Next Generation Project

at Link’s Hall, April 19-21

By Carol Burbank

The five works in the fifth annual Link’s Hall “Next Generation Project” were connected by the brash hope of young performers defining their own languages against the fractured inheritance of postmodernism. The best pieces were rebellious and precise, combining humor with a physical intelligence that links gestures with resonant cultural images. The weakest were solid but imitative, good entertainments that stopped short of reshaping the traditions they echoed.

The first half of the evening featured three dark dance-theater works, haunting narratives suggested by costumes, movement, and a spare, graceful transformation of the stage. These pieces felt very urban, reflecting the starkness and shifting connections of city life in issues of isolation, illness, and violence. The vibrations of the nearby el, rocking at random through each piece, added a gritty dimension: these works didn’t feel sealed off from city life but exposed and vulnerable to it.

Box, a narrative dance in the tradition of Merce Cunningham, choreographed by Atalee Judy for Breakbone Dance Company, shows a man emerging from self-imposed isolation with the help of four female spirits. Bon Harris sits limply, restlessly slumped next to his television and his tropical fish, moving aimlessly in repeated desultory gestures. Four angels struggle to get him to move, sliding “invisibly” into his room, dancing and gesturing to raise his energy, sometimes mirroring his movements. Lifting and supporting each other, the angels move in and out of a shelflike box at the back of the stage, like dolls stored away and released. Finally they lead him out of his room by holding his fish in a bowl before him, carrying him across the stage on their rolling bodies, lifting his feet with their hands so he doesn’t touch the ground, and finally placing him in the shelf structure. From there he walks slowly, calmly, through the audience and out of the theater. This touching, slow-moving journey, a commentary on healing and liberation, never explains itself but revels in its simplicity.

Marianne Kim’s butoh- and Tanz-theatre-influenced dance, Between Infinity and Simple Sickness, is more confrontational and dark. Dressed in a red-dyed wedding dress, Kim leads three other performers in an almost autistic, unemotional, hard-edged combination of dialogue, narration, and dance. The primary performers, Kim and Andrew Fearnside, use simple props–red thread, a broken chair, a rocking horse–to perform role-playing games uncomfortably in between erotic play and childish fantasy. Sara Kraft and Sophia Skiles, draped in red and painted to look like whorish corpses, serve as a seated gestural chorus, enacting abstract intimacies and playing with merry-go-round music boxes. Voice-overs and storytelling segments describe the ravages of a flu as the action becomes more alienated and frenzied; desperation and loss overwhelm the initial playfulness of the dreamlike characters.

Kim’s imagery is both beautiful and shocking, accompanied by such diverse music as Puccini, Squirrel Nut Zippers, and Kurt Weill. In one long section Kim and Fearnside consume long strings of red yarn in a surreal, Chaplin-esque race, sucking it up like spaghetti only to spit it out again and place it gently on the floor, wet and sticky. Kraft and Skiles hold globs of red gum in their mouths, rubbing them against each other like plastic tongues. The possibility of contagion is visceral, exaggerated to the point of satire as the two women face the audience and start to chew the gum with huge chomps and gulps, loudly consuming the obsessive kiss they exchanged earlier. These games, combined with the narrated images of plague and the alienated relationship between Kim and Fearnside, evoke AIDS and the small panics in its wake. Seductive, repellent, Between Infinity and Simple Sickness manages to raise powerful ghosts from our contemporary preoccupations with death.

Breathless, the audience was plunged into Terrible Reason, Hopefully, a piece by Peter Carpenter. He faces the audience, fragile, eyes wide, and starts to talk about a time he was gay bashed. But to bring the audience into his mind on several levels–fantasy, memory–he adds a curious, powerful antistory, his vision of dominating the gay bashers, accompanied by his signature blunt, focused, ordinary-looking gestures. He begins by turning a full circle and, in a hidden moment, smudging his right eye with shoe polish to create a glistening black “bruise.” The violent attack is recalled in movement throughout the piece, each time growing more explicit, more literal as Carpenter twists and ducks in shorthand images of being beaten, fleeing, and beating. In a deft touch, he answers the bashers’ question “Are you a faggot?” with a queeny yes, lifting his T-shirt into a torso-revealing cruising outfit, then twisting it to form a bralike bodice. The dance ends with a haunted, hunted version of “Singin’ in the Rain,” performed with a holey umbrella that seems to represent the bitterly comic vulnerability Carpenter manipulates so well in this work.

After such risky, confrontational, and beautiful pieces, the second half of the evening was disappointing, static despite its solidity and intelligence. Scenes From the Gray Area: The Art and Times of Richo, a film by Cynthia Reid and Rich Wilson, is a clever short about a fictional performance artist that satirizes the performance scene. The film amuses by quoting the noirish excess of documentaries about performance art, such as smart film angles, and by making in-jokes about the Chicago dance-performance community. Reid and Wilson are good at snide irony, and the locals who appear as Richo’s critics, acolytes, and collaborators skewer the pomposities of stardom quite sweetly, if a little redundantly. But the sarcastic hipper-than-thou goofiness wears thin, and when the audience members who’d come to see themselves on film left before the next performance began, it seemed the piece had stoked egos, not deflated rude-boy arrogance.

Hollis M. Johnson’s pretty dance Into the Wind was a good counterpoint to the film’s cynicism. Her lightly symmetrical evocation of an image that appears in a program quote, “Riding on his kite tails,” is well executed, a graceful sweep of turns, extensions, and lifts that made me think of a windy day. Her symmetrical choreography is reminiscent of a sweetened-up Martha Graham, without the muscular transitions and sharp edges that make Graham’s work so powerful. With the abstract, circular accompaniment of Arvo Part’s music, this dance was a floaty end to an often challenging evening.

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