at Marjorie Ward Marshall Dance Center of Northwestern University

January 19, 20, 26, and 27

Xsight! Performance Group, appearing at Northwestern in what was essentially a college exhibition, had their young audience firmly in hand–alternately laughing, puzzled, and charmed. And they did it despite a minuscule stage with a horribly awkward entrance and no wings and a berserk thermostat that kept everyone sweltering.

It helped that Xsight members know how to get in and out fast; they don’t carry much excess baggage. The seven dances took just a little more than an hour to perform. Of those seven, three were taken from Xsight’s performance last spring, “All You Can Eat and Other Human Weaknesses”; a fourth, Sudden Summer, is arguably the precursor of a leather-bar trio that appeared in “All You Can Eat.” (Xsight dropped the TV-spy-show thread that supposedly linked the segments of “All You Can Eat”; so much the better, though I must admit I missed the rubber turkey.)

Xsight is gifted–abundantly and in about equal parts–with humor, an opennness to raw aggression, and sexual tension. Its three members–Brian Jeffery, Timothy O’Slynne, and Mary Ward, all award-winning dance artists–form not just any old threesome but a peculiarly volatile romantic triangle (though “romance” is too nice a word in this context). The apparently shifting loyalties in Xsight create a sense of both claustrophobia and centrifugal force–they threaten to fly apart at every moment. It’s a sense so innately dramatic that we can watch these three work through the same personal dynamics over and over again, in various guises, and not be bored.

Figure Heads best exploits the group’s gift for hostility. All three are entombed downstage in a big black box with three holes in it just big enough for head and neck to stick through. The first part of Figure Heads has a “things coming out of the mouth” theme: the three spit their kazoos at us; Ward pretends with admirable realism to vomit, and then the other two “vomit” Ping-Pong balls at us; tongues slide out like fat, slimy snakes or wag so hard you’re reminded of Punch beating Judy over the head. Later the group assumes some very strange affects, glaring at us and drawing down the corners of their mouths so far that their faces resemble masks of tragedy, all deeply scored lines, the tendons in the neck rigid. Still later they play visual tricks on the audience, Ward assuming the role of giantess. The piece concludes with Jeffery making nasty faces at us while a “blind man” tries periodically to smash Jeffery’s head with his cane.

What’s unusual here is not so much the hostility the characters show each other as the hostility they show us. Audiences aren’t used to being attacked, and it’s both exhilarating and frightening. I felt a bit like a child having her first encounter with a big, red-mouthed clown shooting off a fire extinguisher.

Figure Heads is also very funny. O’Slynne seems to have a knack for extorting laughter in this particular way: as the narrator in his full-length ballet What Are We Going to Do With Mary? or, The Schizophrenia of Preston Carlisle, he took the performer’s prerogative–I have the stage, you don’t–and ran with it, threatening and insulting the audience and then taunting them with their prescribed passivity. The only response was to laugh. And that’s the only response to Figure Heads, though your heart beats fast–how far will they go?

Tormento’s humor is more conventional. Ward plays the heroine, stylishly cool and retro in her skintight leopard-skin tunic and short skirt, harassed by faithless lovers, a boring job, a compulsion to eat and drink, and advancing age. Though Ward’s comic gifts are considerable, Tormento finally degenerates into a cartoonish maelstrom, characters and objects flying wildly around the stage.

Not so with Wired, a small, brilliant comic gem. There aren’t many dances that produce belly laughs. Wired never fails to. Choreographed by Sam Watson and Kenneth Comstock (Watson is currently a member of Chicago Repertory Dance Ensemble, as are all three Xsight performers; Comstock was until his death a few years ago), the dance is usually performed by Watson and CRDE member Joanne Barrett. As bizarre as Wired has always been, Jeffery and O’Slynne have unhinged it still further; they make the rough edges in this spazzy dance even more jagged.

Here we see personalities, not dancers. Which happens often with Xsight. Ward, O’Slynne, and Jeffery are all blessed with hypnotically strong presences onstage, perhaps because all three are just plain knock-down-drag-out sexy.

Sexual competition is Xsight’s keynote, but you can never quite figure out who’s competing for whom. Under the usual romantic conventions, it would be the two men competing against each other for the woman. But given Xsight’s powerful hints at homoeroticism, the “competition” becomes far more obscure. As shifting, as phantasmagoric as alliances are in this group, I think it boils down to O’Slynne and Ward competing for Jeffery, the subtlest and “quietest” of the three onstage. At the same time, all exude an air of such tolerance, such willingness to include whoever has just been excluded, that an orgy, not heartbreak, seems the likeliest result.

That orgiastic sense informs Sudden Summer, a dance premiered almost three years ago. Like many Xsight works, it plays with contrasts: the Edwardian costumes, the parlor-game atmosphere are juxtaposed with the violence of the sexual fantasy at its core. And its dreamy, drugged, slow-motion movement belies the heat of the lust, jealousy, and anger that fuel it.

Ward is the ostensible object of desire, and her lascivious laugh at the end seems to say this is her fantasy. But her passivity throughout sometimes makes her seem merely the conduit between the two men: she’s rolled between them, carted like a sacrificial lamb by one man and delivered to the other, and, after she seems to swoon, is dragged across the floor in turn by the two men. Other images, however, imply parity and an idyllic unity: each dancer lays a head on the shoulder of another, the three forming a circle; their glances flit from one to another as easily and serenely as birds.

Sudden Summer, for all the transparency of its “dream” structure, is emotionally pretty tangled. That tangle, however, and their taste for excess have so far proved Xsight’s ticket. It will be interesting to see what this volatile mix produces in April, when they show new works at MoMing. But they have my hearty wishes for a long and happy marriage.

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