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at the O’Rourke Performing Arts Center, Truman College, through October 18

By Laura Molzahn

I love percussion that rattles my heart around in my chest, and that’s what Chicago’s ten-year-old drum-and-dance troupe Jellyeye does best. But it also does much more. Often compared to Stomp and Riverdance, it’s only superficially like those far more conventional percussive exhibitions, which merely update prosaic theatrical forms. Stomp is your basic vaudeville show, a string of unconnected sketches defined by minimal characters and narratives: subway riders irritated at one another’s little noises, sanitation workers having a bit of fun with their brooms. And Riverdance merely glitzes up an otherwise straightforward presentation of traditional dance forms, primarily Irish step dancing. (The addition of recorded stepping–which caused something of a scandal when it was discovered–is just an unfortunate offshoot of the show’s fundamental purpose: commercial success.) It could even be argued that Riverdance was spawned by the ultraconservative medium of television, specifically the Trinity Irish Dancers’ appearances on the Tonight Show in the late 80s.

Jellyeye is far more radical. Though it makes use of several traditions, the troupe is a direct descendant of none. And though in the past it’s relied on narrative–most notably in the “drum opera” Avalanch Ranch–it now seems to have moved away from story lines, reveling in the abstract pleasures of pure music and movement. In fact, watching a Jellyeye concert is not unlike watching a very lively performance by the CSO, because for the viewer-listener the music and the performers’ embodiment of it form a single gestalt.

Of course Jellyeye directors Shu Shubat and Ollie Seay make darn sure their performers are more kinetic than classical musicians. Indeed, what’s fascinating about a piece like Blood Lotus–one of seven separately listed but intertwined pieces on the program at the O’Rourke Center–is the way Jellyeye juices up the fundamentals of dramatic presentation, making them the very essence of the work. What gets an audience’s attention? Noise of course, though too much of it will make an audience shut down, like babies falling asleep at a raucous party. More subtle are the ways in which the body can be presented: the performers facing one another in a circle that excludes the viewer, perhaps interacting with each other–or facing us, whether in lines or in a broken circle of which the audience forms the missing part. Spatial arrangements also affect which performers we see as the “accompanists” and which as the stars. Crucial too are the performers’ faces: Can we see them? Head-on or not? A big part of Jellyeye’s appeal is their unmasking of the emotions inherent in making music, as the performers face us ravaged by fatigue and buoyed by their own efforts. It’s as if, by allowing us to witness their transcendence of the everyday world, we’ll be transported too.

All these devices are given an ecstatic, essentially musical structure in Blood Lotus, as the piece builds from one climax to another, its energy subsiding, gathered in, only to return at an even higher level. Though it’s completely abstract, Blood Lotus epitomizes the dramatic structure of Western theatrical art, which ideally subordinates every element to eventual climax and catharsis. The success of Western art, which so often addresses the fate of the individual, depends on vexing and riling the spirit to the point of orgasm or tantrum–the physical and emotional correlatives of what happens in the theater. At any rate, the ideal is far from calm.

Yet that’s only one aspect of Jellyeye’s enterprise–another, antithetical goal is to achieve the meditative state of mind of Eastern religions. This ideal is most apparent in the program’s opening piece, True Motion of the Moon, in which the dancers’ faces are usually obscured by their handheld drums. With very little spatial depth, fairly monotonous playing, and subtle movement, this piece seems to aim for the self-abnegation and quietness of nirvana.

Jackie Chan might have been subtitled “Punk Band Meets the Mysterious East.” The greatest curiosity on the program, it’s the piece most likely to cause a smile (the cymbal hats help). Though it appears to glorify its lead performer–Shubat playing the guitar center stage–the symmetrical arrangement of the other performers is akin to both pop-culture hierarchies, setting off the star, and the ceremonial placement of lesser deities around a central deity in Eastern depictions of the gods as nobles at court. And it can’t be an accident that Shubat’s guitar solo is entirely lacking in musical and kinetic showmanship: her calm smile and quiet playing belie her supposed supremacy.

Another element of Jellyeye’s art, with ancient roots as well as Chicago roots, is its visual appeal. At least as far back as Remains Theatre’s production of Moby Dick in 1982, Chicago companies have relied on magical stage images, and today troupes like Redmoon and the MASS ensemble achieve a good portion of their effects from handmade puppets and musical instruments. Certainly Jellyeye’s handmade drums and gongs enhance their look onstage, but they also use clever lighting, props, and costumes. On this program, Heaven Above Me Sighs Open is filled with luscious stage pictures: Shubat seems to float behind a scrim, above the heads of four men and women in high collars and lit-up hoop skirts who process from the wings in ceremonial trains so long they create a record of the performers’ progress, a web that connects and defines them. Their most characteristic motion–subtly swinging their hoop skirts toward and away from us like giant bells–seems to embody a rhythmic, repeated acceptance.

The hoop skirts and bell-like motion crop up again in Jellyeye’s only new piece on the program, Sonata Zero. This is the point at which the troupe’s attempted fusion of East and West fails–though this “sneak preview” is far from irretrievable. Certainly the longest of Jellyeye’s meditative Eastern-style pieces, it seems to go on forever. Intended to commemorate the turn of the millennium, it features a matching prologue and coda, a section for women, a section for men, the return of the hoop skirts, and finally a stunning re-creation of nightfall, complete with starry sky and evening breezes.

Sonata Zero might have come across better had it not appeared at the end of a long program. By the time it began I was exhausted–and I wasn’t even onstage playing my heart out. Instead my heart had been played out for me. One of the most remarkable things about Jellyeye is its revelation of a curious physical-spiritual phenomenon: energy begets energy–the more you put out, the more you’ve got. I witnessed that in the performers, but by the time Sonata Zero rolled around I’d given all the full-blown attention I had to give. After two hours of high-voltage entertainment, I couldn’t make the transition to the meditative Sonata Zero–however much I respect Jellyeye’s project, based in ritual, aiming for transcendence.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by Brad Miller.