Heliopolis, though it’s clear that the people onstage are trying almost compulsively to explain their dreams to us and, later, that they’re engaged in angry or erotic exchanges. We see again the pedaling and silent talking motions of earlier sections but can only guess what they mean.

Ultimately, however, the pleasures of Heliopolis are dramatic. Even when we can’t determine the meaning of a gesture we can savor the flux of conflict and reconciliation, the fine delineation of character and emotion. David Barron, Castanos, Claudia Desimone, Saul Maya, and Elsa Verdugo are actors of a caliber rarely seen in dance. When Maya, playing one of the peasant women, tells the little girl in no uncertain terms what’s what and the tendons in his neck stand out and his head snaps with self-righteous fervor, it’s perfect. Though Castanos is obviously a strong leader–a woman prepared to go with her gut and take the consequences–it’s equally obvious that Antares is a creative whole.

Cis Bierinckx, writing in Ballet International about Mexican dance, notes that government support of contemporary groups there is so slim that “young choreographers . . . materialize and disappear like ghosts.” Chicagoans are fortunate that the vibrant Antares materialized here, however briefly.

In my October 9 review of DanceAfrica/Chicago 1992 I mistakenly called the Alyo Children’s Dance Theatre a “training ground” for Muntu Dance Theatre. In fact the two are separate entities.

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