Ornate Rituals for Absurd Worlds

Sheldon B. Smith and Dancers and Hijack

at Link’s Hall, March 6-8

By Terry Brennan

The title for this evening of dance is a dead giveaway: we’re in the domain of absurdism, a theatrical movement based in existentialism, which holds that we live in an absurd world in which life is meaningless and from which God is absent. The theatrical response to this absurd world is to throw absurdity back in the world’s face, through fantastical plots and impossible characters. Absurdism is in many ways a magical device for keeping absurdity at bay: by reflecting an absurd world back to itself, the artist acts only as a mirror, purging himself of absurdity and making himself whole again.

Theatrical absurdism is an aggressive, self-assertive strategy, but it’s not intellectually honest or consistent. If the world is absurd and I live in the world, then I too am absurd–and there’s nothing I can do about it. My actions are necessarily meaningless. I am isolated. I may still want to assert the meaningfulness of my life, and I may create something like a dance as an act of meaning. But since no one understands anyone else, my dance will not be understood; my “meaningful” actions are merely the rituals through which I assert my existence. Living a genuinely absurd life, my only possible recourse is more and more ornate rituals.

“Ornate Rituals for Absurd Worlds,” featuring dances by Sheldon B. Smith from Chicago and a Minneapolis duo called Hijack, expresses this profound version of absurdism, with its air of resignation and alienation. And though applying aesthetic distinctions to absurd worlds may seem senseless, since I’m a humanist who believes that we can understand each other, I will happily apply distinctions. Smith focuses more on the dilemmas of absurd worlds, with varying degrees of success, while Hijack is too young to attain much philosophical subtlety.

All of Smith’s titles read like springy, inventive lines of poetry. And the names of his two dances here, a men’s duet and a women’s duet, certainly suggest a world in which progress is impossible: Mule Block (The Whistler’s Sons) and Loft Block (The Mason’s Daughters). Mule Block is an absurd piece in which meaning can be discerned if you look hard. At the beginning, Smith and Shannon Preto, dressed in orange shirts, suspenders, and black pants, hop amusingly in time to a syrupy tune that sounds like Hawaiian ukulele music. Their movements evolve into a foot-slapping folk dance when Smith breaks away to slap himself all over, throwing himself to the floor. He picks himself up and resumes hopping. The dance alternates between the hopping and increasingly violent movement, a la the Three Stooges, including some very physical partnering that looks more like wrestling than dancing. At the end, both men face one side and bring a hand to their forehead with the palm facing out. The other hand suddenly strikes the open palm, and both men collapse. It’s difficult to tell whether the men are abusing themselves or they’ve been struck down by an outside force. They fall and rise in unison several times, making us wonder if they’ll be able to get on their feet again. Finally they begin to recite in strained voices, “He rises every morning. He carries milk. He milks cows.” The effect is manic, funny, and bizarre, but Mule Block is a little ham-handed in its images of futility.

Loft Block is less self-conscious. We first see a jumble of body parts in the half light of a projected geometric image. The jumble resolves into the bodies of two women (Julie Hopkins and Casey Van Loon) who move liquidly to mysterious music (composed by Smith). The tattered tops of their costumes show their breasts. In the half light they’re erotic figures, charged with the mystery of sex that tunnels into the heart and body. Their characteristic pose is standing with their weight on one leg, their heads tilted to that side and their arms placed at that side, as if they were Hawaiian dancers frozen in time. After holding the pose for a few moments, the women roll their bodies forward, kick to the side, and launch into frenzied movement that recapitulates the frenzy of the men’s duet. Loft Block concludes with the two women going repeatedly into a deep back bend, catching themselves on one hand, then spinning to the floor and back up on their feet again. This sequence also recapitulates the end of the men’s duet, but the women seem powerful in their fluidity, not stunned and dropped to the ground like cattle about to be slaughtered.

The women’s duet is by far the better dance. The men’s duet has an unpleasant aura of self-pity. The women’s dance opens up possibilities, while the men’s closes them down. The men’s dance is about finding oneself in a cul-de-sac, about performing ornate rituals in absurd worlds. The women’s dance finds a way out of the cul-de-sac, not through logic but by simply walking through walls.

The three often charming and verbally inventive dances by Hijack are clearly the work of young choreographers. The best is See Hijack Win, which posits contact improvisation as an Olympic sport. The piece is fully imagined, complete with live color commentators John Munger and Karen Peterson and short films that introduce us to the lexicon of contact improv and to the “athletes,” Kristin Van Loon and Arwen Wilder. The commentators and biographical film capture all the smarminess of TV sports coverage; Munger, a cocreator, is brilliant. The dance lampoons both the Olympics and the seriousness surrounding contact improvisation. Unfortunately, Van Loon and Wilder aren’t great contact improvisers; they don’t have the years of training in release technique that make other improvisers mesmerizing.

At Best, Relationships Are Marginal has a lovely text by poet Richard Hugo about a desolate small town, but the dance itself doesn’t have much shape. Little Ditties is set to great songs by Tom Waits and Loudon Wainwright III, but the piece doesn’t have enough material to make it more than a ditty itself.

Both groups show that absurd worlds are filled with whimsy, slapstick, and black humor as well as existential angst. But the fundamental ideas of existentialism still seem foolish to me. The world may be wrongheaded–the construct of fools and idiots who care only about accumulating wealth–but it’s not meaningless. A person’s expression of the meaning of his or her life is all that’s needed to make that life and the world meaningful.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Hijack photo by Donna Kelly.