THE BRAIN-DEAD CONTESSA: A MULTIDISCIPLINARY SHOWCASE
Chicago Dance Medium
Whenever a concert is billed as a showcase, you know you’re in for an evening of mixed results. Chicago Dance Medium’s “The Brain-Dead Contessa” was no exception. The ten pieces presented–by various artists in various media, all in some way responding to the phrase “brain-dead contessa”–ranged from delightful to confusing to banal.
The most impressive pieces were by choreographers Bob Eisen and Rosemary Doolas. Eisen’s Ten Minutes and Doolas’s Drought and Persona are clearly drawn, carefully styled, and expertly executed. Ten Minutes, a solo dance by Eisen, is at once obvious and completely mysterious. He simply enters the space, sets an egg timer for ten minutes, and then performs a series of enigmatic yet emphatic dance gestures before his allotted time is up.
The mystery comes from Eisen’s apparent need to explain something to his audience, something that demands his immediate attention but that forever eludes him. This tension is present from the first moment, as Eisen stands simply staring at the audience, seemingly on the verge of making an important statement. When no words come, he points toward the egg timer and then leans a bit to his right, as if that might explain things. When that doesn’t work, Eisen’s body language becomes more and more intricate, until finally he is violently shaking his head back and forth, his tongue flapping, and then slamming his hands into the floor.
Eisen is too intelligent an artist to allow this piece to dissolve into sentimental drivel about the frustration of missed communication or the honesty and primacy of nonverbal language. Rather, the more intense and complicated his body language becomes–and every gesture is performed with virtuoso precision–the more seriously he commits to the act of communication itself, trying to explain some intangible point for all he’s worth. It’s almost as if the dancer were working through some very complicated problem in his head, in a charmingly personal and tantalizingly ambiguous process that unconsciously infuses his whole body. All the clues are there–carefully articulated hand gestures, intense facial expressions, clearly delineated movement phrases, sudden silences–but those clues refuse to reveal anything but their own status as clues. In a sense, Ten Minutes ingeniously shows us how a body can mean rather than what a body can mean.
Doolas’s Drought is remarkable not only in its poignant portrayal of three brain-dead women but in its ability to stand up to Laurie Anderson’s “O Superman,” the sound track. The three women–Julie Brodie, Dawn Herron, and Debra Nanni-Janes–buzz urgently about the stage in pursuit of nothing. Their intense yet completely empty stares heighten the melancholy that this piece engagingly creates, especially when the women scuttle toward one another, arms extended as if ready to embrace, and then simply stand awkwardly a few inches apart, their arms apparently unable to register any affectionate impulse. The piece also has its grotesque moments, as when Brodie’s arms seem to short-circuit, jerking up and down with such vehemence that whiplash seems imminent.
Most impressive about Drought were the candid, psychologically full performances of the three dancers. They did not resort to cheap, robotlike personae but instead divested themselves of soul, staring vacantly yet longingly, unable to comprehend anything around them. This made the piece at once funny and powerfully sad.
Persona, a work in progress, joins these same three women with two others, Christina Brake and Ellen Cook; they bounce around the stage like startled penguins. Their bouncing stops only when they become inexplicably intrigued by the most uninteresting of events: they all stare with great interest as two dancers find their feet moving in unison. Throughout all of this a rather smarmy-looking man in black (Carlos Mercado) skulks about the stage, preening in a mirror. His connection to the piece seems tenuous at best, and eventually you just stop paying attention to him. Though Persona is clearly unfinished, its images show an intriguing evolution of the images in Drought.
Jeanette Welp presented an interesting if highly confused performance piece, When the Moon Comes Over the Mountain. A formally attired man (Bill Dietz), after earnestly trying to create the illusion of a flying kite onstage by using a tiny model kite and an overhead projector, opens the fire-escape door to admit two women clad in early 60s garb and carrying lit sparklers. They run through a hysterical ultramod dance/runway-model routine. From that point the piece falls apart, degenerating into a stream of shouted non sequiturs that are written on the overhead projector and on a big piece of white paper unsuccessfully taped to the back wall. Momentary images are remarkable, however; my favorite was the three walking barefoot and kicking their shoes along in front of them. The performances too were laudable, especially Dietz’s: he handled quick, irrational character changes with great subtlety. But finally the elements remain disparate rather than jelling.
Cocoon/II, choreographed by John Schmitz and Sandra Schramel and using film and slide projection by Norman Magden, left some remarkably potent material frustratingly unexplored. Two (uncredited) dancers performed, one in white with lovely butterfly wings strapped to her arms and the other in black and on pointe. Behind them and on top of them are projected images of butterflies and of the dancers themselves, performing the same movements on film that they’re doing onstage. Despite Magden’s technical proficiency, the piece seemed rather one-dimensional and almost accidental. So many images were shown that I couldn’t focus on any, and the choreography was buried. I have seen two other, similar works by these artists, and I also left them disappointed by their lack of clarity and specificity.
Joe Hanc’s solo dance piece, The Oldest Part of the Cemetery, suffered a similar fate. In this piece a voice-over recounts brief histories of certain people buried in a cemetery while Hanc gawkily pulls himself around the stage, constantly using either the floor or an invisible prop for real or imagined leverage. While some of the stories are entertaining–one of the men buried is reportedly the only person in history to marry, make out his will, and die in the same day–the voice-over and the dance seem to cancel each other out rather than play off one another. In the end I was unengaged.
Mourning is a cute but frantic mime piece created by Martin Kappel and Victoria Calvert. Performed by Kappel to Prokofiev’s Lieutenant Kije suite, Mourning begins in a rather funereal tone, as a figure in white lies corpselike on a wooden stand. After waking, this figure puts lipstick and rouge on her white mask and then pretends to go out shopping for the day. While the piece is generally cute and harmless, I found the image of the woman born to shop an irksome stereotype, especially since the piece was performed by a man.
The other offerings left me cold. Krista Willberg’s Get Back is a completely tame, jazzy dance piece that meanders nowhere despite the best efforts of its three talented dancers, Jamie Alagna, Lezlee Crawford, and Herron. Live jazz also found its way into the evening, played on the piano by Bradley Parker Sparrow and sung by Joanie Pallato. Though I’m not qualified to judge their musicianship, they certainly seem to have an Attitude.
An untitled dramatic scene written and directed by William Bullion rounded out the evening. This is the story of a man in tatters who, after a lifetime of searching, finds the brain-dead contessa but feels none of the satisfaction he’d hoped for. This scene sadly omits all the essentials–good acting, interesting dialogue, and drama. But somehow from the midst of this quagmire emerged an absolutely brilliant performance by Christina Brake as the brain-dead contessa. Sitting eerily still with the poise of a porcelain doll, and only allowed to move her head from side to side, Brake commanded my attention; her utterly expressionless face somehow revealed a scream of agony far beneath the surface. How she came to be part of the painfully amateur scene I’ll never understand.