at Ravinia Festival, September 1-4

Daniel Ezralow’s new dance for Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, In Praise of Shadows, explores big topics: sleeping, darkness, sex, shadows, fear, entombment, collapsing, and the mythic underworld. Visually the dance is often successful, but the dancing is surprisingly thin, and the piece is dramatically and musically inert. Yet it has a potential emotional charge if the dancers can find a way to release it.

The opening tableau is stunning–the stage is draped in white cloth reminiscent of classical statues. Four of the seven dancers are completely wrapped in the same cloth and look like nightmare versions of classical statues. Two dancers, each in brightly colored but mismatched tights and leotard, step from behind statues and begin a somber duet on the dimly lit stage. (This tableau reminded my companion of the plazas in European cities in front of ruined medieval churches.) The strong design is by Ezralow himself, and all the elements work together to create a mood of delicate ruin in open spaces.

Ezralow dedicates the dance to Christopher Gillis, a former Paul Taylor dancer who died of AIDS last month, and the dance seems an elegy. A bare-chested man comes forward, and the wrapped dancers are unwrapped. The dancers form a line in which they alternately embrace or kiss the people on either side; at one moment, two men kiss. The stage goes dark and the dancers sleep while the bare-chested man undulates painfully by himself in a spotlight. The music builds to a crescendo and the dancers seem to wake as the man walks through them to a light, but then the dancers fall back into fetal positions and twitch as they sleep.

This narrative left me dissatisfied. Ezralow’s images of death–walking toward the light, being wrapped in bandages–are cliched, and his implication that the heterosexual world has ignored AIDS deaths is just political cant. The plot reduces Ezralow’s powerful images–their allusions to sleep as death and mourning as entombment, among others–to the simple fact that a man Ezralow loved died.

The dance’s movement is cool or distancing–arm gestures, torso contortions, a simian backward roll, convulsions. They don’t provide the kinetic excitement of seeing bodies flying through the air. Thom Willems’s interesting synthesizer score sets the mood, but the movement doesn’t interact with it much.

Ezralow establishes a delicate elegiac tone in the opening moments but then becomes too much the grieving friend–he doesn’t allow us to come inside and share his feelings. He leaves the work of communicating to the dancers, but they don’t seem to have decided what they’re doing onstage. With luck and dedication, the dancers may eventually communicate the emotion that Ezralow has poured into his dance.

The dance that followed In Praise of Shadows on this program provides all the kinetic excitement that Shadows lacks–in fact, too much of it. In Margo Sappington’s Step Out of Love five women dance electrically to a rock score by Steve Forsyth. As the score narrows to a hammering beat, the dancers flash through the difficult choreography, hammering the dancing home. As an MTV rave-up the work is great, but it doesn’t leave much room for feeling or nuance. David Parsons’s The Envelope is a somewhat amusing parody that also lacks any opportunity for nuance. Both dances are well-made examples of general-issue jazz dances, manufactured by the hundreds by jazz companies in the last 20 years.

The glories of the concert were two Twyla Tharp pieces that combine nuance with kinetic excitement, as well as with intellectual content, movement invention, and wonderful senses of space and of dance history. This is the first time I’ve looked at Tharp’s dances with a critic’s eye, and I feel the way I did when I first started reading Hemingway and wanted to tell everyone what a wonderful writer he was–a discovery everyone else had already made.

Tharp accomplishes what Balanchine only dreamed about–she combines the insouciance of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers with the rigor of classical ballet. Her dances have the same kinetic thrill as ballet pas de deux in which a woman is lifted and swung in unlikely ways by a man. Both Nine Sinatra Songs and Baker’s Dozen, performed by Hubbard Street on this program, are based on the pas de deux, usually in the form of ballroom dance. Then Tharp adds a thoroughly American style–the loose springiness of Astaire and Rogers, the rhythmic complexity of jazz (particularly in Baker’s Dozen), modern dance’s sense of space as a sculptural element, and an exuberant inventiveness that seems to reflect the spirit of American hippies. Tharp’s dances even have content–the second half of Nine Sinatra Songs becomes a catalog of American romantic relationships. The “That’s Life” section, set to a blues song, features an abusive man and submissive woman; it encapsulates both the romance of the blues and the unfortunate reality of such relationships. Tharp’s dances do for America what ballet always did for Europe, holding up an idealizing mirror that shows us ourselves as we’d like to be. At their best, her dances also let us see through the mirror.

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