at the State of Illinois Center

September l2 and l3

Watching dance in theaters makes it easy to forget that context matters. A theater is more or less a blank slate, modified by a few props, some unusual lighting, a backdrop. But a public environment has a rich life of its own, made up of the people who routinely occupy it, its architecture, its history, and its civic reputation.

Dancing in the Streets, a New York organization headed by Elise Bernhardt, last year embarked on an ambitious five-city project devoted to producing dance in public places. So far there’s been dance in Union Station in Washington, D.C., dance on the beach in Miami, and dance in an architectural landmark in Los Angeles. Last week the Dance Center of Columbia College cosponsored the lively “Dancing in the State” at Chicago’s State of Illinois Center. The final event is scheduled for a Philadelphia train station. So far, no dancing in an actual street.

The street’s an egalitarian place, a mosaic of hot-dog stands shoved up against insurance companies and suits dodging bag ladies. But the State of Illinois Center is a monolith–despite its sprinkling of shops and fast-food joints, the architecture never lets you forget the building’s institutional character. Exposed working parts–elevator shafts, stairs–contribute to the regimented look; polished metal, glass, and fluorescent and neon lights make it cold and slick.

But the building never looked so Byzantine, so mazelike, so sinister during my occasional driver’s-license-renewal trips as it did as the backdrop for “Dancing in the State.” In this context all six dances, choreographed by Chicago’s Shirley Mordine and Timothy Buckley and New York’s Stephan Koplowitz and Elizabeth Streb, appeared to be works of protest.

First came Mordine’s l990 Subject to Change, performed on the plaza against the backdrop of the Dubuffet sculpture rather than indoors. Strikingly, instead of wearing dance garb throughout as they have in the past, the seven dancers began in business dress and gradually stripped to dusky gold leotards. We’re all dancers underneath, Mordine seemed to say, all people with emotions we express in bodily ways despite our suit-uniforms and armor of accessories. She also retooled the dance to make use of the Dubuffet, which acted not only as the wings/dressing room but also, as dancers in various stages of undress peered from its nooks, as an enchanted forest, a place where magical transformations might occur.

Next Buckley’s seven dancers in Husker Beat led the crowd into the building. Buckley’s loose, bouncy style recalls the way clowns move, an effect enhanced by the costumes: thrift-store jackets and trousers in mismatched plaids. The rows of shops Buckley picked as backdrops for his two dances reinforced the carnival atmosphere. There’s something disreputable, childlike but sleazy, about circus performers; and Buckley’s grinning, loose urban characters cavorting before storefronts in Husker Beat and Shaddup You Face cast a new light on the Casual Corners and Jenny Craig Weight Loss Centres of the world.

I don’t know how Elizabeth Streb’s Airlines, made in l987, looked in its original environment, but in the State of Illinois Center it looked like a flat-out protest of the punishing demands made by institutions, whether corporate or state. The dance’s centerpiece is a somewhat irregular arrangement of metal bars, perhaps 12 feet square, like a jungle gym in only two dimensions. The backdrop for it here was the building’s soaring wall of glass above the main entrances, a wall divided into panes so that it resembles a fly’s eye: many eyes in one. The metal structure’s various rectangles are echoed in the composition of the wall of glass.

This jungle-gym contrivance acts like a frame, focusing audience attention on a small area of the building atrium. As a result the six dancers look bigger–we see individuals, not little anonymous stick figures (though I also happened to be standing close to them). These individuals are engaged in one of the most brutal games I’ve ever seen, a game that involves swinging from, climbing, and leaping onto and off the metal bars. All these motions are clearly synchronized, not cued by any music–there is none–but sometimes by a dancer grunting “Go!” or counting. The “stage” sounds have been amplified, so when a dancer drops to the floor (fortunately onto a mat) there’s a huge thud; when someone shakes the metal structure, like a monkey rattling the bars of its cage, there’s a scary clanking storm.

Added to our worries about the sturdiness of the structure are our concerns about the dancers’ well-being. Though it’s possible to see Airlines as a formal work about lines bifurcating the human body, the dancers’ teeth-baring grimaces and obvious effort–sweat literally flies–sabotage such a cold, distant interpretation. We simultaneously see these dancers as machines, going through mysterious sequential motions imposed from without, and as pitiably vulnerable human beings, people whose flesh jiggles with the sharp impacts, who get headaches and bruises. Particularly when they acted like contortionists, curling themselves into rectangular spaces that seemed too small for any human body, I thought of the way bureaucracies put people into boxes, making them fit the space available.

Airlines is both strenuous and pointless, like a sporting event whose rules remain obscure–the perfect metaphor for bureaucratic activity, bees in beehives. But it’s also punishing to watch for reasons other than our empathy with the dancers: so much tediously repetitive activity going nowhere can get boring. I was disappointed that Streb’s second piece, made specifically for this space, followed so closely in the same vein. GroundLevel, performed on the lower concourse on gymnastic mats, does exploit the audience’s different vantage point–the dancers seemed like gladiators in a pit. But otherwise it’s too much like Airlines: the same kind of framing device, the same synchronized, pointless athletic feats, epitomized by spread-eagled belly flops onto the mat.

If Streb’s work draws our focus in, Stephan Koplowitz’s pulls it back out. The Governed Body places some 80 dancers on or near the railings that surround the vast atrium space. In our first view of them, some of these tiny stick figures hang over the railings near the elevator banks, possible victims of the Kafkaesque surroundings. Later they line the hallways exposed by the atrium, ascending five levels; to original music by Koplowitz and Jack Freudenheim they slap the rails, chant, haul each other around, and embrace. So many people acting in unison or near unison suggests armies; the space itself suggests blocks of prison cells. So it’s no surprise when a marching contingent appear on the ground floor and more or less invite us to join them, chanting: “You have the right to remain silent.”

The text, some of it announced over a PA system and some shouted out by the dancers, is of the rabble-rousing variety. For example: “I want to see the governor / He owes me money / I’m thirsty / And he’s got my shoes.” It’s all a bit predictable and unclear at the same time; people around me (who did not have the text printed out for them) looked impressed but a little bewildered.

Which raises the question of audience. Clearly an event like this pulls nondancegoers in, often literally off the street. It’s free, which is nice for the people who can’t ordinarily afford dance or wouldn’t spend the money on it. But what most struck me about this audience was its apparent innocence: infiltrating the usual dance crowd of hip youngsters and middle-aged culture vultures were grandmotherly shoppers, children both ambulant and strollered, and wondering office workers. All of them, like children, ready and even eager to be entertained, to see what happens next. That radical innocence jibed oddly with the well-worn cynicism of Koplowitz’s The Governed Body, the last dance work of the evening.

Thank God then that Elevator Harmonics, a sound and light installation created by Christopher Janney, closed out the show. Six flutists played a lyrical benediction over the place and the people in it; as their notes floated up and down, so did the elevators. Many of the atrium lights were turned off for this event, and that simple act seemed a benediction too, shadowing and softening the space. It also made we wonder which was the usual lighting and which were the special effects–and that gave me a new appreciation of the whole picture, even of the harsh orange lights glowing beneath the el outside. In a way no other work did, Elevator Harmonics transformed the State of Illinois space; the music of flutes was like bird song, the sparkly stuff dropped from the upper floors like the whirlybird seeds of maple trees.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Robert C.V. Lieberman.