at the Dance Center of Columbia College, June 25 and 26

I brought a friend along to see the fourth National Choreography Series at the Dance Center. Like most theater people in Chicago, he rarely sees dance. After about the third number he turned to me and, with a rather surprised look, said, “Hey, this is good!”

No kidding. Contrary to popular belief, there are interesting, entertaining, and intelligent dance performances going on not only in the big cities but all over the United States. This National Choreography Series, a showcase for university dance teachers from around the country, demonstrated that fact with eight damn good dances by as many choreographers.

Universities have traditionally been a haven for choreographers unwilling to jump into the mad scramble for arts funding. There they can teach and receive a salary large enough to put food on their plates and a roof overhead, creating dances in relative peace. Most of the dances in this year’s series had a good amount of artistic integrity, perhaps the result of working in such an environment.

University choreographers seem to have different interests than Chicago or New York choreographers. Refreshingly, none of them addresses “issues.” No homelessness, race relations, AIDS, or homosexuality. Elaine Heekin’s Woman in White beautifully celebrates the strength of women without once becoming didactic or trendily feminist. Vertigo, by Susan Douglas Roberts, is a fast-paced game of balance, flying, and falling. Shane O’Hara’s Ice-Skating in Hell creates a macabre but funny hell somewhere between the honky-tonk and the circus.

When choreographers such as Marina Walchli and Melody Schaper address such a common topic as male/female relationships, they take refreshingly different perspectives–with some interesting similarities. In both dances the couples embrace often. They run their hands over each other’s bodies. They leap into each other’s arms. But the works are wildly different because the emotional qualities of the dancers’ movement are so different, pointing up the fact that good dance is not just bodies moving through time and space–it’s bodies moving with a certain energy and purpose through time and space.

Walchli’s Give and Take is danced by Lesley Kennedy and Joshua Larson to a tinny, somewhat dissonant composition by Andre Gribou. The music’s feeling of emptiness informs the dancers’ clean, clear movements–at times they seem to move with the rigidity of a military drill team. This dance explores the rather common notion of love as war, but does so with an uncommon depth of perception and character development. The emptiness of the stage around the dancers seems to amplify the emptiness of their relationship. Even though Kennedy and Larson move together, a wide gulf seems to keep their hearts far apart.

Schaper’s Mirrors of the Moon reminds me of a Japanese wedding guide in which the illustrations have come alive and the figures move through 110 gentle and joyous sexual positions. Dancers Angie Hauser and Jeremy Jacobs embrace about as often as Kennedy and Larson do in Give and Take, but when Hauser and Jacobs touch, their bodies seem to melt into each other. Though they don’t move as adroitly as possible, their movement is filled with a genuine and gentle longing. Mirrors of the Moon is danced to two gorgeously sensuous love poems by Thomas Rain Crow, one of which begins, “I am disappearing into the side of her body . . . ” The music (by an unnamed composer) is equally lush.

My favorite piece of the evening was Learning to Walk With the River. Claudia Melrose’s choreography for this fresh, exhilarating piece is complicated yet harmonious: the rush of these six simply clad bodies at times captures the strength of running water so well you can almost hear it bubbling over the rocks.

I also got a kick out of Janet Lilly’s Glacial Milk, a delightfully funny response to the sensual beauty of an aria from Mozart’s Il re pastore. It’s a fun piece but might be more successful if Lilly’s ecstatic reaction to Mozart were more clearly defined early on. Sandi Combest’s Landscape of the Spirits, inspired by the harsh and beautiful landscape of the southwest, suffers from a lack of visual tension and definition.