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Ruth Page Dance Series

at Northeastern Illinois University, February 25-28

Being in Dreaming

Tyego Dance Project

at the Athenaeum Theatre, February 26-27 and March 14

By Terry Brennan

Should pleasures be large or small? Epic or miniaturist? Operatic or minimalist? Because I distrust American pop culture and its emphasis on the big and powerful, I usually prefer small pleasures: a simple idea that’s perfectly carried out, two elements fitting together seamlessly, the sound of pretense being punctured, small movements that capture specific feelings.

These were the pleasures to be found at the Ruth Page Dance Series. A collaboration between singer Joseph Cerqua and dancer Wilfredo Rivera for the Cerqua Rivera Art Experience, Mood Swing is based on an idea so perfectly executed that the dance starts to morph into something else. The idea is simply to have musicians and dancers occupy the same space and interact. The piece starts with the musicians in the dancing area; a dancer curls around the ankles of each musician, a gesture at first suggesting dependence but actually connoting intimacy. After this initial image, the dancers and musicians move into rival camps, but eventually each dancer bonds with a musician and dances a solo as that musician plays a solo. When the dancers perform a duet, so do “their” musicians.

This strong formal structure creates a space for something really new to come into being. In Mood Swing, it’s a duet between a man and woman accompanied by piano and violin. The man’s violent movements presage depression; he can barely get off the floor to dance, and when he does he’s a danger to those around him. Many romantic duets feature images of women nurturing men; in this duet, her nurturing makes us understand his illness and exposes the suffering underlying that banal image.

Since I dislike pop culture, it’s a pleasure to see it deflated. Anna Simone Levin from Same Planet Different World sends up Latin pop music delightfully in Mujeres caiandos. Four women start seriously, with anguish-tinged angular movement set to a tango. Levin’s unpredictable movement has rhythmic texture; the ensemble is tight but the dancers are having a lot of fun. Eventually the tango disintegrates into a section in which the women do a “come hither” sequence with only their legs sticking up from empty galvanized steel washtubs. It ends with two women, clearly in anguish over their men, dunking their heads repeatedly in the tubs and flinging water over the stage; meanwhile the other two women vamp seductively. Levin takes the sexual allure of Latin music to its logical, ludicrous conclusion. And Jason Ohlberg of Same Planet Different World explores the hard-edged side of love in his duet Daphnis & Chloe Are Dead: Ohlberg and Katie Saifuku burn with sexual intensity as Diamanda Galas sings over and over “you mean everything to me.”

The other pleasures in this concert were even smaller. Paul Abrahamson’s Passages of the Heart for the Moose Project is mainly traditional ballet, but the dancers move with modern openness and ease, creating a much better balance between the modern and traditional styles than I’ve seen from the Moose Project before. The last of Venetia Stifler’s Three German Songs is as smooth and weighted as its music, Strauss’s “Morgen,” sung live by Sasha Gerritson; the dancers in this duet, Rachel Burton and Wilfredo Rivera, were excellent.

The large pleasures were provided last weekend–and will be again on March 14–by August Tye of the Tyego Dance Project. In a Reader review two years ago Joseph Houseal wrote, “Tye brings to the Chicago dance scene…a style that’s not about intimacy or energy or provocation but about the larger-than-life:…an impulse toward the monumental.” Tye put this quote on the cover of her program, and it’s a prescient description; Tye’s ambition and ability alike have grown.

She has a company of about 20 dancers, most of them trained in ballet, jazz, and modern. And she excels at working with large groups, using their mass to make dance points, then using the different texture of small groups to make different points. For example, at the beginning of Miserere, a dancer (Van Collins) walks along a thread of light; gusts of dancers blow past him, then disappear. I don’t mean that the dancers imitate gusting wind–they perform arabesque turns, pique turns, and a variety of other classical steps–but that they don’t grip our attention the way Collins does. These dozen or so dancers are as insubstantial as wind. This is a remarkable ability, to make mass seem to disappear.

In Spirit Trail, Tye uses 16 dancers pouring like a wave of honey across the stage; they begin to pour back in the other direction, slow to a stop for a moment, then pour offstage again. While stopped, most of the dancers are on their backs, but a few young girls stand and stare forward, then run offstage. The dancers raise their arms and legs into the air; it’s a simple gesture but the mass of dancers make it an eerie moment. Then the arms and legs drop, the dancers start to roll, and some rise to their feet; it feels as if a staring tiger had turned to walk away.

Tye’s large pleasures don’t come solely from the expert use of mass. May is a balletic duet for her sister Aimee and Jason T. Wiser. The first half is unexceptional, but the second includes a number of astonishing lifts. It ends with Tye seeming to lie on top of Wiser, except she’s floating two feet above his body–an amazing lift with an untraditional shape. Tye doesn’t end in conventional ballet ways but with a suggestion of carnality–a more logical ending point.

Tye does have a weakness for the saccharine. A rather ridiculous woman warrior leads the migration in Spirit Trail. Danza de las cervatas is a pretty but forgettable gambol for four women. The climax of Miserere presents Collins almost as the figure of a crucified Christ. These may be the mistakes of youth.

Tye already shows a concise imagination in putting movement to theatrical use, and she’s still developing. Moreover, she’s working with highly skilled dancers seldom seen in choreography this good. These are large pleasures, with still larger pleasures promised. I enjoy them but also mistrust them. Tye belongs to the mainstream and participates in its pop culture. But the pop process is like an army eating everything in its path. It might eat Tye, and turn honey into saccharine.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Cerqua Rivera Art Experience photo by Gordon Meyer.