Being in Dreaming II

at the Athenaeum Theatre, through March 1

Uno Man

at the Dance Center of Columbia College, February 19-21

By Joseph Houseal

Choreographer August Tye competed with a blizzard on opening night of “Being in Dreaming II,” but she held her own with a showcase of new dance work–her first concert in two years–all the more impressive because it was privately funded and produced. She faces considerable obstacles in terms of building an audience and a name, but self-production also gives her the freedom to change the status quo. Even so, it might be worth considering smaller, more distilled presentations: Tye’s varied palette is well within her control, but a biannual emergence from obscurity is not ideal.

Tye brings to the Chicago dance scene a knowing hybrid of perceptions and a style that’s not about intimacy or energy or provocation but about the larger-than-life: her work has an almost operatic sense of magnification, an impulse toward the monumental. Her years as a member of the Lyric Opera Ballet may have been an influence. This pickup company is large–30 dancers–and she handles them in a space-carving way, slowing down the most interesting choreography to allow us to take it in, reveling in artistic and sensual enjoyment of evolving shapes and unfolding limbs.

We see this particularly in her use of large groups, flowing like rivers in slow motion across the stage. Three of four works on the first half of the program reveal this uncommon skill: X, a study of the hectic modern world; Insomnia, an all-women piece set to religious washes of organ music; and Spirit Trail, a tribal homage to the yearning for freedom. The company also features a variety of body types, an innovation that’s been employed by others with various degrees of success: Bill T. Jones usually pulls it off, Mark Morris often doesn’t, Stephen Petronio uses it as a selling point. Certain members of Tye’s company tended to make the group effect a bit awkward, and the nondancers in one cocktail-party vignette were positively uncomfortable to watch.

August’s partner and muse is her sister Aimee Tye. One of the finest dancers in Chicago, she trained at the professional school of the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, known for its rigorous classical training. She went on to perform with the Joel Hall Dancers, known for the rigor of their urban funk. Hall increasingly makes emphatic use of Aimee in his work, but this was an evening designed to let her shine.

Like Sylvie Guillem, Aimee Tye has a balletic control that allows her to push the expressive envelope. She dances with ebullience and ease; because of her range of expression, she’s equally at home in a lissome, feathery saut and in ferocious hip isolations on pointe. Her classical training, her comfort with the unusual, and her appearance–pale white skin and long red hair–together make her something rare: an extraordinary creature whose control is matched by a wholesome self-effacement onstage.

In three works–X, Celidah Time (a pastoral Irish piece), and the evening’s second-half work, Pink Tyed–Aimee is partnered by Jason Wiser, currently a cabdriver though his partnership with Aimee goes back several years to the Kalamazoo Ballet. Both now live here. Wiser has had some training, but his gifts are largely natural: his presence is direct, rugged, and genuine. Rather than come across as uncultured, he comes across as unpolluted. His simple, immediate commitment to the movement is reminiscent of Annabelle Gamson’s reconstructions of the work of Isadora Duncan. There’s also a sensitivity to his performance, as if he were looking for a safe place to find expression. His partnering is pure and complete and very male. Seeing his rough, honest simplicity next to Aimee’s fine-tuned, expressive subtlety is beautiful indeed: Tye was wise to see the potential in this unusual pairing and develop it in these works.

Another standout is Jacquelyn Sanders, a ballerina whose savvy and authority are eye-opening. Seeing her and Aimee together is worth more than the price of admission, but sadly there’s far too little of the duo in the show. Tye would be well advised to develop this partnership as fully as she has Aimee’s with Wiser.

Tye’s final work, Pink Tyed, is set to music by Pink Floyd. Though fun, it’s the least successful piece, self-consciously epic where the nobility of the other pieces seems unforced. The dated themes closely parallel those of Pink Floyd–alienation and paranoia about Big Brother. What’s more, there’s a lot of red and black here, and a little red and black in the lighting scheme goes a long way. At one point the stage was filled with soldiers, nurses, cheerleaders, and street people, some in Afro wigs, a scene disturbingly reminiscent of the ill-fated musical version of Tommy. Presumably Tye is up to tackling a more sophisticated social piece, given her knack for theatricality and luscious, engaging combinations of movement, but that remains to be seen.

Inasmuch as Uno Man, a performer in the Shinpi No Bi festival of Japanese dance at the Dance Center, is representative of contemporary Tokyo performance art, he was an interesting addition to the Chicago dance scene. Being representative, however, doesn’t make the work good: this was pretentious and ho-hum, the kind of performance you can buy by the yard in Japan.

Westerners may not fathom how much performance goes on in that country. In the Kansai (the areas of Kyoto, Osaka, and Kobe) new dance and theater can be seen constantly. And in Tokyo the performance scene is even more exciting, as burgeoning an art form as the architecture. Trends come and go with a speed unknown here, but certain avant-garde characteristics remain, usually connected to Japan’s vibrant older traditions. For instance, dance and theater are not separate: No, Kabuki, and butoh are all really dance-theater forms. It’s almost unfair to invite an audience to see Uno Man expecting dance.

Like countless other contemporary Japanese performances, Uno Man’s Shizuku features better production values than performance skills. The publicity for Uno Man asserts that he stretches the boundaries of butoh. But this isn’t butoh at all. Though the recent Sankai Juku performance was superficial, it was butoh. Uno Man and his 80-year-old partner Miyako Shiga make everyday gestures, never change their tempo or dynamic, wave their arms around, do some isolations, and walk slowly. Eventually Uno Man puts on a dress. Shizuku is not good dancing, nor an example of butoh, nor any remote measure of the heights of Japanese avant-garde performance. Publicity materials also boasted of Uno Man’s relation with Dai Rakuda Kan, Japan’s greatest butoh troupe. But the power of Dai Rakuda Kan rests with its leader, Maro San, whose towering presence and flair for the meaningfully preposterous were nowhere evident in Uno Man’s work.

If the piece succeeds it’s as an installation. The lighting and scenic designs are brilliant. Uno Man and Shiga walk in turn from stage right to left, each tethered by a cord attached offstage. With each exit the cord remains, suspended, and after six crossings, six variously colored cords dissect the space at different angles and heights. The air is black, with a burning white light from above. Later on, two-foot-wide clean-cut paths of light crisscross the downstage area, as Uno Man and Shiga explore by now tiresomely overdone images of isolation. (However, much of contemporary Japanese performance deals with these images, suggesting that the perceived isolation of modern Tokyo society is very real.)

Had this piece been executed in a museum or at a nonperformance site, the audience would have been free to look from different directions or leave when they wanted to. But performing it on a college stage made some sense, because this really is an ABC lesson on Japanese contemporary performance art, including puerile-chic clothing, mannerisms, and props; expressions of single, simple emotions; images of isolation; kitschy Japanese enka (a kind of equivalent to country-western music) in the midst of a pastiche of such synthesized nature sounds as water dripping; lots of aural evocations of time (ticking clocks, tolling bells, heartbeats); slick rearrangements of the space and geometrical designs; and performers who are not uncomfortable onstage and who sometimes do interesting things but are hardly remarkable for their skill.

Many of these elements were used to their greatest effect in the mid- to late 80s in Japan, and then on the international avant-garde circuit, by a group called Dumb Type. Frankly, their use of such features has never been rivaled, and with the recent untimely death of their founder, Furuhashi Teiji, it’s unlikely they’ll ever be. Contrasting the contemporary Tokyo scene with the contemporary Chicago scene, last week at least, it appears we have much to be proud of in terms of genuine creativity and polished technique.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Aimee Tye photo by August Tye.