at the Dance Center of Columbia College

June 14 and 15

Dance teachers from America’s colleges and universities got together at the Dance Center for the “National Faculty Choreography Series III”–and the results reminded me of my best college teachers. These dances were technically strong: physical, expressive, and not marred by academic stuffiness. But like college teachers everywhere, the choreographers sometimes rambled on in long-winded works without much apparent structure. Many of these dances were passionate, others witty, and a few were both. And one dance was sublime–recalling the philosophy professor who taught you how to think.

The American College Dance Festival is an annual week-long occurrence for college students and faculty; its board meeting was held in Chicago this year, and this concert was associated with that event. Woody McGriff, the series coordinator, explained to the audience that 38 dances were submitted; three adjudicators, including Reader critic Cerinda Survant, winnowed them down to just nine.

The most passionate dances explore an inner landscape in solos. Li Chiao-Ping’s Passacaglia combines expressive gestures with great power of movement. Chiao-Ping, a compact woman in a short black dress, achieves spectacular images–moving her arm slowly forward as if in water, then repeating the movement with increasing speed until she is frantically throwing her arm and body forward. The sequence resolves with a double turn and an arabesque that slowly melts. The entire sequence has a compelling dance logic and emotional power. But the dance does not tell a story; Chiao-Ping seems to be talking to herself rather than to the audience. She seems caught up in sadness; I sensed an innocence like that of a sheltered adolescent girl overwhelmed by the size of the world outside her home. Passacaglia rambles quite a bit, held together only by the musical structure of Henrich Biber’s baroque music and by the strength of Chiao-Ping’s emotions.

Martha Curtis explores a less innocent inner landscape in On the Tracks, which centers around trains. Curtis includes a Thomas Pynchon verse in the program: “No one drives the locomotive / No one tends the staring light / Trains have never needed riders / Trains belong to bitter night.” Curtis’s train is clearly the symbol of death, power, and sex established by Freud and perfected by Hitchcock and film noir directors.

Curtis’s movement is more lean and bare than Chiao-Ping’s; it does not express emotion so much as embody it. In one moment, Curtis stands in a vertical bar of light, as in the aisle of a train. An eerie siren combines with a repetitive, percussive melody to give a sense of a moving train’s click-clack. Curtis moves from one foot to the other, her arm up, as if riding a train standing up. It’s not a witty image capturing in movement a common experience–instead Curtis’s image is disturbing. Her train has an unstoppable momentum, like a life out of control. Shortly after this, Curtis moves into a horizontal bar of light, making a movement like throwing dice in a game of craps. At the end of the dance, the vertical and horizontal bars of light intersect in a cross, with Curtis at the center, crucified in the glare of an overhead light. The aim of Curtis’s imagery is to bring into focus the murkiness of the dark night of the soul; it finally resolves into religiosity.

Sue Cherry is as passionate as Chiao-Ping and Curtis, but moves out of the inner landscape into the terrain of relationships in a duet called What Where. It starts with two women (Cherry and Jean Nelson) standing close to the audience, their costumes and hair dripping wet. As we hear breathing in the music, Cherry lays her head on Nelson’s shoulder. They both spin and fall, their bodies leaving wet outlines on the floor, as wordless voices start an echoing chant. The dance, an abstract evocation of intense friendships between women, is held together by repeated movement, by sudden spins and reaching hands. The larger world of relationships that What Where inhabits is welcome after Chiao-Ping’s and Curtis’s introspection; thankfully, its larger scope does not reduce the clarity or conviction of its emotions.

A thoroughly convincing walk through the terrain of relationships, Stormy Brandenberger’s Memories tells the story of a first romance. The girl (Danielle Terese Knoll) chases the guy (Timothy Gimpel), putting her chair down to catch his eye. When he still doesn’t notice her, Knoll puts her chair down directly in front of Gimpel and tackles him. He gets away and, moving his chair, sits down again. Again she tries to tackle him, but this time she tackles thin air; she doesn’t seem to notice the difference. Knoll seems as much in love with romance as with a man. Such wry details fill Brandenberger’s dance, as well as an exact memory of the many stages of a romance. Brandenberger sidesteps cliches gracefully, as when Gimpel steps out of the dance to tell a story about playing with a balloon: he lets it go and catches it again, until he accidentally lets the string slip through his fingers. Brandenberger captures the callousness of young men, who play by pushing a girl away and then pulling her back, as well as the puzzlement of older men looking at their younger selves.

Memories seemed to me to have the clearest intention of the evening. But when Brandenberger talked with critics later, she said that the dance was not about a young heterosexual couple. She created the dance, she said, to represent how memories can attack a person. When the dance was performed with a white woman and a black woman, the audience saw it as a story about race relations. Gimpel’s monologue about the balloon was his own story; every dancer who takes the role tells a different story from childhood. Brandenberger claimed that she makes no distinction between men and women in her choreography–no particular movements are a man’s or woman’s. The clear intention I saw in Memories was my own projection, a story I created out of my own past, cued by the dance’s costumes, lighting, and casting. Dances can be remarkably plastic creations, almost Rorschach tests; an audience’s beliefs about sex roles and racial stereotypes are often projected onto them. At times contemporary choreographers use this ambiguity to their advantage–and struggle against it when they try to make a clear statement.

As the subjects of these dances moved away from self and relationships toward the everyday world, wit replaced passion. Shane O’Hara’s Guzu Guzu (it means “mumbling” in Japanese) starts with five folding chairs, painted white and stenciled with letters, placed in a row across center stage. A woman wearing a red turtleneck and black pants stands on a chair; a man dressed alike sits in the chair next to her. She hoots “Woo, woo,” like a choo-choo train, and rocks forward and back in the chair. The speed of her rocking increases until she rockets off the chair; she then declares “I don’t.” It seems to be visiting hours at the insane asylum, before the invention of Thorazine. Later the man stands up and declares “copy machine” as he makes hand motions mimicking sheets of paper being ejected from a copier; he chortles “typewriter” while slapping his chest with his hands in a way reminiscent of the staccato rhythms of typing. Later, while an M.C. Hammer song plays, the man folds his chair, puts it on his shoulder, and walks offstage, slipping into a ghetto jive walk; suddenly, the chair becomes a boom box that seems to splatter the M.C. Hammer song at the audience. I have no idea what it all means, but the split-second timing of the physical comedy was a pleasure to watch. O’Hara may have been just mumbling to himself, but it was wonderfully entertaining.

Wit can be more difficult than passion. We accept the introspective visions of Curtis and Chiao-Ping without understanding them clearly, and accept O’Hara’s nonsense; but when dances claim to make sense in the everyday world, we judge them by the standards of the everyday world. By these standards, Elaine Heekin’s and Bruce Walczyk’s Plod is a little flat. It starts well–Heekins and Walczyk hide behind venetian blinds set on the stage floor. They open the blinds momentarily, and we see them strike pose after pose. When they come out from behind the blinds, they throw bathroom plungers at the floor. It’s a wonderfully witty moment, as the domestic qualities of venetian blinds and plungers connect in the audience’s mind. But the moment unravels when Heekins and Walczyk pursue the plunger theme. A slide of a bottle of Mr. Clean detergent is projected on the back wall, as Walczyk crosses his arms to become Mr. Clean. A B-52’s song plays, about a woman doing housework who wants a man to treat her mean; and as slides of washing machines and toilet bowls are projected, Heekins and Walczyk become a couple caught in domestic drudgery. This section threatens to become as coy as a Mr. Clean commercial. At the end, Heekins uses a plunger on Walczyk’s heart, trying to jump start romance–an image that partially redeems the coyness of the middle section. But the venetian-blind section seemed only marginally related to the rest of the dance, which disturbed me in the same way a hole in the plot of a murder mystery might; it left a slightly sour aftertaste.

The experience of watching Edie Barnes’s Glade was more like biting into a delicious-looking hamburger only to find that it’s made of soybeans. Glade was made for seven student dancers, to an original new-age space-music score by David Durant. The dancers form clumps in different parts of the stage, all reaching arms or twisted torsos. The clumps re-form into trios and quartets, and fall back into a different clump in another part of the stage. The music and shadowy lighting are vaguely menacing, but the costumes seem to come from a different dance. Glade does not have a discernible subject, and the dancers were not technically strong enough for technique alone to hold my attention.

Wit and passion started to work together in Charles Abraham and Carol Childs’s Common Law. Set to a blues song by John Mayall’s band, Common Law presents a man (L.D. Burris) and his common-law wife (Childs). Image after image recalls the poverty of dusty southern towns described in blues songs. The dance has the sexual intensity of Delta blues songs too: Burris and Childs kiss; they roll across the floor in an embrace; and Burris lies on top of Childs in a straightforward mime of sex. When he’s hurt, she pulls him up–but she wipes her hands first. He carries her on his shoulder as she kicks, trying to escape. In the last image, Burris curls into a fetal position as if wounded, while Childs stands over him, like a tough woman glad to see her rough husband in pain. Abraham and Childs have created a dance with a story we all know, and they tell their story with wit and feeling. In the context of this program, Common Law is an old dance, created in 1982; the dance itself seems a little dusty and old-fashioned, like a history professor lecturing with passion about a society that no longer exists. Meanwhile note-taking students secretly wonder why the professor cares so much.

Shirley Mordine isn’t the passionate historian but the philosophy professor who teaches her students how to think. Excerpts from her Five Ecstatic Dances show that Mordine knows an immense amount about pure movement. She knows how to shade a footfall, so that the weight is taken on the outside of the foot; she knows how to make a position of the arm different from any other position of the arm in standard dance vocabulary; she can create the kind of lift where one dancer simply extends his arm and catches another dancer at her waist, then walks a few paces with her frozen in mid-flight. Mordine understands movement on a very deep level. Her professional company have been trained for years in her attention to detail, and they convey her vision well.

Like the philosophy professor who seems able to solve any logical problem but can’t quite explain the solution, Mordine has had difficulty composing dances that engage an audience. Pure movement, like pure thought, is an astonishing achievement, but purity separates itself from a workaday world that cannot appreciate the achievement. In Five Ecstatic Dances, made in honor of the birthday of a Chicago woman, Corky Warsawsky, Mordine is able to overcome this separation. She decided this dance should celebrate ephemeral life. Subtle shadings of movement convey the dance’s feeling of fragile mortality, bathing it in the elegiac final light of funerals.

The vocal music, by Benjamin Britten, Francis Poulenc, and Samuel Barber, is serious but joyful. The dancers (Ann Boyd, Catherine Wettlaufer Beuhler, Jeffrey Carpenter, Rebecca Keene Forde, Paula Franz, Carl Jeffries, and Daniel Weltner), dressed in peasant costumes, perform with utmost grace the abstract movement, never miming a gesture or an emotion.

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