Triple Electric

Deeply Rooted Productions,

Jan Erkert & Dancers, and XSight! Performance Group

at the Athenaeum Theatre, October 25; repeating November 20 and 30

By Terry Brennan

As the curtain went up a young woman in the row behind me settled into her seat and muttered at the stage, “OK. Entertain me.” I wanted to turn around and whisper to her that she should have come on a different night: this particular Dance Chicago ’96 program was devoted to the festival’s most experimental and serious troupes. But I held my tongue; she could decide for herself.

To my astonishment, the first piece spoke directly to her. XSight! Performance Group’s Lying Prophets/Cruel Fools is about the difference between entertainment and art; hugely entertaining and subtly artful, it juggles philosophical debates with cheesy circus acts. The ringmaster–a bony, bare-chested man with a tiny beard, dressed in a paper hat and black-and-white-striped pants–debates with a fool dressed similarly except for a tall paper dunce cap. The ringmaster, a kvetchy soul, just wants to entertain you; he loves dumb jokes and wants beautiful dancers, better lighting, a better contract, and a different agent. The fool, a dunce with wits who finds himself inspired, plays the subversive role with lines like “No one tells the truth when they want something” and “There is no mask like the open truth to hide lies. So go naked. It might be your best disguise.”

The ringmaster brings on his best act, his creatures of fashion–three women with long paper cones covering their arms so they look like the robot servants in The Jetsons; their simple routine is so silly and stupid that it’s wildly funny. Later the women return as creatures of passion, biting through the paper cones covering their arms to free their hands and dancing wildly around the ringmaster until their whiteface streaks and they look like women coming from Dionysian revels.

In the last moments the ringmaster and the fool stand center stage, a harsh overhead light obscuring much of their faces. The ringmaster complains that he just wanted a funny trick or two, but the fool’s obsession with truth has ruined his little cabaret. The fool responds, “Your show has never been more entertaining.” He’s right, you know. Well-observed truth is a great entertainment option–it wakes the audience up. When the curtain went down, even the woman behind me said, “That was really cool.”

Much experimental and art dance aims for truth without caring much about entertainment. What often affects an audience in these cases is the work’s visual or musical style. Jan Erkert’s work in progress Unweavings features a striking visual design–a ladder center stage reaches above the proscenium arch–and excellent, precise dancers in unusual movement. But despite many interesting moments, such as a duet between big, strong dancers Ginger Farley and Jason Ohberg and a duet between Paul Cipponeri and Suet May Ho suggesting a bitter domestic fight, the dance doesn’t cohere yet. It seems to be about spiritual transcendence, symbolized rather baldly by the ladder, by means of unraveling one’s ego, a thought Louise Cloutier suggests in her lyric song for the dance: “In that tapestry was a thread that was making and unmaking.” The movement itself sporadically evokes anguish and loss but looks like mud at this stage of creation. It’s stylish mud, however; the woman behind me thought Unweavings was really cool, too.

The duet Doubts About Waking, choreographed by XSight!’s Brian Jeffery, has great style and some seeds of truth, but its dreamy, introspective texture won’t engage everyone. At its premiere in 1995, Jeffery told me that he felt he’d finally found his perfect dancing partner in Julia Rhoads. Their duet, set during those half-awake, eros-drenched moments just before waking, is composed of languid, almost narcotic yet powerful movement. Several times Jeffery and Rhoads seem about to slip back to sleep, but their slipping draws them down into a current that pulls them back into waking and half-blind sex. In the final moments Rhoads leaves –an erotic fantasy, not a partner. The audience seemed to like the lovely dancing, but one of my companions said her mind was elsewhere.

The audience was positively turned off by Erkert’s Forgotten Sensations; the companion of the woman behind me grunted at the end as if to say, “There’s nothing to be said about that.” Actually, there’s much to say. The dance is about the sensual bond between mother and daughter; its characters are a mother and two daughters, and its plot is roughly the cycle of pregnancy, childhood, and adulthood. The mother (Erkert) holds her breasts as if imagining milk flowing through them, then lets her hands sink to her womb before she falls backward and squirms on a patch of grass like an infant in its crib. An open, sucking mouth is a motif for all three dancers. The fruit scattered on patches of grass suggests the nature of the bond–providing food and eating. The music is by one of the very few female composers of the Middle Ages. Erkert holds to her theme tenaciously, but because her insight is new she’s not able to bring the dance to a broad audience. Its feminist theme–that a woman’s body makes babies as much as it entices men–seemed to push an angry button in many audience members.

Choreographer Gary Abbott of Deeply Rooted Productions doesn’t have any question about women’s bodies in his Just Miss Sadie. The title character is a tease who rolls her butt at the audience in the opening sequence. When Miss Sadie is joined by two girlfriends, she turns into a prima donna who struts her stuff in front of her friends. At one point each woman falls and is caught by another woman–but Miss Sadie lets the last woman fall to the ground. So Sadie is cruel as well as vain. At least Abbott also shows Sadie alone, crying and lonely. But though his program note says that Sadie “can intimidate, challenge, define and uplift the spirit,” I had a hard time seeing how this hard woman could lift up anyone’s spirit.

Anthony Marshall’s solo In His Name reveals a similar confusion between sex and spirit. The dancer, Kevin Iega Jeff, wears nothing but a thong bikini; his body is buff, every muscle defined. But he doesn’t dance gracefully; he lands from his leaps with a thud and doesn’t form straight lines with his long limbs. And Marshall’s choreography has some howlers: through much of the dance Iega (as he’s called) is on his back, so all we see are his feet and crotch. Its religious music–gospel and African call-and-response–telegraphs the dance’s intention. But its feverish emotional tone makes sense only sporadically; for a few moments Iega seems a black Buddha sitting cross-legged in a spotlight and bathed in sweat. But most of the dance is dreary slogging and sexual overkill. The woman behind me said, “I hope the next one isn’t so long. I think he shaved his entire body.”

Iega’s program note for Church of Nations, which he choreographed, describes George Bush getting the consent of his spiritual adviser before beginning the gulf war. Asking whether churches can sanction killing, Iega ignores the fact that religions have always sanctioned wars and often instigated them. His note alone makes clear that we’re in the realm of piety, not well-observed truth, and unlikely to see an artful dance.

Unfortunately it’s not entertaining either, but deadly serious and stunningly obvious. Eleven dancers wearing clerical collars enter and sit in 11 folding chairs. Each dancer gives a Nazi salute to the audience before sitting down. Then they throw their chests open to the heavens; overcome by rapture, they see the error of their ways and contort their bodies in penance, writhing on the floor. Every moment is calculated–a symbol coming from the mind rather than the body–and feels lifeless. The choreography has no style; the dancers don’t change pacing, grouping, or relationship to one another but do all the movement in unison, nailed in place by their chairs. Iega has choreographed bows and an encore into the dance, milking applause shamelessly. I didn’t wait around to hear what the woman behind me would say; I got away from that bombast as quickly as I could.

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