Chicago Repertory Dance Ensemble

at the Dance Center of Columbia College

December 13, 14, 20, and 21

Two years ago the Chicago Repertory Dance Ensemble collapsed under the weight of its own talent. This year artistic director Tara Mitton has re-formed the ensemble with dancers in their early 20s–dancers who are eager to try out their individual and collective voices. The elements they have chosen for “New Dances ’91”–theatrical dance, kinetic movement, a kind of Hollywood distillation of such themes as homelessness and corporate life, and working collaboratively to explore social issues in a full-length work–coupled with their good dancing are enough to create a critical mass. This concert, to be repeated this weekend at the Dance Center, is a promising beginning.

Mitton’s three mime pieces frame the program, which opens with her Thursday, 3:02 P.M. An elegantly dressed woman (Shannon Raglin) is reading a book on a public bench while a crumpled figure, apparently a homeless person sleeping, lies on a bench behind her. While the house lights are still up, another homeless person (Anthony Gongora) wanders onstage looking like a tramp out of a silent movie. He digs through the garbage and offers the woman pieces of a sandwich. She refuses with perfect politesse. He finds a black brassiere in the trash, holds it up to his own chest, and clowns for her. She smiles warmly and gives him a dime. Shyly, he gives her a beautiful red apple from the trash. When he leaves, she throws the apple back into the garbage. The latent preachiness of the material is neutralized by impish humor and sudden breaks into dance movement, such as Raglin’s long, slow lunge to hand Gongora the dime.

Gongora’s Home Is Not in the Heart immediately follows. As he walks slowly upstage, Gongora describes his encounters with homeless people: as a 16-year-old he was angry at a bum’s plea for his hard-earned money; as a 19-year-old he talked to a homeless person for the first time; as a pensive adult he saw that the sparkle in the eyes of an elderly homeless woman was really tears. At each stage he takes off some of his costume: huarache sandals that the bum in his first story made fun of; the ten coats that the homeless person in his second story was wearing. In the end Gongora is dressed only in a red union suit with a flowery heart on its breast. His walk upstage is punctuated with dance sections of increasingly wild and desperate movement. As his hands continually make the shape of a house, he realizes most homeless people are mentally ill and cannot change their situation. When he reaches the back bench, he puts on the shoes, raincoat, and hat arranged to resemble the crumpled figure of a person sleeping on the bench. Gongora, assuming the identity of a homeless person, says that he believes in the homeless now.

Home Is Not in the Heart sometimes preaches too much, but in the end it works because of Gongora’s honesty and carefully orchestrated symbols, which are delicate rather than polemical. They turn inward to ask a moral question rather than rush outward to proclaim an answer.

Mark Schulze’s When Sheets Talk, which follows, moves away from social issues and so seems shallow by comparison. This is unfortunate, because When Sheets Talk is a fine dance, full of illusion. It opens with Schulze and Nancy Allen asleep in a bed with a headboard carved in surreal curves. When Allen wakes up and walks offstage, arms come out of the bed to caress Schulze. Gradually two women (Sara Ayers and Sabine Parzer) emerge from the bedclothes dressed in the same color as the sheets, completing Schulze’s conceit that the sheets have come alive. Schulze dances with them, alternating drowsiness with fitful tossing. The women drape themselves over him, sometimes upside down; for a few minutes Schulze holds Parzer while Ayers clings to his back. The collaborative work has pushed Schulze beyond the limitations of his original idea into some interesting dancing. Ann Boyd designed the Gaudi-like bed, and Scott Silberstein composed the sampled music, which matches the cycles of sleeping and waking perfectly.

Mitton’s second mime piece, Thursday, 3:21 P.M., uses the same situation as her first but with different characters. Melissa Thodos captures her yuppie jogger perfectly in a funny series of mannerisms. Elizabeth Wild’s homeless woman has too much generalized angst but some lovely movements, such as lying on the bench as if she were an insect on its back.

Thodos’s SYSTEMatic ERROR introduces the second theme, corporate life, by contrasting the workday mornings of four secretaries and of four bosses–the bosses catch taxis to work, for instance, while the secretaries have to wait for the bus. Thodos sets the dance at a frantic pace and fills it with movement. Thodos is a veteran of the ensemble, and her experience is evident in the skill with which she keeps our eyes moving from place to place, catching the details. My favorite image is the four bosses standing on the backs of their secretaries as they reach out to shake each other’s hands like unctuous salesmen. Many movements start as small, natural gestures, then expand into dance. The fine performances are by Raglin, Wild, Christine Bornarth, and Todd Michael Kiech as the secretaries, and Terry Bellamy, April Brown, Cheryl Bye, and Joseph C. Mann as the bosses. The original music is by Stan Nevin.

In her last full-length concert Jan Erkert focused on women; in her next she plans to give equal time to men. Her Between Men is part of this program, and it’s about how sex roles silence both men and women. The controlling metaphor here for relationships between men is the competitive, violent embrace of wrestling. Erkert’s movement for the men (Gongora and Schulze) is bruising and exhausting. She contrasts the men’s muscled movement with the movement of two women (Bornarth and Raglin): jumping unprovoked into the men’s arms and striking perfect poses using the men as anchors. The dance feels unfinished; I could determine its theme only after consulting my notes. The use of Bach’s Sonata no. 3 in C for part of it does not seem to add anything to the work’s harsh, brutal atmosphere.

Shannon Raglin and Tim Noworyta’s Bettye and Mr. Bob has a Hollywood-simple plot. Bettye is Mr. Bob’s put-upon secretary. She walks out, and he has to answer his own phone. Mr. Bob realizes that Bettye is his equal, and then they share the decision making. Raglin and Noworyta play it for laughs: while Bettye is bending over the typewriter the phone rings–and the phone itself suddenly appears from behind a side curtain, held by a stagehand. Meanwhile, as Mr. Bob plays tennis with clients, the stage is suddenly filled with tennis balls. Originally Bettye and Mr. Bob was separate solos by Raglin and Noworyta about a secretary and a bureaucrat; this duet pushes well beyond the original material. It’s not deathless art, but I enjoyed its broad humor and Noworyta’s naive movement.

Mitton’s third piece, Thursday, 4:12 P.M., is a wildly clever solo for Gongora extracted from her Complexities, performed at last year’s “New Dances.” Gongora does everything it’s possible to do with a red handkerchief: stuffs it into his palm like a magician’s scarf, wears it as a bandanna, drapes it over his arm like a headwaiter’s napkin, wears it over his back like Superman’s cape. Gongora’s quickness makes every transformation a surprise. Mitton shoehorns this solo into the rest of the evening by framing it with Gongora playing a shriveled old man carrying shopping bags who’s chased away from a park bench by Mr. Bob.

Gongora’s Why Don’t We See? ties the evening’s themes together. In this pure dance work for the entire ensemble, performed to Webern’s Slow Movement for Strings, Gongora touches the vein of grief that runs throughout the show. The dance pits individuals against the mass of the other performers. Thodos’s yuppie jogger is alone amid embracing couples; Wild’s homeless woman dances around the edges of a solid phalanx slowly marching forward. The dance seems to say that everyone’s life is made smaller by the corruption around us and in us.

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