Bob Eisen and Fluid Measure Performance Company and Friends

at Link’s Hall, August 3

In the fifth annual Chance Dance Fest, Bob Eisen once again captures the je ne sais quoi of pure movement. Like last year’s award-winning improvisation with Julie Worden, this year’s work created a Zen-like euphoria on a hot summer night: four skilled dancers, including Eisen himself, demonstrated that pure movement–movement for its own sake–has a peculiar reality. Done well, it’s gently uplifting. But it exists outside of words: pure movement just is, and that is its strange joy.

Eisen achieves his effects by stripping the choreography down to its essentials–rhythm, form, energy–and manipulating their cousins: time, space, and light. Actually, it’s by not manipulating time and light that he creates some wondrous effects. For example: the lights are off as the audience enters Link’s Hall. Eisen likes the lingering twilights of August, the way the light filters through the windows and reflects off the polished hardwood floor. Time seems to move slowly–as slowly as the sun sets.

By the time the dancers enter, the room has grown so dim you can see only their outlines as they pick up paint rollers, dip them in buckets, and paint an indecipherable scene across brown butcher paper tacked up on the rear wall. Eisen stands, his back perfectly straight, gazing toward the audience, then walks off, walks back on, and begins a solo, a complex chain of movements that seem to grow naturally out of one another. Some are instantly recognizable as yoga positions, some seem improvised, and others oddly billow, like seaweed in a storm. The dance continues in the darkening room. No music, no artificial lighting. Only the rhythm of moving bodies and the pungent smell of paint pinching the nostrils.

Eisen’s solo began the piece on opening night entirely by chance. The order of the dance’s 15 sections–one quartet, four trios, six duets, and four solos (all the combinations possible for four dancers)–is determined right before the performance begins, by random drawing. Next week, or the week after (the fest continues through August 31), the piece might begin with a different segment. Some are danced to music, some to recorded voices, some in silence.

What stand out in the mind are random images. Eisen silhouetted against the window as the el rattles past. When the room grows too dim to see anything, the stage lights coming up and bathing the space in the same amber light that shines from the apartment windows across the tracks. A smooth, graceful trio contrasting with the awkward angularity of someone painting the back wall.

In much of Eisen’s choreography one movement seems to perfectly fit the next, and the next and the next. But it seems the Zen-like feelings produced by this piece can be attributed to the performance style of Eisen and dancers Amy Alt, Chia-Yu Chang, and Sheldon Smith: they’re completely present in the movement, achieving a certain harmony with the small world they create inside the studio. As the dance unfolds there’s a delicate spontaneity, a continuous sense of discovery that lifts the spirits.

Fluid Measure Performance Company and Friends improvised a dance for the second half of the evening that underscored how difficult it is to achieve this simple spontaneity. (Eisen shares the bill with different performers each week.) Improvisation demands that the performers empty their minds and communicate with one another on a very visceral level. When that doesn’t happen, as was the case here, the dance plods along in a sad way. For all their experience onstage, these five dancers–Fluid Measure’s Kathleen Maltese and Donna Mandel and “friends” Ron Bieganski, Kay Wendt LaSota, and Cynthia Reid–just couldn’t get it together for this performance.

The rules of this dance were uncomplicated but by no means easy: move when the spirit moves you. Time limits were set by a young man in the audience with a kitchen timer. When the bell rang, he set it again. These bells were supposed to mark the beginnings and ends of sections, but the dancers were so distracted they didn’t even seem to notice the bells. The main problem seemed to be that no one wanted to move, a problem each dancer tried to correct in his or her own way. Mandel tried to be encouraging in a teacherly fashion. Maltese fell into a comfortable but dull cliche of moving her hands in a flat-palmed Steve Martin “King Tut” dance. Bieganski bounced off the walls. LaSota jumped in when no one else would. Reid just sort of went along for the ride. As they watched their dance fall apart, dismay was written all over their faces. When the last bell rang, the dancers (and the audience) breathed a sigh of relief.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Michael B. Filler.