at Link’s Hall

November 6-8

Anyone who titles a work A Political Dance for Michael Jordan to Do has to have an anarchic wit. It’s possible to imagine local hero Jordan as a dancer, but the idea of him as a politically committed dancer is beyond the limits of the imagination.

Faced with the impossible, in this solo Sheldon B. Smith gives us a portrait of a politically correct dancer trying to do the impossible. Smith starts by jogging around the Link’s Hall stage and waving at the audience, like Jordan during warm-ups, as a punk song hammers its unintelligible message. Just when Smith looks like he’s ready to launch into the meat of the dance, he signals to the stage manager to cut the music and asks for different music, for “a lighter, 60s sort of thing.” As an overproduced version of “If I Had a Hammer” plays, Smith’s character gets political; he hammers at an imaginary nail, first with a hand hammer, then a sledgehammer, until losing all control he flings himself on the ground, hammering at it with his fists. Smith’s hapless dancer tries Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra (a heroic pose) and Lennon’s “Imagine” (machine guns firing and bodies falling). In silence, Smith points to his open mouth, gestures and mimes speaking. A hand gesture of prayer turns into a gesture of being washed in water, as if being baptized. Two people argue, perhaps a boss and a wage slave.

All of this drifting imagery drops away when Smith’s character finds a gesture characteristic of Jordan–in moments of stress, he covers his face with his hands, his eyes peeping out between his long fingers. In a soft, painful phrase, Smith covers his face and slowly falls to his knees. If there can be a political dance for Michael Jordan, it is here, in the contradiction between our hero worship and the private pain the gestures reveal.

Smith’s anarchic wit is rooted in his inventiveness, which his 1990 dance Eat CrO2 shows. The title (pronounced “Eat crow”) is meant to allude to the chemical formula for chromium dioxide, used to produce audio recording tape. The piece starts with four dancers (Lauren Helfand, Christy Munch, Smith, and Heather Sultz) walking through the darkened space carrying boom boxes, spilling electronic music by Patric Cohen in shifting patterns of sound that are briefly mesmerizing. After the lights come up, the dancers do everything that can be done with boom boxes–leap over them, fight to reach them, swing them like discuses, huddle around a pile of them as if they were a fire. At the end, Smith pulls recording tape from a cassette and drapes it over Sultz as she lies on the floor with her elbow propped on a boom box. While individual moments of the dance are quite funny, Smith basically just lists movements possible with boom boxes; without a propulsive structure, this dance does not have an emotional payoff.

Smith’s Lark does; it is quite a beautiful dance. Three dancers (Helfand, Munch, and Sultz) move more quietly than in Smith’s other works, though the barrel turns and bounding swings are the same. The dancers keep returning to a curious pose–they lunge onto their right legs, the left hand curled in front of the solar plexus and the right hand held to the side. Moments when a dancer holds this pose while the other dancers make shapes around it punctuate the dance with stillness. Smith composed the engaging music–it starts with the sound of bells ringing and ends with the sounds of a farm–which carries much of the dance’s emotional burden.

A previous version of Lark used a score by Smith that spliced together bits of conversation–most of his scores splice together bits of sound; in fact his dances tend to be spliced- together bits of movement and theater. Smith’s Videus is perhaps the logical result, as he splices together video images and dance images as if they were videotape. Videus starts with Smith watching an old Katharine Hepburn movie; he starts copying her gestures, rewinding the tape to study each one. Seeing Hepburn’s gestures on Smith’s lanky body makes her acting seem studied and affected. Then Smith switches channels to a professional wrestler screaming threats at the camera. While three dancers (Amy Alt, Atalee Judy, and Dan Prindle) manipulate one another, Smith imitates the wrestler’s gestures. Bits of dance and videotape are spliced crazily together: a Renaissance dance turns around a human maypole; Dan Quayle says at the vice-presidential debates “Don’t believe what you see on TV”; Quayle stutters repeatedly; a dancer who has wandered off is ordered back into the group. The potshots this entertaining dance takes are usually at deserving targets.

The greatest danger of Smith’s anarchic wit is to himself, that he might not focus on one target enough to become a true revolutionary. His premiere Rawl Plug is a breakthrough, a real moment of revolution. In the last few years a kind of Chicago dance style has evolved, composed of equal parts Tim Buckley’s swinging movements and stamping steps and Bob Eisen’s idiosyncratic vocabulary of shoulder rolls and inturned steps. Smith employs this intentionally naive style, which looks extraordinary in the hands of skilled dancers, at double speed with four strong women (Alt, Jenna Hunt, Judy, and Julie Worden), to a driving score by Bruce Gilbert. Using a traditional theme-and-variation form, Smith creates a dance of pure movement with few theatrical elements. Hunt starts the dance with a lightning-fast rendition of the basic movement phrase; when she’s joined by the other three dancers they repeat the phrase, then start partnering each other–Alt steps over a kneeling Judy, who lifts Alt onto her shoulder and turns her. The dance ends with the precision of a videotape splice: repeating the basic phrase, Judy jumps on one leg while the other leg is extended in second position; while she’s in the air the music stops abruptly and the stage blacks out.

Strangely, my main impression of Smith’s concert is that he’s fascinated by recording tape. He uses it physically in Eat CrO2 and as a structuring device in Videus. He’s fascinated by the images and sounds that can be carried on tape–of Michael Jordan, Katharine Hepburn, John Lennon–and by the wide expanse of pop culture. Smith’s mind must be an interesting and chaotic place, but his best dances come about when he’s engaged with the outer world, particularly when he synthesizes current dance ideas in Rawl Plug. As a poet once said, “Poetry is what happens when the inner world meets the outer world.”

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