Joe Chvala and the Flying Foot Forum

at the Dance Center of Columbia College, April 25-27

Imagine six dancers: lips blackened, faces gray and gaunt, wearing white shirts, narrow black ties, trench coats. After 17 minutes of a ferocious, pulsating war dance, they assemble in a military line. Hands bent like claws ready to tear flesh, feet pounding loud, angry rhythms, they growl as they walk decisively toward the audience. Lights down. End of show.

Charming? No, but powerful. And agitating. And as annoying as hell. Choreographer Joe Chvala give us hell onstage, all dressed up in a sophisticated, finely tuned extravaganza of motion and rhythm. Problem is, although Chvala’s work is all dressed up, it goes absolutely nowhere.

I can’t deny that Chvala creates visually striking, brilliantly executed groundbreaking work. He’s done the unthinkable: melded tap dance, clog dance, drumming, and visual elements to create a shockingly new and powerful performance genre. But beyond that, it’s bankrupt. Because Joe Chvala forgot one essential element of art: meaning.

The final piece, Berserks, offers homage of sorts to the original berserks, “a Norse warrior cult dedicated to Odin and the ecstasy of battle,” according to a program note. The dance was created in collaboration with Savage Aural Hotbed, a percussion ensemble like Jellyeye that creates similarly mesmerizing rhythms. But unlike most of Jellyeye’s work, the rhythms in Berserks are militant, agitating rhythms, and Chvala exploits them in his choreography. Wearing tap shoes and manipulating batons and long poles, the six dancers take these rhythms into their bodies, then let them come screaming out, pounding the ground here, clanking sticks there, and jumping high in an amazing show of bravado.

Visually, Chvala exploits these rhythms to the nth degree, creating a sophisticated blend of MTV-like surrealism and European-style angst. The piece opens with the dancers in a V formation, lit from behind and surrounded by an enormous cloud of fog. Gray-faced, they resemble Kafkaesque bureaucrats with their uniforms of ties and coats. As they pound out violent rhythms in a myriad of eye-catching ways, the dance grows more frantic and angry until it virtually engulfs the audience.

On the surface this is great. Good art often does engulf the audience. But once art draws the audience into its folds, it should say something. For all, its technique, this is where Chvala’s work collapses. Rhythms aren’t some theatrical plaything like black lips or red batons. Rhythms are real. They can transform human emotions and behavior. Berserks is a volcano of violent emotions–violence for violence’s sake, without context or resolution. And to agitate as powerfully as it does, without providing the audience with a deeper meaning or purpose, is artistically and morally irresponsible.

Even more disturbing is The Red Walls, a visually captivating piece described in press material as “an attempt to escape from a desperate and undefinable fear.” With their driving rhythms and stark red and black military images, Chvala and Savage Aural Hotbed create that fear onstage, trapping their dancers and their audience inside it. The piece is peppered with potent images: Nazi salutes, military clothing, sexual violence. Chvala doesn’t comment on these. They merely spring out in the frenzy of the dance. Again, the problem is that this piece has no context or resolution. Does he condone fascism and rape? He sure dresses them up in interesting clothing. By drawing the audience in with the power of his rhythms and visual images, is he trying to manipulate us into thinking that we, too, might be capable of fascism and sexual violence? That all we need is the right music? Again, agitation can serve a noble purpose. Without a purpose, it’s irresponsible.

Chvala opened the evening with All Creatures Now Are Merry-Minded, a lighthearted, even silly dance in stark contrast with the other two–a sign that Chvala isn’t obsessed with violence. It’s a tap dance to some lovely fugues and inventions by masters of classical lightness: Bach, Handel, John Bennet. But for all its foppery and “charm,” this piece suffers from the same malady as Chvala’s others: it has no point.

It seems that Chvala is hiding behind his talent. He’s afraid to say what he really means, to take a stand on whether the reality he creates onstage is good, bad, or stupid. And in the end that’s what it becomes: good, bad, and stupid all rolled into one.