Chance Dance Fest

at Link’s Hall, through August 30

A dancer’s “center”–that mysterious point from which dancers move and to which they always return–has an almost mystical quality. Conceived of as a physical point somewhere in the middle of the body, it’s really a kind of body awareness, of where one’s weight and limbs are and how all the pieces of the body are connected. A dancer is centered when she feels and can control all parts of herself. Most of us, who feel centered only when we’re doing something simple like walking, are in awe of dancers and divers and others who can do astonishing things with their bodies yet remain centered.

Becoming centered requires years of practice. Martha Graham’s signature movement, a contraction, is an exercise for finding one’s center–for pulling the body’s power into one point so that it can be sent in another direction. One of Graham’s dancers, Dan Wagoner, described it as passing through a black hole–letting your body be pulled into a point of fantastic mass and compression, then passing through that point into an exploding universe full of movement and light. Only modern dance has this idea of a center; in ballet, a dancer rides on the straight lines of her spine and extended limbs. The single point of a center gives a modern dancer great freedom of movement compared to a ballet dancer, a freedom so extreme that it’s difficult for modern-dance choreographers to find and teach their particular way of moving.

Bob Eisen has been searching for his particular way of moving for the last several years. Formidable intelligence and iconoclasm have always been strengths in Eisen’s choreography, but recently his movement has become striking, defined by simple shapes made of taut lines held in place muscularly. For this year’s Chance Dance Fest, Eisen has created a quartet called 1 Thru 6 X 2 With Chance Variations, and the first shape he takes is bent at the waist in an acute angle, with arms and one leg stretching toward one side. Made up of sharp, flat planes joined at precise angles, this shape is almost like a folded piece of cardboard–a still form of once-organic matter. It’s a shape that has no center, no place where movement originates or settles. The emphasis on line and the absence of decoration recalls Merce Cunningham.

Yet the dancers who perform with Eisen find a center in all of his movements. Julie Hopkins gives a rounded, sometimes sinuous quality to the sharp lines. Amy Alt, perhaps the ideal dancer for Eisen’s movement, has the strength to hold his lines as well as a strong center; she seems to follow a precisely machined path from shape to shape. And Felicia Ballos, a tiny, slender woman, also dances cleanly and from her center.

The dance itself is minimalist in the Cunningham tradition. The movement does not tell a story, though a story seems to seep out of the corners of the dance. Eisen’s pure movement is arranged very formally in six sections, performed in their entirety at the beginning and end of the dance. In between each dancer performs as many as three of the sections, how many and which ones being determined by a chance procedure like pulling numbers from a hat. Sounds, such as a lawn mower starting up, arrive and depart by chance as well. Emotionally the dance is very cool. The dancers seldom look at one another even though they remain onstage throughout, so they never create the sense of relationship on which many dances are based. When they do look, usually one dancer just watches another performing a sequence. The dancers don’t relate, they observe one another. The story that seeps out is about this self-involvement and passive observation.

Barbara Mahler in last week’s Chance Dance Fest didn’t dance from her center in the classic way either. But then Mahler, who normally teaches at the Susan Klein School in New York City, had come to Chicago to teach a series of workshops on different ways to move from one’s center. In the workshop I attended, Mahler focused on “getting the pelvis on top of the legs” and “initiating movement from the tailbone.” She taught these seemingly strange concepts through a series of simple exercises. Many of the participants, including me, experienced a new ability to move quickly across the floor, as if an outboard motor had been strapped to the bottom of our spines.

While Mahler’s body seems propelled during a few moments of the two solos she performed here, nothing much else happens. In Insides Out she rolls from side to side, sits and faces the audience with a blank look, arabesques without fully extending her leg, strides from one corner to another, or engages in a series of quick heel-and-toe turns. In Just a Matter of Times she jumps from side to side with flailing arms, then falls to the floor and lies facing the audience, her eyes vacant. Individual movements can be emotionally evocative, but the dances don’t tell a coherent emotional story.

The deeper problem is that Mahler’s movement doesn’t have much authority because her body doesn’t seem to be the carefully worked creation that most dancers’ bodies are. Many dancers can make a simple movement seem not only worthy of attention but meaningful, such as Chicagoan Donna Mandel’s mere braiding of her hair onstage. Without this physical authority, Mahler’s dances just fall apart.

Moving from their centers is what gives modern dancers authority. Postmodern dancers like Eisen and Mahler may choose not to move from their centers, but Mahler doesn’t always find a way to move that commands our eye.

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