Mixed Quartet

Chicago Moving Company, Bob Eisen Dance, Gus Giordano Jazz Dance Chicago, and James Kelly

Choreography Project

at the Athenaeum Theatre,

November 8 and 13; repeating November 15

By Terry Brennan

When Mikhail Baryshnikov started to perform with the White Oak Dance Project a few years ago, many questioned why a primo ballet dancer would work in a modern company. Baryshnikov replied that there were only two kinds of dance–good dance and bad dance. When dancers like him are at the top of their form, they’re able to synthesize different styles, combining the elegant line of ballet, the creativity and intelligence of modern, and the dazzling speed of jazz. When choreographers give them pure dances–dances that don’t have a story and don’t focus on a particular style–the differences between dance companies seem to melt away.

James Kelly started his Choreography Project in 1991 as a conscious blend of styles; the Dance Chicago ’96 program describes the company as “based in jazz, ballet and contemporary dance.” His Strings/4/Glass/Dance starts with the music, a Philip Glass string composition. Kelly shows great musical intelligence, and his dancers perform beautifully. Clarifying Glass’s modern classical composition, Kelly gives it a third dimension, revealing its passion as well as its intelligence and restraint; Glass is a minimalist, Kelly seems to say, not because he has shallow feelings or little to say but because he’s determined to avoid histrionics. Matching the dynamics of each musical section, Kelly gives pensive segments duets, powerful sections the whole ensemble of seven, and aggressive music angular movements. He also keeps the dance alive by working against the music: in the quiet final pizzicato section he has all seven dancers moving in twos and threes across the stage. Then they suddenly stop and slowly raise their arms above their heads in a V as if in benediction. The choreography resembles Glass’s music–clean, inventive, spectacular technically, but not athletic, not showy, in fact almost demure. The restraint of the dancers, the choreographer, and the composer combined creates a simple dance that shows how much feeling a single melody or gesture can have.

In Sam Watson’s Chameleon, the dancers of Gus Giordano’s old-line jazz company are the spectacular athletes Kelly’s dancers choose not to be. They toss off fantastic lifts, such as a man holding a woman by one arm thrust between her clenched thighs and spinning her in circles around him. They move blindingly quickly, with rapid starts and stops that take both strength and control. This dance is filled with honest kinetic thrills–moments that make you gasp and your body almost rise from its seat. But the music, which was written for the dance by Rocky Moffitt, isn’t strong enough in itself to satisfy. Chameleon seems flatter and less textured than Kelly’s dance: the performers seem more dancing machines than people with a passion showing us what they love.

The modern dancers in Bob Eisen’s Quartet Variations Plus One dance as well as those in the James Kelly and Gus Giordano companies but seem softer and more yielding. Ultimately they evoke more feeling. Eisen doesn’t include spectacular male-female lifts the way Kelly and Watson do but instead creates big turns and leaps, from which the dancers land soundlessly. Giordano’s dancers showcase strength and muscles, Eisen’s coordination and control. Never seeming to struggle, they fly softly through the air. But the dancers seldom look at or touch one another. They seem to be moved through their paths by a higher intelligence, and become inhuman in a different way than Giordano’s dancers. Slowly Quartet Variations Plus One collects a deep sadness and isolation; it seems to live in a bleaker universe than Kelly’s dance or Watson’s.

Other pieces by these two companies are more representative of their usual styles. Eisen has always been an iconoclast, and his Memfigen is a parody of dances like Kelly’s and Watson’s. Instead of superhuman dancers there’s Eisen dressed in nothing but gray shorts, dragging himself across the floor and doing push-ups until he’s exhausted. Instead of chic, revealing costumes, there’s Anthony Gongora dressed in yellow underpants and a short, white pleated skirt, a cutoff shirt open to the navel revealing a pierced nipple. Luckily one person got the joke, and eventually the audience was laughing. Eisen’s deflation of the myth of the superhuman dancer is funny, aggressive, and bitter all at once. It seemed to shock the bourgeois but not to wake them up.

Michael Taylor’s Just Because for the Gus Giordano dancers is an exercise in jazz style–cookie-cutter romantic duets set to cookie-cutter pop love songs. The sense of dancer as machine became so strong that I felt I might as well have been watching machinery in a factory making some eminently disposable product like plastic spoons.

This Dance Chicago ’96 program also included the Chicago Moving Company, a modern troupe that presented two dances with clear messages. In On Becoming Ptah a voice-over reads a passage from the Egyptian Book of the Dead conveying a few good ideas–like “an ordinary life, lived extraordinarily”–as artistic director Nana Shineflug moves through a series of rather portentous shapes. Crash and Burn, about violence and selfishness in urban life, features bricks thrown around the stage and dancers clinging to handholds on the walls before they’re pulled down by other dancers. Unfortunately, this staging doesn’t convey the visceral jolt of previous performances at Columbia College and the Blue Rider Theatre, because of the limited set and the Athenaeum’s wide stage. Many of the company’s performers are apprentices and paled in comparison with the dancers in the other companies.

The three best dances–Strings/4/Glass/Dance, Chameleon, and Quartet Variations Plus One–share the virtue of a classical structure. Because they “say” so little, conveying no story, adopting a simple style, and focusing on accomplished motion, they reveal a great deal.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Gus Giodano Jazz Chicago photo.