Chicago Repertory Dance Ensemble

at the Ruth Page Foundation Theatre

July 7, 8, 14, 15, 21, and 22

So where else can you go to see seven spanking-new dances by a total of 11 choreographers, some taking a first stab at making dances, and not be disappointed? Chicago Repertory Dance Ensemble’s “New Dances ’89” has its high points and its low, but overall it’s a pretty nifty showcase for the preoccupations, styles, and points of view of several Chicago choreographers.

Sarcophagus, choreographed by John Schmitz and Sandra Schramel, is by far the most provocative. It’s a solo dance, sort of, performed by John Giudice–except that he’s dancing with images of himself: Norman Magden’s film and slides of Giudice are projected onto a screen at the rear of the stage and, at times, onto the dancer himself. Even though the dancing and the visual design are as well integrated here as in any dance I’ve seen, Sarcophagus creates an unnerving hyperawareness of the split between living performer and recorded image. They compete, and it’s the recorded image that dominates.

Sarcophagus illustrates beyond any doubt the advantages of film. You can duplicate the dancer’s image to create perfectly synchronized unison movement. You can manipulate the dancer’s size, from much smaller to much larger than real life. You can create two images, one small and one large, and juxtapose or superimpose them. You can get much, much closer to the dancer than on any stage and see nuances of expression that are imperceptible in live performance. At times intimacy approaches voyeurism, as when Magden gives us a blowup of the dancer’s body prone and positions the camera between the dancer’s legs: Giudice’s groin towers in the foreground while his nose forms a little point off in the distance. But perhaps the greatest advantage is the camera’s ability to heighten the contrast between light and shadow, to offer a controlled single perspective that makes design easier, more available to the eye.

To anyone concerned about the future of live performance, Sarcophagus is horrifying. Sarcophagus means literally “flesh-eating stone,” and the piece suggests that film or videotape entombs the living performer. You might also say, however, that the body is the sarcophagus of the soul, and that to dancers especially, modern recording devices can be a godsend. At the end of Sarcophagus, the ghostly projected images of the dancer do walk away–still animate–from the still, crucified form of the dancer himself.

The choreography in Sarcophagus–at least on a first viewing–was nearly invisible, completely overpowered by the interplay of live and recorded performance. But other works on the program, particularly two ensemble pieces, showed off the choreographers’ expertise.

Tara Mitton’s Overexposure has all the sensuality and musicality that she typically demonstrates as a dancer. This piece for four men (Noel Cruz, Giudice, Carl Jeffries, and Todd Michael Kiech) and three women (Tina Morocco, Emily Stein, and Melissa Thodos) offers a complex, intriguing blend of “pure dance” and the occasional gesture from everyday life. A dancer laughs at something offstage, or looks in disbelief, or says with a flat hand chopping upward to the nose, “I’ve had it up to here.” Occasionally the original music by Winston Damon seems to speak, and at those times the dancers do too–bodies only, of course. At other times pure dance and the expressive gesture intersect, as when a dancer (Thodos), running in small steps that evoke frustration, bursts into a single explosive leap of pure anger.

Overexposure is both a story and a formal exercise that focuses particularly on entrances and exits, on the accretion and diminution of dancers onstage. It opens and closes with a single dancer (Stein) in controlled, simple movement–arm swings, leg circles, steps that describe a circle onstage. At the end her movements are contrasted with the other dancers’ self-involved, isolated abandon; what at first had looked simple, we later see requires strength and discipline. She’s also an outsider: she observes the other dancers; they do not, with one exception, observe her.

If Overexposure has the delicacy and subtlety of a pencil sketch, Barbara Stein’s Yeah the People Do It, But . . . What You See Is All That Matters is an expressionist painting in oily, dark, vivid hues. Overexposure hints at a world of competition and antagonism. Yeah the People boldly delineates that world in harsh, rugged lines. Its six dancers (Cruz, Ariane Dolan, Giudice, Jeffries, Laura Schwenk, and Thodos) make as much noise as possible as the piece opens, thudding heavily to the floor and tossing around the work’s single prop, a four-legged stool. The original music by Van Christie and Jim Marcus evokes a steam engine, complete with clanking. When the three women hover on or near the stool, the men prowl the waters around them, sharks circling an island. And when the dancers pair up, they’re lustful or violent or both.

The harshness of Yeah the People (greatly enhanced by Ken Bowen’s back-alley lighting effects) makes its occasional humane touches even more striking; like spots of light and color in a dark composition, they offer relief and help to define the space. One woman supports another as she adopts a difficult pose on the stool, protecting her all the while from the men’s encroachment. The men seated together on the floor are gathered up by the women, who are in turn gathered up–pulled along–by the men. The dancers form a curious human chain on and around the stool that suggests the randomness and inevitability of paper clips linked by a moving magnet. Magnetism kept coming to mind as a way of accounting for the dancers’ unpredictable attractions and repulsions.

Alongside these works, the three duets on the program seemed somewhat tame. Repto, choreographed by Noel Cruz, is notable mostly for its contrasts in performance. Cruz has a shy, inarticulate inwardness that’s sharply distinct from Tara Mitton’s intense, focused contact with the audience and with him. Her outwardness is as compelling as his self-containment. Mea Culpa, choreographed and danced by John Giudice and Melissa Thodos, recalls the intimate hostilities between men and women typical of Susan Marshall’s choreography. I was puzzled, however, by its abrupt shift from warfare to peace with no discernible precipitating event. Oblique3, choreographed by Larry Ippel, Laura Schwenk, and James Tenuta, is an adagio piece that’s something of a technical tour de force. Sometimes effective and sometimes downright silly, it’s meant, I guess, to evoke geometry. The dance is indeed two-dimensional, with arms, legs, and torsos maneuvered, at times monotonously, into oblique angles. In the second half, Ippel supports Schwenk in a series of sometimes striking poses; but my overall impression was of great effort expended to little purpose.

In Global Warming, a quartet choreographed by Joanne Barrett and Laura Schwenk, Barrett danced brilliantly, as usual. But the dance is shapeless and prop happy: the dancers tip over a pail of liquid smoke, perform encircled by tires, and spray the air with aerosol cans. Pollution is undoubtedly the subject, but I confess to having been not only baffled but unmoved.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Gordon Means–Norman Magden.