at the Marjorie Ward Marshall Dance Center

Northwestern University

February 22-23

It’s great to see talented people stretch. Choreographers Christina Ernst and Sam Watson have been collaborating since 1986, under the aegis of Chicago Repertory Dance Ensemble; now they’ve got enough good work for a rich, funny program all their own, with help on the dancing from able-bodied recruits Judy Austin and Richard Havey.

Ernst and Watson have refurbished Color, a duet they premiered in 1988. The original Color was a likable, accessible dance about creative collaboration, but it had something of the air of a grave professor demonstrating the key points in his theories. Ernst and Watson have added a slapstick duet for a second couple and a coda that completely dissipate the work’s former haze of mild pedantry. Though Ernst and Watson, the serious first couple, wear what look like white union suits–minus the drop seats–Austin and Havey appear in busy, colorful dance-clown attire, the man in an exceptionally perky tutu, the woman in Madonna-style iron-maiden bra, and both in spotted capri pants (all the costumes, with the exception of those in one dance, were designed by Ernst and Watson).

The second couple’s movements are stagy and clunky, sad caricatures of Ernst and Watson’s graceful partnering: Austin clambers onto Havey’s shoulders with painful effort, scaling him as if he were Mount Everest. When Ernst and Watson reenter, now also ludicrously attired, the level of clowning escalates. A Balinese pose turns into a one-footed hop, the thumbs on splayed hands are suddenly sucked, noses are ringed with the thumb and index finger and honked. This is the other side of collaboration, when you’re in the studio dropping your partner on her head or fooling around, rudely grabbing parts of the other person’s anatomy–for Color, a necessary corrective to taking itself too seriously. The coda then returns to that seriousness–which looks even more serious by contrast. The most affecting part of the dance is when the dancers form two couples and the man and woman in each simply stand very close together and look into each other’s eyes. At this point a current seems to run between Ernst and Watson, and when each drops in turn to embrace the other’s waist it seems a deep expresison of mutual gratitude.

A new duet by Ernst, Metalina, left me cold. It’s too smooth and melodious, as is its new-age score by Danny Heines: the circular, continuous choreography has the same hypnotic effect as watching a mixer swirl cake batter. A few simple slaps of the feet on the floor come as a real breath of fresh air. And one of the older dances on the program, Unbreakable, though it can be fresh on a first viewing, doesn’t stand up well to repeated exposure–it begins to seem too bound to its props, a variety of glass objects. It could also be that repeated performances have taken away some of the dancers’ excitement at throwing bottles around the stage.

One of the neat things about this concert was the way Ernst and Watson have found ways of sometimes eliminating the dead space that’s apt to occur between pieces, especially in a small company. Unbreakable opened the program; when it’s over, the floor is still littered with glass objects–how to move on to the next dance? Well, the bow for Unbreakable is a kind of nonbow: the four dancers look at each other and audibly confer, bring out cardboard boxes, and start picking up the glass themselves. Soon the two women say to the men, “You clean up the space,” and walk off (to change clothes for Metalina); the guys pick up the rest of the glass, gibbering at each other the whole time–Watson goes on and on about Snow White and the Seven Dwarves–like two idiot logorrheic stagehands.

The last three dances on this program–Badum Boom, Tired, and Wired–also segued nicely from one to another; an unblushing deadpan opening provided the keynote for all three. The two women walk on holding what look at first like Dixie cups, but when they begin to flourish their arms, flamenco-style, sounds of baaing and mooing fill the air: they’re children’s cow/sheep noisemakers. Then the men come on with tiny tambourines attached to their dark jumpsuits, one tambourine on each breast, one on either side of the head, one in fig-leaf position, one on the ass, and several more in assorted other places. From there on in, the humor of the opening is all downhill.

Gradually they divest themselves and each other of these noisemakers, ending up in sober dusty black, and what I take to be Badum Boom proper begins. This trio, a new piece by Watson, is a stunner, here performed by Watson, Havey, and Austin; its percussion score (by R. Campbell and H.H. Coon) runs the gamut from African rhythms to military beats. This dance makes exceptionally clear something I’ve sensed before about Watson’s choreography: that it has the punched impetus of jazz dance but without the jazz-dance cliches. The drum music provides a particularly open, clean background for movement that is so essentially rhythmic that drama and melody are almost beside the point.

But though the rhythms of Badum Boom frequently–and satisfyingly–match the music’s rhythms, Watson cunningly surprises us with allusions and images that don’t match the score. Some parade music, for instance, produces what looks like Irish step dancing; and a belligerent military pose–hands on hips, legs spread wide–turns into a case of flamboyantly gyrating pelvises, to a drum roll that just won’t quit: can’t stop, the dancers seem to say, don’t wanna stop. Some of the choreography is utterly foreign to jazz-dance idiom: the dancers shuffle forward on their butts, for instance, in a kind of striding walk across the floor that’s entirely earthbound. Austin, a tiny woman who used to perform with the Hubbard Street Dance Company, is perfect for tossing: Havey picks her up by an arm and a leg and swings her around like an ax slicing the air, narrowly missing Watson, who dives to the ground beneath her. It’s an exciting dance, with a hit of danger, a hint of being out of control.

Badum Boom ends with all three dancers exhausted on the floor; Austin’s snoring wakes the other two, who exit. So now we’re into Watson’s Tired, a duet for the two women. Ernst enters in a costume my four-year-old daughter would die for: shocking pink leotard, tights, and tutu; silver hightops; elbow-length gold lame gloves; tiara and wand topped with stars; and a tiny bright pink handbag. She’s a combination evil mother-good fairy, waking Austin, dressing her, and feeding her chocolate, sugar, and a huge cup of coffee. But despite some good sight gags involving among other things tea-party chairs that are too small (set by Tony Padilla), I was disappointed in the piece: there ought to be other ways to show tiredness than pantomime.

Tired is meant to be a companion piece to Wired, an older work; both dances have shticks, but Wired has movement ideas to support the shtick. It’s also the funniest, most shameless dance I’ve ever seen: this must have been the tenth time I’ve laughed all the way through it. This dance packs more irresistible silliness into five minutes than there was in a dozen Soupy Sales shows. I’ve seen it with different casts, too, and no one does it better than Sam Watson, who choreographed it with the late Kenneth Comstock. Wired needs dancers whose inner life is so close to the surface it seems about to burst through their skins; and Watson is tensely alive, a dancer to whom props like electrical cords and lights are superfluous because his own electricity is so great.

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