Logotype vs2.1

Breakbone DanceCo.

at Ideotech, through September 7

Hubbard Street Dance Chicago

at Ravinia Festival, August 28-29

The usual knock on avant-garde dance is that it’s hard to understand. But Atalee Judy’s Logotype vs2.1 for Breakbone DanceCo. is just the opposite: it leaves you no choice but to understand its condemnation of commercialism, violence, sexism, intrusive technology, and society’s fraudulent approach to all of the above. By contrast, when Hubbard Street Dance Chicago performs Ohad Naharin’s Minus 16, you might spend a split second wondering whether its unison movements and shouted lyrics are intended as a critique rather than a celebration, but then you can go back to simply enjoying the music and movement for their own sake. With Judy the work exists for the sake of its meaning, and there’s no averting your eyes. This must be how it felt to be in the audience the first time Allen Ginsberg recited Howl.

It’s almost literally true that there’s no escaping Logotype vs2.1 once you enter Ideotech, a warehouse converted to a gallery and performance space. (Nor is this an ersatz developer’s “aren’t we like Soho?” soft loft; the space still shows its industrial origins.) When the house opens, a video collage is running, compiled of cartoons, logo-filled ads, excerpts of the dance to come, newsreel footage, and surreal close-ups. The name of the piece appears on-screen, followed by additional mesmerizing video segments. By the time the performance begins, the projections have been going on for a while, and so the encompassing video and stage-filling choreography of the show per se seem to further surround us with imagery. Logotype vs2.1 is like a 1960s happening precisely because it’s not trying to be “like” anything. To crib from a famous slogan, it’s the real thing.

The piece is made up of seven movements, each with its own “logo,” among them a cross, a circuit board, a broken heart so jagged it suggests vagina dentata, and a Universal Product Code. The UPC section, “Logotype 02,” is the strongest in an evening without a weak link, as Judy and covideographer Sheldon B. Smith highlight the similarity between the UPC’s familiar vertical bars and those of a prison, and between its rows of numbers and the ones tattooed on the hands of concentration camp prisoners. Anyone who thinks s/he can no longer be moved by Holocaust images will learn otherwise as Judy–head shaven, wearing only dingy, torn underwear–both embodies and enlarges upon them.

This kind of work is easy to satirize because it’s often deliberately ludicrous or extreme. In the opening section, “Logotype 04,” a dancer (Judy) enters festooned with stuffed bears and proceeds to rip their heads and limbs off. In the second, “Logotype 00,” another dancer (Elizabeth Lentz) stands in her skivvies brandishing a gun and howling. Preshow video of the gun section made me roll my eyes: yeah, I get it, comment on violence, what else is new? But seen live these images are impossible to dismiss, because the performers are so committed to producing them. There’s no winking at the audience–don’t worry, it’s just a show–and there’s no vanity, just an ovaries-to-the-wall portrait of life as a struggle against unremitting terror and pain. Ultimately I don’t share Judy’s worldview, but I can’t deny the honesty of her statements–and how often does unvarnished honesty appear onstage, or anywhere else? Watching this work is like reading Joan Didion’s condemnations of American perfidy in the developing world: you can’t properly be said to enjoy the experience, but you’re haunted and thrilled by the artist’s unsparing eye.

The other artist Judy suggests is Tony Kushner. She concludes the evening with “Logotype 06”–represented by a circuit board–in which the dancers sport the wings that constitute the Angels in America “logo.” As with Kushner’s work, critiquing the components of Judy’s is beside the point: some sections are better than others, but all display the creator’s intelligence and passion, and the only question by the end is whether you can see the world the way the artist does. Long before Logotype vs2.1 closes, the answer is yes.

The dancing itself is athletic and cerebral and exceptionally accomplished, particularly considering that its purpose isn’t rhythmic or musical but visceral and political. Judy gets strong support in choreography as well as performance from her company of eight women, all utterly fearless dancers able to throw themselves across the stage and/or at one another in astonishing unison. The lifts and holds and occasional intentional drops demonstrate a skill and seriousness about dance craft that would not be out of place in a Hubbard Street performance.

But it’s impossible to measure Judy’s work against that of any other dancer or choreographer, which is why I’m driven to analogies from poetry and fiction and drama. Literally incomparable, Judy is a dance artist confronting a world of agony and requiring even those of us who like pretty dances with pretty music to notice movement’s unique role in dissecting that world and calling it to account.

Hubbard Street’s performance at Ravinia was as satisfying as a good meal. A world premiere–company member Brian Enos’s Guzophela–held its own against three works from the repertory: Naharin’s Minus 16, Kevin O’Day’s delightful Quartet for IV (and Sometimes One, Two or Three…), and Nacho Duato’s Cor Perdut (“Lost Heart”). The evening showcased the company’s ability to skim the cream off avant-garde dance and whip it into a form palatable to traditional dance lovers. That’s what makes Hubbard Street a cultural treasure rather than just a fine dance troupe: it’s determined to mainstream what might be considered avant-garde.

The run order was poor, though: Enos’s piece bears too much resemblance to O’Day’s to follow it immediately. In both dances two couples move from jaunty flirtatiousness to eroticism to violence, the first piece costumed in white, the second in black. The dancing is unimpeachable, with particularly fine showings from the men, especially Christopher Tierney in Quartet for IV and Massimo Pacilli in Guzophela. Duato stereotypes Catalan dancing while trying to pay it homage in the third piece on the program–unfortunately the third in a row featuring men managing their women partners by straddling them.

Minus 16 seems to be the Hubbard Street equivalent of Alvin Ailey’s Revelations–the dance without which no engagement is complete. In one section Naharin shapes Israeli folk dancing and the chants of Jewish worship into a powerful repetitive performance by women and men garbed in the black suits and hats of the ultra-Orthodox. (Not perfect attire for 90-degree heat, but the dancers didn’t flinch.) The choreographer captures both the ecstasy of Hasidic worship, which is closer to speaking-in-tongues Christianity than to conventional contemporary Judaism, and a certain stomping determination to be different that characterizes Jews in general and the Hasidim in particular. The chant gets longer each time it’s repeated, like the chorus of “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” with a different move added for each verse. At the end of every round the dancers stand and shout the music’s final words. This is a stirring piece particularly because of one flashy bit where the dancers fall in succession into their chairs, enacting the high-culture equivalent of a wave. But by about the tenth fiercely shouted chorus I started to wonder: if the chant weren’t in Hebrew, would this repetitive unison sound like Hitler’s rallies? Doubtless Naharin, an Israeli, intends to raise a question about his homeland, now torn by the tension between the historical role of Jews and their (our) current experience as military occupiers. The ambiguity is subtle and lovely, yet after watching Judy’s direct work, Minus 16 can seem weaselly, a way to glide over problematic issues.

Minus 16’s only real aesthetic problem comes at its conclusion. The corps repeatedly runs across the stage, forming a flying wedge that often faces the audience–a confrontation so exciting it sets up the expectation of a brilliant final move. So when the dancers form a static pyramid and the lights come down, the applause is tepid. What may be an attempt to fix this anticlimactic climax–a curtain call where each dancer does a characteristic step–is charming, but clever bows are no substitute for an actual ending.