The Seldoms

at Architectural Artifacts, September 10 and 11

There’s a civil war going on within the Seldoms–so civil, in fact, that the participants seem unaware of it. But the struggle between the company’s performance-art side and its dance side was on full display during the group’s recent concert inaugurating the atrium performance space at Architectural Artifacts.

On the performance-art side–crudely attributable to performance artist Doug Stapleton, who cofounded the Seldoms with dancers Carrie Hanson and Susan Hoffman–the company demonstrates an interest in space and in structures through work that pays homage, more or less, to the 19th-century tableau artists from whom the troupe draws its name. Chicagoans tend to be more attuned to the structures of architecture than of dance. And it was certainly cool to see Ode–a tribute to the original Seldoms–presented in a rear courtyard occupied by church spires, columns from the old Chicago Mercantile Exchange, and decorative piers from a Pittsburgh mental hospital.

But tableaux–mythological or historical scenes in sculpture or painting re-created by living people–are inherently static. One of this trio’s most interesting features is the contorted pose that begins it; also fascinating, if somewhat distracting, are Lara Miller’s highly structured, almost architectural white unitards festooned with what look like enormous pieces of macaroni. But the work’s movements are forgettable: random embraces, vague gestures, dancers standing nose to nose and then sliding their faces off to one side or the other. The piece is slow to the point of tedium, just a series of poses. Beautiful lighting (by Margaret Nelson and Josh Weckesser) makes the dance look good but hardly makes it a good dance.

Nor does having the audience move through the space necessarily make a work more interesting. After Ode, a pair of “tour guides” shepherded us up flights of stairs, after which we were invited to lean over railings to observe the restaging of a piece devised for the Chicago Cultural Center, now called The Reading Room. (Some of us sat instead, which meant looking at the piece as if through the mesh screen of a confessional. An interesting effect, actually.) The Reading Room takes a stab at balancing dance and performance: how does one dance about books? The result resembles a three-ring circus scattered across an area the size of several football fields: dancers on the stage at ground level, people conversing on the catwalks above, and “readers” racing up and down a stairway leading to a tableful of books, which they read from in mutters. The half-dozen female dancers lie onstage with their heads on books, then roll in unison, moving the books into different positions as though these tomes were their partners. Choreographed by Hanson, the piece displays the dancers’ superior ability and preparation. And as one narrator delivers his pointless speech from the upper deck, the dancers continue to drift across the stage and then run off into an area partially masked by pillars, giving the proceedings a transitory feeling evocative of New York subway tunnels.

The dancers’ comings and goings are intriguing and elegant, as they establish geometric patterns on the floor and mingle with male dancers in patched-up suits. But the vacuous texts made me wish the speakers would shut up and let the dancers do their stuff. Periodically the men run up the stairs and join others climbing around the enormous library table, reading jumbled bits and pieces or miming doing so as the narrator and another man exchange banal lines: “Does the book like me? Does the book like her?” Slides projected on the upper walls of the atrium show the domes in Preston Bradley Hall from various angles. If only the rest of the piece had been as respectful of what was worth looking at.

Dance triumphs in the final piece. Li’l Roy and the Weird Sisters tells with faux innocence the tale of a bumpkin Candide smitten with three women on display in some celestial circus. Roy himself (Stapleton), dressed in Regulation Rube complete with bad Elvis wig, is as annoying as only a character disdained by his creator can be–the piece’s highlights occur when Li’l Roy is offstage or lying onstage unconscious. The three sisters, all choreographed and performed by the brilliant Hanson, dance in succession: first the slinky Brunella, embodying come-hither with every step and gesture, lying down and rolling over and bending over backward and generally posturing in a negligee like a stereotyped bad woman in a movie; then the ethereal Aquamarina, who lunges and bends and kneels in supplication in her distinguished solo while wearing scuba flippers; and finally the leaping, gamboling Ruby, whose bright red hair connotes her ferocious energy as she zips around the stage, sometimes on a skateboard. Such innovation enhances the dancing, unlike the twee narrative about secrets, Li’l Roy’s abandonment by his parents, and the death of his fish. (Still, the best visual joke involves the fish: Li’l Roy crosses the stage in a real automobile holding a fish stuffed animal inside a glass bowl, but when the car makes its return trip, he’s holding a fish skeleton.)

Sometimes artistic efforts, whether novels or plays, retain the “scaffolding” that originally supported them. These supports usually stick out like a sore thumb once the edifice is built and should be eliminated. One wonders whether the same applies to the Seldoms’ reliance on performance art, an approach that may be useful in starting the choreographic thinking process but shouldn’t necessarily remain onstage. Certainly the high quality of the dancing argues for more of it. This company so interested in structure should consider getting the scaffolding out of the way.