Bob Eisen and Dancers

at Link’s Hall May 3-6

Bob Eisen’s work walks a fine line, the one between mere movement and dance; the purpose is to illuminate both. Route 142, recently performed at Link’s Hall, is on the surface even less theatrical–even more matter-of-fact and just what it is, no more–than his other efforts.

Route 142 is a road show on a particularly small and human scale: if Les Miserables is a tank, Route 142 is a lightweight bicycle. Last year Eisen got a grant with no strings attached and decided to create a work that he could take on a midwestern tour. Chicago’s concert was to be the last of 20 cities in a tour completed in two months. To move that fast, you have to travel light. Eisen’s props are a stool, a kitchen timer, and a boom box. There’s no special lighting, and the dancers double as stagehands. Set the timer, or put a tape in the box, set the dancers in motion–and you have a dance.

Route 142 has four sections: a solo for Eisen danced to the timer, a quartet to taped music by Chicago composer Michael Zerang, a talk Eisen has with the audience, and a duet for Eisen and Sheldon Smith to improvised vocalizing by the three performers not dancing. The title also suggests, however, that the entire tour is the “performance”–a performance that has been extended over two months and into several midwestern states. So Eisen’s talk, which focuses on the tour, is crucial–it’s a way for the audience to “see” that fact.

The talk also illuminates some of Eisen’s attitudes, which help us understand his choreography: his bias against meaning, the importance he gives spontaneity and lack of pretension. He mentioned that his audiences seemed frustrated when they couldn’t discover the “meaning” of what he did, and then read, with just the right degree of irony and sympathy, some of the reviews the group had received. He told us that when a gig fell through and he and his group were stuck in the middle of nowhere, he called another place and asked for room and board and a split of the box office take. The important thing is to perform, he said, and as much as you can. Eisen’s talk was itself spontaneous: he mentioned the el trains rumbling and clacking past just yards outside the Link’s Hall windows, and pointed out that while we had real trains at no cost, David Letterman had had to import a fake train as part of his elaborate set at the Chicago Theatre. Most important, he made us aware of the past and future while he grounded speaker and audience firmly in the present, the only place that dance can reside.

If Route 142 makes us wonder where it begins and ends, so does Eisen’s solo: he makes us see how beginnings, middles, and endings are arbitrary but necessary. His solo seems to begin when he’s set the timer and it starts ticking; it ends when the buzzer goes off. In between are smaller endings–movement that builds to a climax, followed by contemplative walking, standing, or lying on the floor. Then there’s a new beginning. These smaller endings and beginnings, of course, are independent of the timer. Or is the whole dance independent of the timer? Is setting the timer part of the dance, or does it start the moment he walks into the room?

Eisen also seems to reflect on the nature of music. Though we might assume music drives the dance, perhaps it’s the other way around. The tick of the timer means nothing until Eisen’s movements begin to make phrases of its steady rhythm–he makes it into music by dancing to it. Later, his own rhythms completely overwhelm the monotonous tick-tick-tick; we see only the arrhythmic jabs and rolls and turns of an inner rhythm, hear only gasps and pants and bare feet slapping the floor. It’s a shock to hear the tick once again in a quiet moment and realize how completely the “music” has been forgotten.

Eisen’s choreography is athletic, but not in the sense usually used in describing dance: high leaps are not the point. No athlete thinks about whether he looks pretty while he’s tackling someone or sliding into third, he just gets the job done. So do Eisen’s dancers, though their motive is cooperation. In the quartet especially, Laura Gould, Juli Hallihan, Kent Lindemer, and Sheldon Smith are a team, a team whose rapport is obvious. A hand on another’s back and a gentle push are companionable. A vault into the air that pivots around a standing dancer, the vaulter using the other’s shoulders for support, is strong and simple, not sentimental.

Eisen’s choreography–especially in his solo–has the look of a pencil sketch. Some lines are false starts but are left in as evidence of the process; others are sketched again and again, despite the fact that such elaboration is not strictly speaking necessary. The images that sometimes pop out seem haphazard but suggestive: a dancer whirls like a dried leaf in a stiff breeze, or puts his ear to the ground (listening for what?), or focuses on something near him but invisible, like a blind man determined to gaze on something. Much of what Eisen does evokes no images but is so small and subtle that it puts the ordinary in a new light–the way he sways on feet that are rounded, toes lifted up off the floor, or the way he quietly adjusts his clothing in a spare moment, to mark a pause.

Perhaps the most moving aspect of this performance was the accompaniment provided by Gould, Hallihan, and Lindemer to the duet by Eisen and Smith. The three music makers sit squished together on the floor, like kids attempting to all sit in the same spot. Their eyes closed, they make noises that run the gamut of human possibilities. At first they seem to be simply settling into their seats, clearing their throats, shuffling around, breathing loudly. That quickly evolves into a full-scale orchestra for the human voice: whooping, crying, panting, humming, shrieking, retching, moaning. To call it odd is saying both too much and too little. What’s a more natural accompaniment than the human voice? But to hear people making these rude noises and see other people contorting themselves to its rhythms is also far, far from the bounds of ordinary experience. Somehow Eisen makes the pedestrian and the miraculous intersect, and we see both in a new way.

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