Chicago Human Rhythm Project

at the Athenaeum Theatre, through July 20

Zephyr Dance Ensemble

at the Harold Washington Library, June 28

By Laura Molzahn

In my early days of dance partisanship I hated professional sports. Why were all those lunks with brains the size of a polka dot getting tons of money and international exposure when dancers, who are so much more deserving, were starving and scrambling for audiences? It was no accident, I grumbled to myself, that sports were dominated by men, while dance–especially modern dance–was a female domain, and had been since the days of Isadora and Martha.

But having suffered through my share of dull dance concerts, I now appreciate the finer qualities of sports events (though I still don’t want to go to them). At the very least there’s a story: who’s going to win? Since most sports fans take sides, there are good guys and bad guys. And the unfolding story produces suspense: Who will help? Who will hinder? Who will deck a cameraman? Sporting events definitely produce high emotion; there’s just no subtext. The linebacker who charges the guy across from him isn’t expressing/repressing his homosexuality. Or maybe he is, but it’s not anyone’s intent that we come to that conclusion. And finally, jocks–like dancers–often perform amazing physical feats driven by some higher power: consider Michael Jordan.

Watching the dancers during the seventh annual Chicago Human Rhythm Project, I realized tap dance has a lot of the same appeal as sports–and it’s also traditionally been dominated by men, though women are becoming more prominent. No winner is ever declared during a tap concert, of course, but the competition among the dancers is obvious, as each takes a turn and tries to outdo the others. During the performance I saw, Ted Levy even said to his predecessor onstage, Sam Weber–who’d wowed the audience and been called back for a second bow–“Thanks, Sam, for making it hard for me.”

Levy and Weber–clearly the evening’s standout performers–are very different stylists, however, so the competition was good-natured. Weber, who formerly danced with the Joffrey, incorporates ballet with tap, performing multiple turns while pattering away, skimming across the floor. His carriage is lifted, head high, neck in perfect alignment, arms in classical positions; more than this, his routine is fully under his control, structured and supremely self-confident. Levy’s style is much more casual, even conversational–indeed, he often mixes talk and singing with his dancing, which tends to come in fits and starts. He uses looser music, and his whole body says, “I wonder what I’m going to do next?”

That spontaneity–an aspect of sports events too–is something I missed at times during this concert, in which many pieces were choreographed and looked it. The Especially Tap Company (directed by CHRP director Lane Alexander and Bruce Stegmann) in particular relies on what seem to me rather staid routines, performing in unison or in patterns spelled out right down to the movements of arms and heads. Clearly following in the tradition of Broadway show dancing, their movement often looked old-fashioned and stagy–as if there might be a subtext we were supposed to “get.” The dance rhythms didn’t do much for the music (by the Orbert Davis Combo) and vice versa, and the unison tapping was sometimes muddy. Especially Tap’s percussion piece, Stick to It, rips off such groups as Stomp and Jellyeye Drum Theater but seems more silly than clever or primal. A piece choreographed by Alexander and performed by the accomplished North Carolina Youth Tap Ensemble was similarly ho-hum; however, the troupe acquitted itself well with Savion Glover’s Feet Just Do It, a straightforward a cappella rhythm piece.

Another Chicago group–the all-female Rhythm I.S.S.–fared better than Especially Tap: its four women surprised me at times, tapping in counterpoint with one another and using the stage imaginatively. Freed, not bound, by the choreography, they expressed themselves rhythmically and personally.

That self-expression–again, as in sports, lacking the artificial construct of a story or message–is one of the coolest things about tap dance, and it was much in evidence throughout the evening. Jorge Hohagen was skinny and tightly wound, an intense presence in red socks–a little cock of the walk who exploited his own slight stiffness with exaggeratedly stiff kisses to the audience at the end of his brief solo. Dianne “Lady Di” Walker, a big woman with dainty hands and feet, has developed an elaborately gracious persona, presiding over this occasion like a well-bred hostess, overstating her “feminine” politeness just enough to suggest irony. And Jay Fagan, of Especially Tap, at times fairly burst with the energy of the rhythms inside him.

Indeed, almost every dancer had his or her moment; the finale, which featured all the performers, was a virtual bacchanalia of good cheer, the dancers’ faces split by grins as they fooled around, moving into and out of the choreography. And it seemed that those having the most fun–like Ted Levy–were the ones doing the most fooling around, expressing their individuality. It seems that spontaneity, self-assertion, and the open acknowledgement of competition can make people more generous and tolerant. And that’s a lesson that goes well beyond the boundaries of the dance world.

Chicago’s Zephyr Dance Ensemble–an all-female troupe formed in 1989–is a modern dance company whose goals and methods are nothing like those of sports or tap dance. I don’t mean to take this group to task for simply being what it is, but in the context of the tap dance performances of the Chicago Human Rhythm Project, Zephyr’s concert seemed constrained and overpolite. Just like so many women in their private and public lives.

Consider The Men’s Project, which featured three professional and six nonprofessional male dancers in a hodgepodge of movement put together by the six members of Zephyr. If Zephyr wants to reverse traditional gender roles in dance and choreograph a piece entirely for men, that’s fine; but the amateur-professional factor throws all bets off. We end up marveling at how much better the professionals move and wondering whether we’re meant to politely ignore the awkward nonprofessionals. Similarly, Regina Klenjoski’s Weekend Warriors–a group piece about sports–overlooks the opportunity to embody athletes’ focused energy. Instead we get a jokey piece about jocks at their most ridiculous, fooling around in shirts bearing silly nicknames. And Emily Stein’s Somnium is a pretty, well-made dance whose reason for being isn’t very clear.

Michelle Kranicke, Zephyr’s artistic director, produced the most successful dances in terms of the goals modern dance sets itself: to create an emotional mood, to suggest subtext, to invent and arrange. Her complex Memory Slipped, set to music by Arvo Part and Patti Smith, shows considerable artistic development, away from the nicely formed socially pertinent or humorous dances she used to make to something more mysterious and emotionally challenging; so does her premiere, One Big Shrieking. But that piece was marred by a major tech fuckup: for several minutes a part of the sound design repeated when it wasn’t supposed to, and the stage was empty. Modern dance can’t deal with such mistakes–it’s too ordered and controlled for an unexpected circumstance to be anything but a disaster. Whereas in tap dance and sports, the unexpected is an opportunity.

Given our stereotypes of male and female, tap dance is male–extroverted, unselfconscious, competitive–and modern dance is female: introverted, hypersensitive, and community oriented. Sports, of course, are ultramale and could do with a good dose of the feminine. But fortunately no gender has the corner on spontaneity, which enlivens all sorts of community events, whether on the field or onstage.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Chicago Human Rhythm Project.