Breaking Boundaries

Dance Chicago ’98

at the Athenaeum Theatre, October 15; repeats October 29

David Antin begins his poem “Radical Coherency” with an answer to a critic, explaining why he creates collage poems. Halfway through, the poem turns on a dime and becomes a description of Antin taking his elderly mother to shop for shoes and a brassiere at Sears. The carefully ordered racks of merchandise–rows of fuzzy robes changing over into rows of sexy lingerie–are like the perfectly ordered discourses Antin uses as raw material, making collages because he wants to break out of perfectly ordered worlds. But what’s astonishing about the poem is that Antin’s wild turns and strange linkages make sense. He creates an ordered world at odds with the everyday. Antin’s poem achieves radical coherence–a sensible world founded on new, unsensible principles.

Many performance artists also try to achieve radical coherency. Sometimes they describe their goals in Marxist terms, creating a world where capital is powerless. Some are humanists: Antin is moved by his mother’s instinctive fear of the too perfect, too thin salesgirl, and because we all live in our own solipsistic bubbles, radical coherence can be as simple as understanding another person’s world. Other artists are mystics trying to chart an inner universe of clarity and happiness. But all such artists try to find a new language to express these new things. And in many cases they speak incoherently, babbling in a blend of new and old vocabularies. It can be a painful sound.

Most of the 11 groups in the “Breaking Boundaries” Dance Chicago ’98 program seek radical coherency. Few of them achieve any kind of coherence, however, and only one achieves radical coherence. For the most part the works are wildly out of balance, extraordinarily good in some areas but so bad in others they’re difficult to like or even understand.

For example, Emergence Dance Theatre’s Vastation is wildly overproduced and undernourished while Fluid Measure Performance Company’s The Doorman is underproduced and underdramatized. Vastation has gorgeous design elements, beginning with the sounds of dripping water, birdcalls, and a distant flute. Backlit in a soft blue, it also features evocative projections and textured light. The costumes are more problematic: six young women are covered head to toe in white veils, which makes them look like brides or nuns. Sandra Schramel’s choreography doesn’t help place the scene: later the women strip off their veils and wear them as scarves, and various groups combine and disperse, but the women’s identities remain a mystery. They may be imprisoned brides in a heavy-metal fantasia, but I suspect even this is my invention. The dancers are also weak; the choreography calls for repeated barrel turns, which require a solid Graham-style contraction, but the dancers can’t pull them off.

Patricia Pelletier’s The Doorman, on the other hand, is chock-full of content but hasn’t been sufficiently transformed theatrically. A woman (Pelletier) is torn by paranoid fears–of demons in the closet and a murderer in a rented cabin–and tries to master them through intellectualization; she says, “I write on a yellow index card ‘Learn to live with deterioration and loss.'” The only design element is a doorway center stage, but its reality is denied by the work’s opening lines, which establish that doorways and doormen are strictly metaphors. There’s much uninspired and uninformative movement, but the only genuine presence is the story, whose poetry is real and interesting but so oblique we can’t grasp the narrative or be affected by it. Poetry onstage has to be firmly grounded in action–otherwise it’s just vague, as this piece is.

Another out-of-balance piece is Robynne M. Gravenhorst’s 69, for the Anatomical Theatre: it’s brilliantly staged, but its intellectual backbone is weak. The first section depicts 69 sexual positions lifted from a 1926 sex manual, though the piece seems to be set in the 50s. A voice-over clinically describes the positions (“Male dominant, female occluded”) as a man and woman in white underwear enact them. Her hair is in a perfect 50s flip, and both have black rectangles over their eyes like the painted lines covering models’ eyes in old sex manuals. The positions create interesting shapes, and the transitions between them are satisfying. In fact this section is a hoot, a perfectly realized satire. But 69 falls apart when Gravenhorst tries to deconstruct the sex manual, supposedly discovering an obsession with cleanliness and a struggle for sexual power. More likely she only discovers a clinical voice trying to distance itself from pornography. Nonetheless she plows forward into vague depictions of washing and wrestling. Gravenhorst is serious about her deconstruction; as the program states, “69 challenges popular notions of romantic love.” I’d have liked it better if it had remained fluffy.

Angel Abcede’s spoof The Nuclear Family is traditional fluff that works despite its incoherence. A horde of dancers in hippie clothes and toe or jazz shoes briefly strut their stuff. Abcede, wearing a ballet dancer’s stereotypical peasant shirt in bright orange, dances to a romantic Spanish song–with a dog. Or, more accurately, a big chubby man in a dog costume who’s fallen for the ballet dancer. It seems that Abcede falls for him too, putting on the dog mask and allowing the dog-man to carry him offstage. No attempts at coherence here, just looniness.

Two of the dances do achieve coherence but by traditional means. Molly Shanahan’s A Pride of Hellions for Mad Shak Dance Company–filled with explosive, helter-skelter movement by five dancers in scarlet costumes–resolves chaos into order. At first each dancer moves separately, and the effect is disorienting. Recorded music sung by the dancers has been chopped to pieces and reedited by David Dieckmann, adding to our disorientation. As the dancers seem to exhaust themselves, the music switches to an a cappella rendering of a traditional folk song and the dancers start to form groups; others sit on the floor resting. As the song runs its course, the dance becomes more structured, and its repeating phrases and unison movement give the piece a traditional resolution.

According to a program note, the inspiration for Still Water, by the Breakbone Dance Company, is a South American adage that “the dead never really go away, but remain in stagnant water searching for their soul’s resting place.” A duet between Atalee Judy, made up as a corpse, and Amy Alyn Pope, the dance seems an overly literal depiction of a woman wrestling with the ghost of her dead lover; wearing a man’s suit, Judy lifts Pope in traditionally male ways. This piece’s saving grace is that it’s well choreographed, each lover suspended momentarily on the body of the other.

The only dance that achieves radical coherency is Marianne Kim’s Mad/am I/da. A woman wearing deep red shoes and a white bustier, hose, and enormous wig powders her face lavishly. Gazing into a hand mirror, she giggles rapturously. Two women who’ve been standing upstage in the darkness walk backward slowly downstage. Both have long black hair and wear short white paper skirts and white Korean hats that look like folding fans. Turning, they put their index fingers in their mouths, then blow enormous red bubbles that tumble into their hands as scarves. We hear a samisen, with distant pipes and drums. After more enigmatic gestures, the two women retreat into the darkness. The woman in white slowly removes her wig and drapes it over her hand mirror; as she gazes at herself, we can see her face in the mirror framed by the displaced wig.

Nothing in Kim’s piece makes sense in any traditional way, but we know that the two women have somehow changed the woman in white, who looks at herself in a new way, a little more sanely. Yet I can’t explain the mechanism. In this piece, and more than a dozen others I’ve seen by Kim, she uses deeply saturated colors, glacial movement, and outlandish stage pictures to tell stories that I understand but that evade my reasoning mind. It’s a body of work with radical coherency.

A Story of Doubt

Companhia Clara Andermatt

at the Museum of Contemporary Art, October 16-18

Using radical means to achieve traditional ends is the key mistake Portuguese choreographer Clara Andermatt makes in her evening-length A Story of Doubt. In 1994 Andermatt visited and fell in love with the Cape Verde Islands, formerly a Portuguese holding off the west coast of Africa. A Story of Doubt uses 13 male dancer-musicians from Cape Verde plus one male European dancer to perform both traditional Cape Verdean music and dance and original music by Joao Lucas. Andermatt tries to tell an intellectually sophisticated but straightforward story about doubt, respect, peace, and harmony. But the piece is stunningly incoherent, failing miserably.

The music, which seems to combine African and Portuguese influences, is often interesting, ranging from tuneful South African-style a cappella singing to flamenco to drumming. But the dance is unvaryingly brutal, aggressive, masculine stuff: shouting and adopting postures of attack, beating on metal, doing push-ups, walking on one’s hands, posing and staring. There’s a great deal of spoken text, but little of it is intelligible. A fragment in English is massively repetitious, as is a film introducing the dance.

It seems suicidal for Andermatt to attempt a piece with a philosophical basis and not use language the audience can understand. A Story of Doubt is just another radical wreck, another instance of a radical concept devoid of any strategy that can bring about coherence, radical or otherwise.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Breaking Boundaries photo by Michael Filler; A Story of Doubt photo by Jorge Goncalves.