at the DanceSpace

February 22-24


at the Circle Theatre

February 22-24

“When MoMing folded, there was no place for young artists to present their first works,” says choreographer Tim Buckley. In MoMing’s “Dance for $1.98,” the audience paid $1.98 to see a program of wildly varying quality and styles by new choreographers. Afterward the audience voted for the best pieces, which were presented at a show called “The Best of Dance for $1.98”; the chosen choreographers often created a new dance for this second evening.

The series became a kind of institution. The audience got to play critic and watch the choreographers they liked develop as artists. The choreographers got immediate feedback about their work, recognition from their peers, and a shot at a chance to make a larger dance. The process incubated not only new choreographers but a new dance audience.

When Buckley became an artistic associate at the DanceSpace last fall, kicking off a performance series there with what would have been this spring’s “Best of Dance for $1.98” was a natural idea. Buckley and Rosemary Doolas, director of the Chicago Dance Medium, decided to call it “Standing in the Wings.”

This concert began and ended with a quartet dressed in white. Todd Michael Kiech’s untitled work in progress uses three men (Angel Abcede, Louie Miller, and Kiech) and a boyish-looking woman (Cheryl Bye) in white T-shirts, white pants, and white sneakers. As the lights come up, Kiech steps away from the group to start a sequence of loose, circular falling movements. A turn on the toe of his sneaker turns into a quick pirouette in plie. The continual momentum-filled movement is always under control and always fluid.

As the other members of the quartet join Kiech, we start to hear the sound track: an interview with AIDS activist Sharyl Holtzman. When Holtzman says, “Some people don’t think it’s a crisis,” the four dancers slide to the floor and lie still as corpses. When Holtzman says, “Some people say that it’s OK if they die of AIDS, because they’re not worth living anyway,” the four bodies arch as if touched by a high-voltage electrical wire. As the dance develops, the dancers begin a series of falls and lifts, interspersed with turns and moments of lying on the floor. Every dancer lifts every other dancer; no romantic couples emerge, only the fluid fear of a community in danger.

Leigh Richey’s Don’t Talk to Me, which ended this program, in many ways is the heterosexual parallel to Kiech’s work: a quartet dressed in white sketches a story with continual overlapping movements. Richey’s story involves two male-female couples (Joerg Chabowski, May Ho, Matthew Keef, and Sabine Parzer) who are fighting; she sketches the moment when the fights become emotionally and physically violent. Richey tells her story with painful accuracy.

At one point, Parzer slides across the floor to bury her hands in Chabowski’s stomach. Shortly afterward she runs at him, and he catches her by the pelvis, lifting her above his head. As Parzer relaxes, Chabowski carries her to the side, where he cradles her. Meanwhile the music has stopped; in the silence, Ho and Keef “talk” by slapping their hands on their thighs, like a couple that substitutes verbal violence for physical violence. In the last moments, Chabowski tries to embrace Parzer, but she throws his arms off.

The lifts in Don’t Talk to Me are romantic lifts of women by men; Kiech’s lifts are more egalitarian, as if the dancers were friends carrying wounded companions. Richey’s music, Handel’s Flute Concerto in D Minor, emphasizes the classical quality of the dancing. Kiech’s movement style is postmodern: it does not emote but concentrates on pure action, and the movement’s context is what gives it meaning. Kiech’s “music,” the radio interview, is the perfect postmodern nonmusic because it gives the movement the kind of context that traditional music could never provide. So Kiech’s and Richey’s works, though similar in some ways, elegantly distill different ways of making dances.

The choreography of Jeanette Welp, a member of the “multidisciplinary performance group” the Sock Monkeys, seems to be postmodern dance’s answer to the Marx Brothers. Welp begins her solo, Guava Five, by throwing shoes from behind the audience onto the dance floor. She then comes onstage, picks one shoe she likes, and throws the others off the floor. She puts on the shoe, a black sneaker, and dances in it, hopping, leaping, and swinging until the sock on her other foot makes her slip into the splits. Welp then plucks the other black sneaker from the side of the stage, where she has cleverly planted it. After dancing, mercifully in two shoes, for a few minutes, Welp starts singing to herself like a little girl dancing in her living room. Finally, she kicks one shoe off and walks offstage. After her bow, she picks up the spare shoes and garners another round of applause as she walks off with her armloads of footgear.

Welp’s A la la la la, for four of the Sock Monkeys, is equally quirky. Four dancers (Lydia Charaf, Winston Damon, Kay Wendt LaSota, and Bryan Saner) come out and sit on the ballet barres surrounding the dance space, each dressed in an outlandish costume. Saner, for example, is wearing a bright orange 60s blouse with huge shoulder pads and pants striped black, white, and orange that are fringed with rhinestone necklaces. To begin the dance, Damon swings off the barre and crawls slowly to center stage. Meanwhile Charaf runs back and forth across the front of the stage, jumping onto a radiator on the left and hoisting herself onto the ballet barre on the right. At the same time Saner calls out the movement: “Step, step, shuffle, shuffle, step, step, step, jump,” and LaSota slouches across the floor, her long arms making Garbo shapes. For dancers familiar with postmodern dance, this is wonderful parody. For everyone else, it’s simply wonderful silliness.

The pieces by Kiech, Richey, and Welp were the evening’s most accomplished; the remaining four pieces succeeded only partially. Colleen Halloran’s Retreat, which was originally presented on the much more spacious and better lit stage of the Dance Center of Columbia College, did not work well at the DanceSpace. At the Dance Center Retreat was a moody piece, the performers slipping in and out of shadows as they pursued mysterious goals. The DanceSpace couldn’t provide the same atmosphere, and so the audience saw only the bones of the choreography (performed by the same four women, Kathleen Aharoni, Halloran, Maria Pedrara, and Myrna Vasquez).

Halloran’s choreography is delicately developed from simple walking movements and hand gestures. A gesture such as a woman touching another woman’s hair is presented in the foreground, for instance, then shown in the background but varied: a woman touches the hair of a prone woman, or the hair is tossed to cover a woman’s face. Halloran told me that Retreat was inspired by her grandmother’s death and by her own observation that when someone needs help, people tend to back away. Halloran and her company only rehearsed twice in the DanceSpace, and they didn’t have time to adapt the dance to these new circumstances.

The two solos Deanna M. Cato choreographed can be summarized simply as lovely black women dancing in lovely black dresses. In Freedom Bound, danced by Suzanne Sealy, the dress is covered with white ropes, so the dancer resembles a runaway slave on the underground railroad. In Self-Portrait, Vanessa Truvillion danced in gauzy sleeves that ended in gloves, reminding me of a black widow spider: the dancer as femme fatale. The costumes said everything.

Neither solo developed the movement; they were catalogs of movements that the dancers had perfected. Each dance was lovely to watch but the experience was a bit like eating candy: too sweet and bad for you. Curiously, both dances reminded me of Ruth St. Denis’s dances from the beginning of the century. St. Denis relied on costume and exotic movement to communicate her ideas. The tradition of black dance in which Cato clearly places herself started with Katherine Dunham’s re-creations of African rituals, which like St. Denis’s dances relied on exotic costumes and sets. Modern dance did not start until some of St. Denis’s pupils, such as Martha Graham, found other ways to communicate ideas. Perhaps a black Martha Graham will someday redefine black dance and find other ways to say what it wants to say, but as long as black dance relies on St. Denis’s brand of exotic externals, it will be condemned to prettiness.

Douglas McMinimy is billed as a performance artist; his specialty is setting movement to poetry. In “Dance for $1.98,” McMinimy captured the British poet Stevie Smith’s whimsy, delicacy, wit, and oblique references. For “Standing in the Wings,” McMinimy has tried an antiwar poem by Bertolt Brecht, “Ballad on Approving of the World.” McMinimy’s square movement is as clean as the white dress shirt he wears, but he is not able to parse Brecht’s poem in such a way that it’s more understandable for us. Setting movement to poetry is precision work, balancing words against nonwords; only sparse words and strong movement can succeed. McMinimy was unable to find that balance, to find a compelling movement vocabulary for Brecht’s astringent intellectualism. Without that interplay between word and gesture, McMinimy’s work crumbles.

Brecht’s poem describes the rise of Nazism from the point of view of a Marxist; that is, as Brecht saw it. Near the end of the poem, Brecht mimics Nazi salutes: “Heil, heil, heil, heil . . .” But a dance audience unfamiliar with Brecht’s life might think the poem was protesting the present Middle East war and become confused. And a naive audience might not understand the irony Brecht intends by these salutes and wonder why this seemingly sympathetic, liberal dancer is turning into a Nazi before their very eyes. McMinimy’s failure to orient his audience to Brecht’s time seemed to create just such confusion in the DanceSpace audience.

Doolas and Buckley hope to continue “Standing in the Wings,” and plan to add a series called “Best Foot Forward” for first dances by new choreographers; the best dances in “Best Foot Forward” would be shown in future “Standing in the Wings” programs. But Buckley says, “It won’t be exactly like MoMing’s series. We don’t need to just copy something.” We can only hope that Doolas and Buckley will continue to present new choreographers, under whatever name they choose.

New choreographers do still emerge sometimes in the traditional way: like Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland, they just decide to put on a show. At the Circle Theatre in Forest Park, a few blocks from the terminus of the Lake Street el line, Chambre Dance Company presented ballet in a chamber setting. Interspersed among the 16 short dances on the program were a few genuinely funny bits, some interesting ideas, some moments of good choreography, and a lot of romantic dross. (Chambre Dance’s premiere was linked with “Standing in the Wings” by the presence of Douglas McMinimy, who performed three pieces in the first half of the show, then rushed to the DanceSpace.)

The best moment in the Chambre Dance evening came when the group’s artistic director, Michael Colin Reed, danced Anna Pavlova’s “Dying Swan” on pointe and in drag. Reed pushes the dancing into wild parody; during the extravagant arm gestures that represent the swan beating its wings, Reed breaks out of a rapturous expression to stare at his hands in wonder: what are they doing? At other moments the familiar choreography overwhelms Reed’s parody; we remember pictures of Pavlova and curiously see Pavlova in Reed’s muscular body.

Reed’s pas de deux for Edward Scissorhands titled The Our Heroine Meets Edward and Ends Up Liking Him a Whole Lot and I Think the Feelings Mutual Pas de Deux, danced by Reed and Lisa Arnold, illustrates an interesting idea for a full ballet, which Reed plans. Pauline Kael noted in the New Yorker that Edward Scissorhands is a romantic figure for the 1990s: a vulnerable, isolated boy who can’t help hurting himself and everyone around him. Classical ballet focused on romantic figures of the 1890s; a romantic figure for the 1990s would be great. And Edward Scissorhands provides a physical metaphor that could work well in dance.

The most valuable contribution here was by Douglas McMinimy. The clean lines of his movement style and the asperity of his personality came as a relief after Reed’s lush romanticism. McMinimy’s best bit was Exchanging Pleasantries, in which Lisa Arnold acts out her discomfort at a party where a valley girl complains that her father bought her a BMW in the wrong color, and an outrageously effeminate gay man laughs at a woman whose plastic surgery was botched by her husband. But in his solo pieces, both here and at the DanceSpace, McMinimy does not marry his movement style to the sensibility of the poet; every poem gets the same movement. McMinimy’s choice of poets–Stevie Smith, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Bertolt Brecht–suggests an intellectual cast of mind rather than a feeling for the poetry.

The quality of the dancing on this program was mixed. Reed and Anne Santiago have been well trained in ballet, although they were underrehearsed and not rhythmically accurate in many of the dances. In Frederick Ashton’s pas de deux from La Fille Mal Gardee, they were extremely charming, winding a pink ribbon around each other, making it into a bridle, a leash, and a cat’s cradle. Donna Von Lehman’s jazz dances seem out of place in a ballet company. McMinimy’s performance pieces are also out of place, but the company tries to integrate McMinimy’s pieces in a way they do not try to integrate Von Lehman’s dances.

At the moment, Chambre Dance Company is a ballet version of summer-stock theater: young dancers playing to an indulgent audience. Before the 20-year-old Reed can achieve his dreams, years of seasoning will be required. But then Mickey and Judy were never discouraged by their youth.