Next Dance Festival

Frank Fishella, Paula Frasz, Carrie Hanson, and Winifred Haun & Dancers

at the Harold Washington Library, January 30 and 31

Next Dance Festival

Cerulean Dance Theatre, Amy Crandall, Cynthia Reid, Eduardo Vilaro, and Zephyr Dance

at the Harold Washington Library, February 6 and 7

By Terry Brennan

Eight years ago, Dan Wagoner came here to create a dance for the Chicago Moving Company. Approaching 60, he’d danced for Martha Graham and had been choreographing for decades. When I interviewed him, he was worrying about whether the dance was done or not. I asked, “How do you know when a dance is done?” He said, “A dance is something that takes place in time and space. You know it’s done when it has a definite shape, in time and space.”

Dance does not have a well-established aesthetic, such as harmonic theory in music or Aristotle’s theory of tragedy. Wagoner’s definition is as good as it gets, particularly for abstract dances. In fact, dance is perhaps closer to abstract painting than to other art forms, and stories abound of artists like Jackson Pollock looking at one of his drip paintings and wondering whether it was a painting yet. Only an intuitive sense tells the choreographer or viewer when the shape has been completed and the dance is finished.

The hard part is giving the dance a definite shape; this is the place where many choreographers fail. Gimmicks, props, and music can provide an instant identity; the Joffrey Ballet’s Billboards is much better known for using the music of Prince than it is for any of its dancing. An instant identity can be limiting, however, as any son who’s taken over his father’s business knows. Identity and shape are different; shape comes from the structure of the dance, while identity is what the dance is “about” according to the choreographer or press agent. Identity is the concept or surface of a dance; shape is its body.

On the second of three weekends in the Next Dance Festival, it was apparent that Carrie Hanson’s Lost Castle had both a highly imaginative identity and a definite shape. Eight dancers wearing black eye shadow and lipstick are the goth ghouls inhabiting the castle of the title, represented by a rather sketchy set. As the lights come up, two dancers stare out arched windows (covered with red and green panels) hung from the ceiling while two others sit on an oversize chair and one hangs from a bar by her knees, imitating a sleeping bat. Various strange and unexplained things happen: bottles hung on hooks are passed along a rubber hose stretched across the front of the stage; the dancers take off their shirts and wash them in galvanized tin basins; they finger paint the tunics–brightly colored plastic panels on chest and back–they’re wearing under their shirts.

The shape of Lost Castle has nothing to do with this business, however, but with the dancing itself. Hanson’s style is gymnastic, and she’s collected excellent dancers who handle her physically demanding movement with ease. The dance, occurring in episodes bracketed by goth stage business, usually takes the form of duets or trios; the climactic episode involves three male-female couples moving in unison in confined areas, so that even the climax has a sense of smallness and intimacy. Since the choreography includes relatively few lifts, the dancing happens nearer to the floor than the sky. And above all the movement is not showy; such modesty is appealing, particularly since Hanson is just starting to create dances.

Lost Castle is far from perfect. It’s emotionally flat, and all the goth business doesn’t make much sense. But it has lots of imagination and a definite shape. As Wagoner would say, it is a dance. Paula Frasz’s two pieces, on the other hand, have rather dull concepts and are shapeless too.

Frank Fishella and Winifred Haun differ greatly from each other in their approaches to dance identities and shapes. Fishella makes high-concept dances with clear identities established in the first moments. Haun takes a more radical approach and ignores identity at first; she shapes the dance, then lets the shape determine its eventual identity.

With Fishella’s approach, shallow, vapid dances are the risk. He almost succumbs to this danger in Cupid, Deflowered. Much of this solo, performed by Fishella himself, is mime: he plays Cupid as street hustler and go-go dancer. But during a guitar solo–the music is by Jimi Hendrix, arranged and played by Stevie Ray Vaughn–Fishella dances instead of mimes, and suddenly his rather florid concept solidifies into a clear anger that passion has been turned into cheap sex. Pure dance is what gives a piece its shape and communicates sharply and deeply. And Fishella’s Landscape of Desire III is pure dance–a romantic duet for two men (Fishella and Wilfredo Rivera). This piece sails along, from a stunningly romantic lift to entwined rolls across the floor. The push comes partly from the music: Metallica arranged for a cello quartet. Landscape of Desire III is a fine little dance, with imaginative music and a concept that’s realized succinctly and eloquently.

The risk of starting with a shape and no identity is creating a vague, meandering dance. But for Haun the risk sometimes lies in the opposite direction: she has immense enthusiasm, and when her dances fail the cause is sometimes an excess of ideas. Her premiere, Heedless, seems to be an honorable failure. Haun’s publicist told me before the performance that originally Heedless was going to be about mountain climbing, but that somehow in rehearsal the dance changed to being about distraction. The music is snippets of sound that start and stop randomly, and the dance moves fitfully in various directions but doesn’t go anywhere. Haun’s method is so intuitive that sometimes the elements of the dance don’t gel. And it’s typical of her enthusiasm to try to make a dance out of the broken pieces of one that fell apart.

Haun’s Bound does gel: a moment in which one dancer embraces another evolves until it becomes an image of entrapment. At one stage, three dancers begin to move in unison but three other dancers hang on them, their dependence preventing them from moving. This dance conveys a dream’s slowly unfolding surreal logic. At the climax, however, the dancers form a line at the front of the stage, each one in push-up position. A single dancer rolls under the line as, one by one, the others push off on one hand, then the other. It’s a striking image but seems to come from another dance entirely, shattering the dreamlike mood and making mincemeat of the dance’s logic. In other words, it distorts the shape.

The final program of the festival was dominated by works entirely invested in their concepts. Eduardo Vilaro announces the concept of his Herencia del Coyote in its first moment: a voice-over narrative tells us that, no matter the hardship, Mexicans will follow their coyotes and come to the United States. What follows is a series of images of Mexican men and women preparing to leave their homeland; they illustrate Vilaro’s concept, but the dance never really takes shape in time and space. It exists only in the words “They come.”

Amy Crandall’s To Have and to Hold, also a storytelling dance, describes a romantic relationship between a man and a woman. In her concept each movement tells part of the story, as the dance depicts a narrative translated from words and action. The second section, however, begins to have a shape. The man moves along a diagonal, advancing and retreating. The woman comes to join him and runs around him in circles as he repeats the phrase. Then he begins to run in a circle as she repeats his phrase. Suddenly he disappears, and she’s left alone in a spotlight. This definite shape begins to convey the anguish of death or abandonment.

Michelle Kranicke of Zephyr Dance follows the same strategy as Haun–letting the dance’s shape determine its identity–but her Tissue Thin ends up thin and vague. Cynthia Reid’s Legitimate Deception is primarily a theater piece and therefore has to be judged by different standards. The script, by Karen Rosenberg, is a meditation on Harry Houdini and the meaning of his obsession with being chained; it includes the line “Intellectuals are the easiest to fool–they’re used to fantasy explanations.” Unfortunately the script is too elliptical and the actors are often hard to hear; I lost track of the plot within three minutes. Reid’s direction is the strongest aspect of the piece: she introduces a pair of dancers whose innocent playing and flirting provide a sharp contrast to the power games of Houdini and his assistant.

The high point of this program was Cerulean Dance Theatre’s Experiential Moment, choreographed by Scott Putman. Cerulean has an ambitious mission statement: “It is our goal to present a dance aesthetic that inspires the imagination with the clarity of truth.” Astonishingly, they actually achieve their goal with this dance. The concept seems to be a breakthrough moment of transcendent clarity, sort of a “feelin’ groovy” moment in a much higher spiritual octave. The dancing is energetic, with exuberant, open bodies. The costumes are bright reds, oranges, and yellows. The movement is big and often risky; in one characteristic moment, three dancers stand at the front of the stage, then duck as a man appears from the wings and vaults over all three. It’s also consistently inventive; a dancer might start to take a big turn, stop halfway through, and melt to the ground, then the melt stops halfway to the floor to become a swing of the upper body leading into a little jump and a run across the stage.

The shape of Experiential Moment is like an explosion; the movement gets bigger and riskier until the final moment, when a man is thrown high in the air and the rest of the company catches him. Yet the dancing isn’t so much bravado–it doesn’t say “Look what I can do”–as it is ecstatic, saying “What a wonderful world.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Frank Fishella photo by Doug Birkenheuer.