at the Harold Washington Library Auditorium, October 22 and 23

Winifred Haun, who’s had her own troupe for only two years, is getting very good at telling a story, giving us just enough information to fill in the blanks ourselves. Sometimes the subject or situation is fairly clear-cut–as in her 1991 piece about drinking, Close My Eyes, and the piece she performs with bass clarinetist Gene Coleman, It’s Both–and getting the subtleties across is a matter of the dancers being good actors. But more and more her success hinges on the choreography, which suggests not just a flow of feeling in combination with the music but characters and a situation–obliquely, of course.

What makes Haun’s dances even more interesting is that, though some things may be clear as a running brook, others are teasingly murky. In It’s Both the relationship between the dancer and the musician is obvious. Haun begins and ends in a position of power over Coleman–kneeling on his back like a succubus and, at the end, putting her chin in her hands with a Cheshire grin of triumph. But through the rest of the piece, when he’s playing, he’s oblivious to her, concentrating on the blats and squeaks of his clarinet. And that makes her mad. He’s imperturbable, gentle, and she’s wildly antagonistic, banging her elbows, then her palms, down on a metal folding chair; slamming down the chair itself; sticking the tulle pouf on her rump in his face; aggressively turning her back on him; sitting with her hands over her head and pushing her feet into the floor like someone irritably digging her toes into the sand.

It’s Both might be a relationship dance if Coleman weren’t so pointedly a musician and Haun a dancer, which makes us think allegorically. Is Haun saying that dance is dependent on music? Or does her kneeling on him before and after he plays indicate that music doesn’t exist unless a dancer lets it loose? Does a choreographer feel trapped by her music, hostile to its dictates? Or is she in fact largely independent of its rhythms, as Haun is in this piece? Then again, maybe a dance so whimsical isn’t meant to support such ponderous ruminations.

Remake, which premiered earlier this year, is an “abstract” quartet to music of Anton Webern, danced here by Tammy Cheney, Zineb Chraibi, Heather Girvan, and Dana Gilhooley. Yet somehow I can’t help seeing it as a dance about women, and not just because all four dancers happen to be women. Through a combination of clever choreographic and lighting choices (design by Catherine Young), Haun expertly foregrounds certain dancers–one, sometimes two–in each section. But all four remain onstage throughout, and the corps establishes a base for the main action. In fact the dance as a whole is like a frieze from which figures emerge to enlarge on the experience the frieze depicts.

In the first section the dancers’ arms and hands often suggest the graceful, servile, receptive, and self-censoring poses of women in traditional Eastern art. They hold their arms before them, gently cocked at the elbows, palms up, heads tilted slightly back. They draw both hands in to cover their mouths. They cup their breasts, then push their cupped hands toward us, offering themselves. But while the corps sits or kneels, the soloist (Girvan, in this section)–who may hold her arms or gesture in the same way–is moving around the stage, and her activity itself seems a kind of protest against the passivity of the other women. It isn’t the movement alone that acts on us: undoubtedly the tortured music adds to the impression of anguished comment. And it’s possible to see the contrasts between soloist and corps as purely formal: they move slowly, she moves quickly; they’re close to the floor, she towers over them. Yet later in Remake Girvan performs a curious task: she literally reorients the dancers one by one, lifting each from where she’s been rolling slowly, turning her, then laying her back down with her head in the other direction. Knowing that Haun made a dance two years ago, Remember, inspired by the Clarence Thomas hearings, I can’t help but see this as a deeper, more compassionate, more hopeful vision of women’s differences.

In her premiere on this program, At Her Music, Haun experiments with text, taken from Susanna Kaysen’s book about a teenage suicide attempt and subsequent hospitalization called Girl, Interrupted. So the story is built into the concept, but what’s striking is the way Haun dramatizes the feelings behind Kaysen’s ironic prose, featuring one dancer (Cheney) as the protagonist and using three others (Albert Espinoza, Gilhooley, and Marquita Levy) to represent sounds, other characters, a kind of Greek chorus, the protagonist’s feelings–whatever’s necessary. The method is something like what she used for last year’s Who’s Child? (also about institutionalization), but here the story is incorporated into the piece instead of simply a program note and the dancing comes across less as narrative and more as pure drama.

There’s a certain macabre humor in the first part of At Her Music. When the word “died” pops out of the text (read by Holly Cardone), Cheney drives her hands into her own belly as if committing hara-kiri. The protagonist’s taking of 50 aspirin tablets is represented (long after it’s mentioned in the text) by what looks like a tea-drinking ceremony, the chorus delicately popping in pills and sipping. While the narrator is saying that having her stomach pumped was “a good deterrent” to more suicide attempts, the three dancers grab Cheney’s legs and literally hold her back. When the narrator talks about the hospital attendants’ intrusive behavior, checking on patients constantly, the three dancers punctuate, like bells chiming, the phrase “Swish, click, “Checks!”‘ (door opening, door closing, officious announcement), which the narrator uses to express her despair–because somewhere along the way the irony does give way to despair.

It’s in the middle section of At Her Music (danced not to spoken text but to Scott Silberstein’s percussive sound design) that Haun really dramatizes the protagonist’s sense of loss. As if to illustrate an earlier expression in the text–“murdered time”–Haun has the chorus repeat motions with metronomic regularity, something like a ticking clock, while Cheney moves freely; yet the way Cheney moves into and out of sync with the chorus’s movements hints that she’s marking time too. Her series of quick jumps followed by several quick looks side to side are repeated later by the chorus, like paranoid thoughts the protagonist can’t escape.

Formally the chorus’s movements counterpoint Cheney’s, but emotionally they establish the protagonist’s milieu and state of mind. And it’s that double gift of beauty and meaning–also evident in the wonderful ensemble piece East 90/94, in which the problems of commuting stand for all the obstacles, confusions, and frustrations of our lives–that Haun has become so adept at giving.

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