at the Dance Center of Columbia College

June 6-8

Dancers like to say that the body doesn’t lie. But the fact is, different bodies tell as many different truths as different tongues. The trick, as always, is to speak your own language and still make others understand.

Strangely, it sometimes takes an outside eye to refine, even to evoke an artist’s true vision. “Emerging Visions: The Choreographers’ Mentor Project,” a new undertaking by the Dance Center, has done just that: apprenticed four of Chicago’s most interesting choreographers–Ann Boyd, Bob Eisen, Mary Johnston- Coursey, and Kathleen Maltese–to two of Chicago’s most intelligent and mature choreographers, Jan Erkert and Shirley Mordine. Each of the four produced a new work (Boyd in collaboration with Julia Neary, an actress) for this concert, and the distinctive, rich, polished results suggest just how valuable an outside eye can be. In some cases the gap between adviser and advisee must have been small: Eisen and Maltese have worked in Chicago for more than a dozen years. Certainly it’s to the credit of the mentors that all four artists looked more like themselves than ever, only better.

Each choreographer seemed to have taken on some task. For Maltese, in Sedimentary Girl, it was nothing less than investigating the nature of reality: Is the real person the one we see before us? Or is it our memory of that person, which in some cases is far more intimate and compelling? Maltese allows no trace of cosmic vagueness–thank God. The spare text tells the tale of two cousins who have grown apart, of three women who go skinny-dipping together at midnight, of a mother who, inexplicably at first to the narrator, calls her friends “the girls.” At the same time it strings together, delicately and efficiently, the piece’s worry beads: the mysterious connection between physical and emotional intimacy, the effects of time on human relationships, the paradox that the skinny, glimmering, glimpsed body–the body seen underwater–can be so much more real than the actual, substantial, solid body.

In this piece Maltese tries to give us back the valuable and irreplaceable word “girl,” long proscribed by the politically correct. Maltese delivers most of the text herself (the other performers are Christine Bornarth and Donna Mandel) in her soft, breathy, rather high-pitched, definitely girlish voice. Wryly humorous, she gives Sedimentary Girl some almost silly movement: smoothly cycling legs to the words “synchronized swimming,” a punning motion to the word “sidekick.” Variations on girlish companionship permeate the choreography–the way girls lie together in a tangle while they talk, the teasing way they have of copying each other.

Sedimentary Girl also has a nice skeleton, some beautifully structured sequences. Early on, while Maltese is talking about the separation she feels between herself and her cousin when they meet as adults, she’s tumbling around the floor with Mandel; they’re as absentmindedly intimate as two puppies. Later Maltese and Mandel repeat the sequence, but this time they speak to each other–really to each other, so softly we can barely hear them arguing over who’s going to play what role in their girls’ game. The contrast between the two sequences, and the fact that chronologically they’re reversed, emphasizes our sense of loss: in the first, we sense the tragic distance between the alienation described in the text and the physical intimacy of the women onstage; the second amplifies that distance, reflecting back on the initial sequence –we see the source of the intimacy and know it will disappear.

I think Mary Johnston-Coursey had her heart set on a piece in which she would sing and dance at the same time, but Songs is a far cry from your everyday musical-comedy number. This complicated, difficult work for seven dancers (Boyd, Catherine Wettlaufer Buehler, Rebecca Keene Forde, Michael Ioung, Toby Lee, Sabine Parzer, and Jane Siarny) and Johnston-Coursey herself has the eccentric but compelling rhythms of the choreographer’s own dancing. The only musical accompaniment is Johnston-Coursey’s singing (four folk songs by Chris Williamson, Joni Mitchell, and Joan Baez) and the occasional playing of an onstage fiddler, Sean Cleland. Often the words of the songs are not distinguishable–we hear instead snatches of the melody, the timbre of the voice, and the phrasing, the breath gathered and portioned. It’s an evocative accompaniment for dance because of the parallels with how the body is used, wordlessly but with a deep and varied potential for feeling.

Johnston-Coursey is a bountiful dancer–and sometimes in the past, perhaps as a result of that energy, her choreography has seemed to have too much happening too fast. In Songs the meter has been slowed, the movement pared, so we see the pulsing impetus behind the energy, the accumulation and flow from one moment to the next. There are frequent contrasts between inertness and life: a dancer leaps–instantly, it seems–from a drooping pose to a tense, almost military stance, arms raised, palms out; or some dancers lie on the floor while others whirl around their curled bodies. Often the rhythms of the dancing repeat the complex, half-hidden rhythms of the songs. Other, more overt rhythms disappear soon after we recognize them: several dancers roll from side to side on their backs, beating their legs and hands against the floor in a kind of marching beat to the song “Guard in a Grey Iron Prison.” But the motion and rhythm don’t last and don’t reappear. Johnston-Coursey starts a stamping run in a circle that’s taken up by the other dancers; as soon as the rhythm is plain to us, the choreographer goes on to something else.

That uncompromising difficulty and the work’s abstraction make Songs a tough nut. Then how does it come to be so moving? It may be partly Johnston-Coursey’s singing, far from perfect but full of life and feeling. It may be the dancers’ commitment. It may be the gentle, organic, but unsentimental partnering–the hand placed at another person’s nape as a pivot for a turn; the way a dancer puts one hand on another’s shoulder and the other on her partner’s forehead, like a mother testing for fever. It may be the possible allusions of some gestures: a dancer’s pointed hand held high dives to her own uplifted chin and down the front of her throat. Could she really be imbibing communion wafers so forcefully? And it’s not every dance where you get to see the choreographer sing while she’s clasped around the waist and held upside down–moreover, Johnston- Coursey maintains every last shred of her dignity while doing so.

Our modern urban fun house seems the focus of Ann Boyd and Julia Neary’s dark, creepy Don’t I Know You? The funniest work on the program, it features two protagonists (Boyd and Neary) in flapping black–they resemble crows, priests, widows–and the rest of the cast (Kathy Aharoni, Terry Brennan, Atalee Judy, David Kanouse, Kathleen Kemme, Sabine Parzer, and Rebecca Rossen) in nightmarish makeup and “costumes” (painted on their black leotards by Jane Wegscheider, who also did the inventive set).

Don’t I Know You? is scatological (a main feature of the story is bird poop), hectic (in one of the funniest bits, Boyd and Neary scream identical lines at each other in unison), and occasionally tender, even sentimental (the ending involves the release of an injured bird). It plays around with doppelgangers, mirror images, invisible walls, perhaps deja vu. And Boyd and Neary are both vivid actresses. In Neary’s scene on a gigantic chair, she’s a touchingly credible and expressive child; and Boyd, as a waitress late to work, has the perfect high, quick, brittle voice for a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown–her every move and intonation seems to say “Don’t touch me or I’ll fall apart.” But unfortunately this energetic, ambitious work doesn’t quite pull together–perhaps because the text is rather long and complicated, perhaps because the piece shoots off in so many directions at once.

Of all the choreographers I know, Bob Eisen loves bodies the most–loves bone and muscle, prizes the heart and lungs. To him the body is a marvelous, magical machine, and like a child he wants to make it go. But in the untitled work he choreographed for this concert, he looks hard at the cruel, dark side of his own vision: the fact that physical being is finite, that bodies can’t be made to go forever, and that the choreographer can therefore seem a harsh, manipulative taskmaster.

At the beginning five dancers (Eisen, Anthony Gongora, Christy Munch, Dan Prindle, and Mark Schulze) walk onstage under full light and take their positions: Eisen at center stage, the others in an upstage corner. All but Eisen wear pants and loose, sleeveless tops; Eisen himself is bare-chested and wears what appear to be pajama bottoms. Our immediate sense that he’s more vulnerable than the others is reinforced when he begins to rapidly lie down and get up, lie down and get up–a sequence that seems to go on forever but is varied by an occasional walking pattern or gesture while standing; he massages his own head in a wide circle, for instance.

Meanwhile the others merely watch. When they do join in, it’s unclear whether their intention is to help or further punish him: they manipulate him through the same up- down sequence, pulling his legs out from under him, pushing his head down to the floor–all the while sketching out Eisen’s motions themselves. Later they manipulate him through another sequence, pulling Eisen, who’s very tall, in a wide arc from a prone to a standing to a supine position. Still later he repeats this arc himself. At other times they hoist him to their shoulders or into a horizontal carry at waist height–and drop him. I cringed at each crunching thud of an ankle, knee, elbow, foot, or hipbone.

It looks as if Eisen is the overworked dancer here, his dancers the manipulative “choreographers”–a form of poetic justice. Perhaps he implicates the audience in this punishing process. Whatever, the cruelty is patent. And it’s stepped up in the long ending, punctuated by Eisen’s wheezing gasps for breath and tortured counting. I’ve said in the past about Eisen’s choreography that repeated falls can be moving. Here they’re not moving, they’re torturous, horrifying. Or are they? Dance is theater, illusion, and Eisen, ever the trickster, punches that fact home in the dance’s close. This is a strange work, a painful work to watch, and a work that I believe is hostile at its core; it’s also strangely beautiful and true. You can’t ask for more than that.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/T. Chifani.