Chicago’s Next Dance Festival

at the Athenaeum Theatre, through February 6

By Terry Brennan

Capturing spiritual awakening and transformation is famously difficult. It’s like gazing into the sun: most of the time you chase shadows, because seeing the real thing can last only a few moments.

Cindy Brandle wants to address transformation in Awakening. Midway through the dance–a premiere for the fifth annual Next Dance Festival, which continues with two additional programs through February 6–we hear her text over the loudspeakers: “It was a struggle. It always is. I slept, only for the awakening….When will the arms that hold me melt?…I am stillness, bathed in trust; even within sleep, I am finding awakening.” Clearly sounding themes of immobility and the hope for freedom, Brandle’s dance diagrams spiritual transformation. The first section, performed in half light, has a warm, gooey, indistinct feeling. It focuses on one dancer (Brandle) and her relations with four other women, which are sometimes succoring and sometimes hostile. The second section is short and angry, lit in red: a soloist (M.K. Victorson) takes center stage for a fierce sequence of off-balance turns. The third section reiterates the first, except that the dancing is quicker and more exuberant and occurs in full light.

The idea in Awakening is pretty clear: you might be asleep, but through activity and energy you can wake. When you do, you’ll discover the same old world but it will be bathed in light. Brandle’s moral reminds me of the Zen koan “First there is a mountain, then there is no mountain, then there is a mountain.” It’s also one of the fundamental messages of modern art: wake up and live. Yet it’s too schematic to be of much use. What if the metaphor isn’t sleep but imprisonment–instead of waking up, you need to break your chains or kill an invisible monster? What if the enemy isn’t just your own indolence?

Two exquisite dances by members of Same Planet Different World seem to argue that our chains are too powerful to break, that change is minimal or nonexistent–an idea expressed most clearly in Jason Ohlberg’s Trinity. Two men and a woman sit behind a table under a harsh overhead light. One man (Ohlberg) reaches up as if to the light; music by Arvo Part gives his gesture spiritual weight. The woman (Anna Simone Levin) pulls him gently down with a hand on his shoulder. The other man (Leif Tellmann) whispers in Levin’s ear; she demurs, but when he persists, Ohlberg pushes him back. This simple contrast between spiritual aspiration and worldly jealousy is repeated many times in increasingly vivid forms; immediately after a fit of jealousy one person approaches the others gently and the trio has a quiet moment. At the dance’s height, Tellmann throws himself over Levin’s prone form in order to whisper in her ear; Ohlberg pulls him off violently, and a few moments later they toss Levin between them as if in a contest. Eventually the three become wholly quiet and return to their seats behind the table. But when they begin the opening movement again, it’s a bleak moment, suggesting that all three people are driven by instinct. No one has learned a thing; transformation is impossible; spiritual impulses themselves are only unthinking instincts.

By contrast, Levin’s premiere Waves is optimistic, at least until its last moments. In this deeply romantic dance, a strong woman (Levin) meets an intense, challenging man (Ohlberg). Levin brings the man and woman through carefully distinguished layers of proximity and intimacy, giving the process a lovely texture and a remarkable sense of the rhythm of relationships. At the end Ohlberg collapses into Levin’s arms; she holds him in an embrace, sets him upright again, and leans her head against his shoulder. Then suddenly, as the lights fade, the two face in opposite directions, ignoring each other. Levin seems to say that even intimacy will not bring about transformation. How then can transformation be achieved?

Harrison McEldowney’s comic fable The Box gives an answer worthy of Marcel Marceau. In this solo a young man’s hands are trapped in a wooden box; managing to break free, he becomes rhapsodic, playing and making shapes with his hands. A hooded executioner in black enters and places the dancer’s hands back in the box; this time, when the young man frees them, they’re maimed. After frantic grieving he discovers his feet and falls rhapsodically in love with what they can do. Performed on the night I saw it by the remarkably agile Fracisco Avina, this sweet story seems darker than Brandle’s Awakening because it allows the possibility of real enemies and permanent damage.

What appears to be transformation is sometimes just change, a movement whose purpose is almost impossible to know: two dances by Jennifer Grisham only seemed at first to manifest transformation. Her first piece on the program, 30A-38, is intentionally strange. Two women and a man wear wigs, one pink, one purple, and one platinum. The man is bare-chested, and the women wear flesh-colored leotards and tights. On the surface it looks like a bad-girl dance–my guess is that the title refers to the dancers’ chest sizes. 30A-38 lacks coherence, but its percussive movement is interesting and the dancers are skilled.

Grisham’s second dance, Surfaces, is radically different, a simple duet that’s rather flat emotionally but has many pleasurable moments, with a great deal of contact and weight bearing by the dancers. My favorite movement starts with one dancer lying across the back of the other, who’s on her hands and knees. As she slowly rises to her feet, the dancer on top somehow holds on and ends up hanging upside down on the rising dancer–they’re like carpenter’s ells that fit snugly together. The gaudy masks of the first dance have been replaced with simplicity. At first I thought that this was a reflection of growth, abandoning adolescent masks in favor of more adult ones. But I had overlooked the fact that Surfaces was composed first. So it seems that it was the adolescent mask, or that there’s been no transformation, just another kind of process that I can’t fathom.

The only dance here that gives a hint of how transformation might occur is Dardi McGinley Gallivan’s premiere The Expedition Regrouped, a women’s quartet for the Dance COLEctive. McGinley Gallivan uses relatively formal modern dance material to devise gusts and eddies of movement that echo Caleb Sampson’s rich music. The best way to watch this dance is to let your eyes lose focus and see the flow of patterns. The dance begins with and periodically returns to two images: an intricate tableau stage right and a lift in which one dancer stands about three feet off the ground on the interlaced hands of two others. This movement begins with a big release of breath, after which the movement becomes quicker and more intricate. The lift is repeated, first stage right, then center stage, then stage left. In the last part of the piece, the lift suddenly reverses direction and a different person is lifted; moments later the opening tableau suddenly appears stage left: a small but distinct transformation has occurred. The audience recognizes it immediately and gives a quick laugh. The means of transformation is clear: the dancers focus outward on the music instead of inward on themselves, becoming part of a greater whole.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Same Planet Different World still by Michael Filler.