at Link’s Hall, January 13 and 14

Dancers are often nomadic. Most places aren’t very hospitable to dance, so they might as well pick up and move and see what happens: maybe they’ll have a marginally better chance in some other city, a chance to get control of their lives.

A couple years ago Maureen Janson, who directs Smartdance, left Chicago to work in Madison, where she found a teaching job and started a showcase for local choreographers, the Madison Dance Project. She also conducted auditions last May and persuaded dancers from several bigger midwestern cities to move to Madison and dance with her. The result is a small but stable troupe that often performs Janson’s quirky, difficult choreography remarkably well.

But when you’re living on the periphery, you live with contingencies. Not that opening night at Link’s Hall–which Smartdance rented for the Chicago stop on its ’94-’95 tour, culminating in New York in April–was disastrous. But one dancer didn’t perform, presumably unexpectedly since she was on the program, and that usually leaves holes in the choreography. A cold rain, out-of-town audience members, and poor parking meant lots of latecomers, who were ringing the Link’s Hall bell to get in as much as half an hour into the performance. You could hear people talking in the hall. It was enough to distract anyone.

Not Janson and her dancers. And despite the occasionally weak dancing, you could see a strong intelligence in the choreography, a humorous but dark sensibility, and an odd, almost perverse approach to the body. Take the solo Raw Work #2, performed by former Minneapolitan Robert Cleary: a door slams, sharp as a gunshot, and Cleary hurtles into the performance space. He gasps out “Safe!” as if he’s just escaped some nightmare, then staggers back, somersaults forward, and is otherwise tossed around the stage. He does not look safe. At one point he slaps his own cheek, the slap coming out of nowhere like a blow from fate. Turning on one leg he hovers uncertainly, one foot wriggling to maintain his balance. His feet and body slap the floor as he stomps and flops; he attacks the rear wall by running up it again and again. The studio is filled with his grunting and heavy breathing, yet three times Cleary utters the word “safe,” each time with less certainty. This minimalist “narrative” creates sympathy–we want him to be safe–but at the same time his violent, rapid, risky movement delights us. And it’s this tension that keeps the dance afloat.

Sew l’Eau (For Ulrike), danced by Janson, has a similar dynamic, alternating between lifted, “correct,” balletic poses and distorted, often torqued movements. But this solo flows in slow motion from one alternative to the other, and ultimately the tortoise pace, the mundane contrast between ballet and modern dance, and the lack of emotion undermine the piece. More successful are two bigger, more theatrical works.

Milk and Mirrors is something of an enigma, but it’s fun. The stage is filled with props: four yellow bowls, several round mirrors, tons of milk cartons, four folding chairs. Four dancers and one musician (violinist Daithi Wolfe) enter in white pants and plaid flannel shirts sporting patches of black-and-white fur–the grunge/bumpkin/cow look, I guess. Wolfe’s music, Irish-tinged folk fiddling, is terrific: it gives the often standard-issue modern dance a boost. So does the humor. Sipping glasses of milk, the dancers show us the wholesome leers common to dairy-industry advertisements. One dancer (Sara Spaeth) keeps trying to tell the others a story about Maine, but they won’t listen. There’s plenty of silliness, cows mooing and sight gags: Spaeth following another dancer around with a chair, for instance, in case she falls during her totter across the stage. Other images have a more serious mystery: Spaeth setting a toppled chair behind each curled-up dancer like a shield, then giving each a bowl of milk. This somewhat muddled piece–only the press materials informed me it’s about the dancers’ experience of moving to Madison–is both dark and funny on the subject of self-absorption.

800th Lifetime was more mysterious after I read the press stuff than while I was watching it–I didn’t come away with any of the thoughts about bulimia, Alvin Toffler’s future shock, or technology that I was supposed to have. But this is a better dance than such buzzwords imply. It opens with Janson downstage in a satiny red cocktail dress and sparkly jewelry eating chocolates out of a gilded box. She starts laughing, more and more uproariously, as if recalling something terribly funny; then, head down, begins sobbing, the ridiculous bow at her waist trembling. At this point her leisurely but steady consumption of the chocolates ends: instead she stuffs them in desperately.

We’ve all seen laughter turn to tears onstage many times, but Janson gives her transformation a context: her dress-up clothes and those of the four dancers (Cleary, Neal Jahren, Jodi J. Riedemann, and Spaeth) facing the rear wall suggest that whatever humiliating incident is making her laugh and cry occurred at a party. Winston Damon’s score reinforces this idea with one schlocky Lawrence Welk-style section and another with a boozy, bluesy sound.

The dancing is increasingly hostile. In a line of dancers facing front, the first is tossed unceremoniously to the rear by the next person in line. The performers take turns blowing each other down, suggesting how fragile, how easily rejected, they are. A fairly friendly, cooperative duet between two men shifts tone when it evolves into a duet for a man and a woman: grappling turns to wrestling and then to a full-fledged battle. Finally Spaeth runs to an upstage corner, then catapults herself at Cleary, leaping onto his unsuspecting back so hard she makes him stagger. He ignores her. She does this over and over, using the rough force of Raw Work #2 in a context of rejection that gives the desperation meaning. Meanwhile Janson stops eating the bonbons, watches the dancers, paces back and forth, then obsessively arranges the remaining chocolates in a straggly line across the front of the stage. The two worlds meet: in a movement reminiscent of Spaeth’s desperate hurtling at Cleary’s back, the dancers dash one at a time to the front, then hit an invisible wall marked by the line of chocolates and are thrown back to the rear.

Despite a few dead spots in 800th Lifetime, Damon’s compelling music, the performers’ all-out efforts, and Janson’s sly look of triumph at the end create a mood of urgent mystery, a tragicomic vision. What past or future does the woman in red see? Where do the hostility and desperation end? In what bitter experience of rejection did they begin?

I’ve never liked neat art. I like the piece of the puzzle that doesn’t fit, the nugget the mind can’t digest. Janson provides plenty of these–perhaps too many in an overly private piece like Milk and Mirrors. But the most beautiful dance on this program–an untitled work in progress for three women–is also the most mysterious. From the moment when two apparitions emerge from behind the Link’s Hall window curtains to the final image of Janson “mopping” the floor on her hands and knees, this piece teases our understanding. Very abstract movement in which the body seems to lose its humanity altogether, rolling about the floor, alternates with odd motions like jiggling and stylized everyday gestures like wringing the hands. An arabesque–normally a proud, dignified position–performed into a corner seems punitive and withdrawn. The contrast between the dignified Bach cello music and the women scrubbing the floor is startling; when the women rise from their knees, one arm up, they suggest Cinderella being raised by Prince Charming. The grim delicacy and restraint of the movement–so unlike Janson’s other, “raw” choreography–and the fact that the cast are all women suggest the theme of female dignity, but it’s not overt.

I like that. And perhaps in the marginal world most choreographers inhabit, guided by their instincts and intuitions in a culture that prizes rationality and competition, such mysteries are inevitable.

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