at the Blackstone Theatre

September 8 and 9

As tempting as it is to think of dance as bodies, I don’t believe that bodies are what we go to see. I don’t even believe we go to see movement. What we go to see is the will to create a rhythmic flow, a certain kind of music.

So dance that fits a mold, or dancers who obey the letter but not the spirit of the choreography, can seem airless and stuffy–without that breath and ease that belong to the no-man’s-land, dangerous but free, where creativity is possible. When I see a dancer’s leg reaching hopelessly for the sky, it’s deadly to perceive it as bone wrapped with muscle or as an identifiable step from a particular dance vocabulary. I need to see the dancer succeed despite the hopelessness–the impossibility–of the attempt.

The Joel Hall Dancers, a committed, hard-working, 15-year-old Chicago jazz-dance troupe, appeared last weekend at the newly refurbished Blackstone Theatre. It’s a lovely place to see dance, intimate and beautifully restored. It was also hot as hell the night I was there. And though I wondered whether the dancers were suffering as much as I was, I don’t believe the stuffy atmosphere of the performance was entirely the fault of the theater. It may be that jazz dance, with its codified vocabulary and familiar look, needs more oomph than other dance forms to look fresh. But even the group’s closer, Talley Beatty’s Month of Sundays (1979), a revival-meeting stomp created for the Hall dancers, produced a merely dutiful air of excitement.

The other four works on the program were Joel Hall’s. Two were workmanlike pieces in the jazz-dance vein, Nightwalker (1979) and That’s a Fac’, Jack! (1985). Compassion (1984) made a deeper impression, in part simply because it is odd. This duet for two men is curiously icy. You can hear tears in the music, Tommaso Albinoni’s Adagio in G Minor for organ and strings, but Hall seems to want to create distance between his two dancers despite their almost constant proximity. They might be breathing into each other’s faces, but often neither seems to know the other is there.

As Compassion opens, the two men stand close together and facing each other, though they’re not face-to-face. They seem to stand at attention, in a state of magnetic, alert readiness, as if attracted to or at least hyperaware of each other. But in the first movement one dancer abruptly shifts his weight, steps forward, thrusts up an arm, and gazes up and out–and he’s gone right past the plane of the other dancer. When the second dancer does the same, they’re like ships passing in the night, the potential connection broken.

In Compassion the men often mirror or follow each other. But whatever it is that ties their bodies together seems to have only a sporadic effect on their souls. This dance resembles Gerald Arpino’s elegiac Round of Angels. It comes complete with one dancer soaring on another’s shoulders, and yet Compassion is far warmer than that bit of frosty, elegant fluff. Though the supported poses are sometimes labored, they are also often intimate–one dancer may clasp the other’s throat, for example. And the final image, as one man’s ear approaches the other’s chest, is touching almost to the point of sentimentality. But these somewhat clunky human touches, though they warm the dance, also make it odd. Ultimately Compassion seems a collection of false notes.

A program note advised me that Hall’s latest work, Now You See It, Now You Don’t (1988), is “dedicated to the plight of the homeless.” A quote in the program from Ralph Ellison further tied the dance to the plight of the invisible of every sort. I was sorry to see that the music would consist of four songs (by Daniel Ponce, the Temptations, Marvin Gaye, and Chico Freeman) because I’d gotten a little tired of the predictable medley-of-popular-tunes formula in Nightwalker and That’s a Fac’, Jack!

But Now You See It was not the message ballet I expected. Nor was it a disparate collection of variations on a theme. In fact, though enigmatic, Now You See It has the kind of life and seamlessness that can only come from a playful, intuitive approach.

It opens with two figures, hooded and cloaked in filmy shrouds, crouched and apparently warming their hands over a fire. First one, then the other, leap up as if they’ve spotted something. A third figure enters, a tall, thin man like a scarecrow, wearing a huge, flapping coat and a couple of hats. The other two, though they allow this homeless guy to join them, seem suspicious. Suddenly other shrouded figures enter–one, two, or three at a time–and begin walking in overlapping square patterns. The square patterns merge into a single circular pattern; this ring of mysterious figures, heads down and arms raised, creates a gauzy, billowy curtain of fabric. The single circle breaks up into several circles, and suddenly we see that dancers are collapsing, one by one, in little crumpled heaps, like Kleenex tossed on the floor.

Who the shrouded folks are, what their relationship is to the homeless guy, I don’t know. As the dance goes on, they shed some of their shrouds, reshroud, and finally, lose the shrouds again; they seem empowered, almost reborn. The homeless man flits onstage and off, his movement counterpointed by the others’: often he hoists himself on one leg, still and removed from the earth and from the others, who move rhythmically and continuously in a groove he doesn’t even know exists. Gradually he gets closer to them, however, until they rescue him from his cardboard box and they all dance together.

Whatever the motive for the shifts in the movement, the choreography itself is inventive. For one thing, there are more dynamic contrasts between dancers than in the other pieces: in one section, three men just sit, perfectly still in the poses of Eastern gods, to watch the women dance. The movement is also more restrained and spare–and ironically, though there may be less overt enthusiasm, it registers more clearly. Hall transforms his patented high-class-hooker strut, for example, into a simple walk syncopated by an almost invisible hip dip. The side extensions that close the piece are not athletic feats but resemble, once again, the lowly, commonplace walk: a leg is slowly, tentatively raised, then there’s a little hiccup, a breath, as the leg goes a little higher, and then the leg reaches out and down to step. That’s repeated with the other leg.

We’re shown both the effort and the lilt in the simplest movement. And after all, it’s just that combination of will and serendipity that keeps us coming back for more.