at MoMing Dance & Arts Center

November 11 and 12

The Chicago Dance Medium, which has been around since 1974, bills itself as an “arts education” troupe and claims to have reached about 170,000 people–mostly schoolchildren–in its 530 performances. God knows we need more dance education, but judging by the company’s recent concert at MoMing (a program that will be repeated November 18 and 19 at the Dancespace Performance Center), I wonder whether this is the way to get it.

For one thing, the Chicago Dance Medium appears to be trying to reduce dance principles to some pretty elementary levels–not technically but emotionally and intellectually. But do we teach children poetry by reading them greeting-card verses? Do we teach music by playing the latest Burger King jingle?

The Chicago Dance Medium’s artistic director, Rosemary Doolas, choreographed three of this evening’s works; all of them display her basically sunny outlook and nice feeling for music. On the Water’s Edge (1987) looks pretty much like what you’d expect: several women (Katrina Barron, Julie Brodie, Laura Gould, Dawn Herron, and Debra Nanni) frolic on a beach, kicking the waves and tossing a ball. But the Vivaldi score has a rollicking sophistication that tends to offset the sometimes unimaginative choreography, and the dancers’ rhythm of tension and release occasionally works in an interesting counterpoint with the music.

The dancers’ preening, which in a performance last year had seemed offensively vulgar, now seemed more stylized and ironic. But Water’s Edge retains a disturbing thread of exhibitionism; during the dance two men loll in deck chairs, apparently either watching the women from behind their sunglasses or dreaming of them behind closed lids. OK, so men stare and sometimes women invite them to. But there’s a perverse sexuality to it that the dance ignores. Some of the movement seems to border on the obscene–at one point, the women straddle the floor face down with their butts hoisted up–but Doolas treats it all like good clean fun, and that seems odd.

Untitled (1988) is a gentle, inoffensive work for nine women dancers. All but one begin by simply standing, then each goes off her vertical, mostly with sweeping or gathering gestures of the arms. Again Doolas shows a nice feel for the music, which begins with some rather random gongs, and the dancers also move with a pleasantly random and slightly percussive effect. As the piece goes on, the dancers begin to look more like a conversational group, like people scattered about at a party, their gazes directed this way and that, separating or uniting them.

It would be hard to dislike this piece–it is gentle, in intention and movement quality. And it does have an emotional effect, especially when at the end the women touch their thighs, chests, faces, and then extend their hands to the audience, clearly offering the dance as a gift. Still, you hate yourself a little for responding, as you do when a “Reach out and touch someone” commercial comes on and causes a little catch in your throat. Moreover, I’m not sure the minimalist, abstract beginning works with the literal gestures of the end. I was most excited during Untitled when I noticed the dancers’ costumes were developing dark streaks. At first I thought it was sweat, but then I saw it was dirt. And I thought–that’s even better. Not poetic sweat but just plain old dirt.

Freefall/High Pointe (1986) starts out with a good, straightforward movement idea–that falling, whether real or the simulated, slow-motion variety, needs a center. The dancers (Patricia Ball, Herron, Lydia Taranco, Nanni, and Tom Siddoway) first perform Graham-style hard contractions while seated on the floor, like a stylization of women giving birth: heads back, arms up and flexed, legs turned out and flexed, hands and feet flexed, abdomens contracted like fists. Eventually they get up from the floor, and by swelling and rolling around their centers in apparent slow motion give the effect of parachutists in free-fall. What we see of the dancers’ absolute control contrasts nicely with the illusion of loss of control in falling.

But in its second half Freefall/High, Pointe falls apart. The dancers’ webby costumes, which I guess are meant to look like birds’ wings or kites, seem more like cumbersome, entrapping nets. The music, by Ray Lynch, seems increasingly saccharine and dopey, mere synthesizer gush. And even though some of the Dance Medium performers are very good–most notably Nanni and Herron–I’m afraid most weren’t up to the turning, tipping, almost off-balance moves this choreography demanded; the static “soaring” end looked far more earthbound than airborne.

Nancy Safian’s To Gather (1984, revised 1987) shows a much different sensibility than Doolas’s, and that makes for a pleasant contrast. To Gather is performed to various music, but all of it has a heavy beat; Safian’s choreography has a corresponding excitement. So it’s unfortunate that the piece is structurally weak, with ragged transitions between the different pieces of music and an ending that’s not only too short but tries to make up for that with a gimmick.

The only premiere of the evening was an excerpt from a performance-art piece, The Bride Who Is a Stranger, conceived and directed by Justin Hayford and Audrey Heller, cofounders of Industrial Theater. Although what was shown is only the first part of a work not yet complete, it provided more exciting, thought-provoking moments than any other part of the evening.

In voice-overs we learn that the new owner of a house is obsessed with re-creating the lives of the previous owners, one of whom was (or he imagines her to have been) a bride. Julie Brodie plays the bride, and Debra Nanni, Christine Nena, and Philip Smith her attendants. In what constitutes most of the action of the piece, they prepare her for an unnamed ceremony. Brodie is lovely, a physical beauty whose lusciousness gives her infantile passivity–she is manipulated endlessly, dressed and undressed and examined by her attendants–an unsettling eroticism.

This piece is loaded with chilling images, both visual and verbal images of sterility, of passivity, of emptiness, of incapacity. When the bride dully empties her pockets, for example, rice cascades to the floor like sawdust flowing from a dummy. It’s not the traditional rice toss. There’s a lot going on in The Bride Who Is a Stranger–perhaps too much–and I wondered where this bleak vision was headed. Still, its startling profusion of ideas, ideas that run wild and some times amok, grabbed my attention and imagination in a way the rest the evening had not.

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