Forward Motion

Dance Chicago ’98

at the Athenaeum Theatre, October 9 and 14; repeats October 24

By Terry Brennan

Medieval artists found transcendence in Jesus’ suffering. Bach tried to build a circular staircase to heaven with counterpoint. Ignoring God and human society, Keats and Tennyson aimed to find direct spiritual access to nature. Christian mystics spoke of seeing the face of God in moments of religious ecstasy, though the brilliance of God’s face forced them to turn away once they’d glimpsed it. Transcendent moments tend to slip away, and true religious ecstasy often feels like torment rather than comfort.

Why do we try to attain transcendence and ecstasy, states so unnatural to us? In part artists may be acting out of commercial motives, trying to fulfill their audience’s fantasies. More likely, artists desire ecstasy as much as their audiences do. But ecstasy is like infinity: no number, however large, is infinite, and no performance, however profound, is truly ecstatic. A person must find ecstasy within; you can’t buy it through Ticketmaster.

Most of the dances on the “Forward Motion” program of Dance Chicago ’98 orbited around the sun of transcendence. Half the dances aimed for ecstasy; not surprisingly, none quite worked. Others rejected ecstasy in despair and anger; these were the most moving, most humane pieces. And a few made gentle jokes about this illogical desire; in their own way, they were the saddest dances. The ecstatic dances all used the same approach: large ensembles of skilled dancers in virtuoso movement. All had fast tempi and high energy levels, which often didn’t vary much. All included quite a bit of balletic movement, but few selected a single movement vocabulary.

In Melissa Thodos’s Piece of Peace, two men and six women dance in a yellowish light strongly suggestive of sunlight. When all eight excellent dancers are onstage, the sense of fluid mass is thrilling. Usually there are two duets or trios onstage simultaneously, each group moving in unison but differently from the other group. This gives a sense of richness, of having an abundance to look at, but it’s also confusing: Thodos doesn’t provide the visual clues for an audience to determine which group is foreground and which background. The impression is of a lot of not very distinguishable stuff. Similarly, Thodos chooses interesting minimalist music by Steve Reich for the second section but doesn’t follow the music when it changes dramatically. Glorious to look at, the dance has a strong kinetic effect but doesn’t develop or climax.

Changing Tides, by the Chicago Moving Company’s Cindy Brandle, uses the same strategy–a mass of dancers in ensemble movement–but because the dancers are less skilled, the piece doesn’t work as well. Brandle sets her piece underwater, with aqua costumes, aqua light, and watery music. Brandle chooses water, Thodos light, and Brandle uses more modern dance movement than Thodos, but neither choreographer gives her piece enough variety or texture. It’s hard to identify a specific mood or feeling in either dance.

The relatively new Moose Project, directed by Paul Abrahamson, offers contemporary ballet in There’s Always One, set to Corelli’s contrapuntal music, using the strategy of ensemble dancing and adding a strong classical element. But since many of the other companies blend ballet so seamlessly with other forms, Abrahamson’s solely balletic approach seems dull, and the dance is forgettable.

Scott Putman’s Experiential Moments for Cerulean Dance Theatre has the greatest potential for a truly ecstatic experience. In another performance I saw, it soared. But this time, with these dancers in this context, it didn’t take off: ecstasy can’t be forced. Putman uses the same strategies as the other groups but his choreographic craft is greater: the music, by Vanessa-Mae and Andy Hill, alternates intense and quiet sections, which he uses in an overall crescendo; he has a better sense of stage pictures; and he doesn’t rely as much on chestnuts like male-female partnering.

The most successful ecstatic dance here was the one with the smallest ambitions. Jan Bartoszek’s The Story’s Body, performed by Hedwig Dances, takes as its subject the love of books. In one of two excerpts, a woman reads a book as a trio of dancers evoke her flight of imagination. The woman with the book is a distraction, but the trio of Joan Pangilinan-Taylor, Shannon Preto, and Peter Sciscioli dance well. Bartoszek uses the twisting, fluid movements of contact improvisation as her source and builds them into a satisfying whole. It helps that she limits her scope to the ecstasy of reading; her dance isn’t overburdened with metaphysical freight.

More interesting than any of these are two dances that reject ecstasy to focus on dark emotions. August Tye’s X for Tyego Dance Project features stunning dancing, but Xsight! Performance Group’s Valentine is more moving. This dance-theater work is about love betrayed–by death, by cowardice, by the desire that destroys love. The piece opens with a dramatic stage picture: a woman in a long white paper dress with a newspaper train intones, “Open your book–try to remember what you once knew.” Two men in white suits and two women in long white dresses are barely visible on the dark stage. The most striking section is composed of double duets, as a man and woman kiss and embrace behind a blood red ribbon stretched across the stage; another couple standing at opposite sides of the stage slowly furls the ribbon, creating a powerful if abstract sense of doomed love. To me, Valentine is the final AIDS piece: after the rage has been exhausted, the only things left are grief, love, and loss.

August Tye’s X is powered by anger, not grief. It starts in fairly undistinguished fashion, with a horde of men wearing black suits and carrying briefcases rushing onstage, followed by a horde of women in ties, white dress shirts, and tight, dark miniskirts. A nightmare urban scene, it’s very different from the delicate pedestrian choreography on actual city streets. At first X seems a generic jazz dance set in the dangerous city. But then the women go up on pointe, and the pointework is seamlessly integrated into the jazzy choreography. The ensemble dancing is good, but two pas de deux are stunning, particularly the one danced by Aimee Tye and Jason T. Wiser. Tye starts on pointe, her legs spread in second position, then throws a sizzling, hip-grinding vamp at us. (A man in front of me, who shouted “Work it, girl,” captured the sleazy bar flavor of Tye’s moves.) When the hapless Wiser comes onstage, Tye pulls him by his hair to his feet and climbs all over him; at one point she bends back, grabs her ankles with her hands, and slides the arched circle of her body slowly down his, supported by thin air. This duet’s astonishing technique and absolute showmanship underscore its kernel of emotional truth. Tye’s bitch goddess comes straight from the dark heart of pop music.

Two other dances use humor to puncture our obsession with transcendence. Jason Ohlberg’s Venus for Same Planet Different World begins ominously: five dancers dressed entirely in black, with black gauze masks completely covering their faces, look like insects. Suddenly a body with blond hair and wearing a white and red dress rolls across the stage under their feet: it’s Venus herself, here a skinny man in a platinum wig and white strapless evening gown that keeps falling off his bare chest. Venus eventually seduces all the black-clad dancers, who vanish one by one beneath her voluminous skirt. We may yearn for the stars, but we spend a lot of time scheming how to end up between Venus’ legs.

Bob Eisen’s minimalist A Place, Revisited mocks all the conventions and obsessions of theatrical dance. During the intermission, a bare-chested Eisen stands onstage while three female dancers wander through the lobby and auditorium carrying boom boxes playing different kinds of music. Eventually everyone ends up onstage, and they all dance a little. Playing games with the audience’s expectations about music and dance, the piece is fun but not terribly satisfying, partly because it’s a rehash of dances Eisen has done on previous Dance Chicago programs. Caught up in the various companies’ attempts to bring a little of the divine to earth, I found Eisen’s cool-headed questioning of their attempts a little pedantic.

The goals of ecstasy and transcendence may be misguided, impossible to achieve, but I don’t want dancers to stop trying. We can’t really understand divine logic. But the attempt to storm heaven excites me: even failure makes it clearer what it means to be human. And rejecting transcendence out of anger or grief is particularly moving: the denial itself reveals our piercing need.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Bob Eisen photo by William Frederking.