Lauri Macklin

at MoMing Dance & Arts Center

March 8-11 and 16-18

The work by Lauri Macklin that I’ve seen–and it’s been regrettably little–has been vibrant, passionate, powerful, and most of all precise. Yet within that precision, Chicago choreographer Macklin discovers a playfulness that makes her self-consciously constrained vocabulary human.

Unfortunately in her new dance-theater piece, The Mountain, Macklin does not exploit her own particular genius. The scenes she creates, based on “images and stories about living in a corporate world,” are generally muddy. The Mountain seems not quite fully formed, as if it were still exploring itself, trying to find the form that would most successfully communicate its ideas. While a few images come together nicely, showing the dramatic potential of Macklin’s sensibility, most of the piece hovers in a state of uncertainty.

Macklin’s agenda in The Mountain seems to be to reveal the insidious dehumanization demanded by the corporate world. What makes this dehumanization so terrifying is that it is done in the name of “the family.” We hear a voice-over early in the piece telling us in a soothing tone that “corporations embrace a feeling of family,” but that “your success depends upon your being totally accepted by the family.” Sections from the book Dress for Success, read in voice-over, perfectly encapsulate such pseudo-fascist ideas, explaining that you must give up all personal preferences in order to fit into the corporate system. The dancers, clad in identical charcoal gray suits with cool yellow ties, generally perform exactly the same routines as everyone else onstage, routines that seem automatic, as if the dancers had been trained rather than rehearsed.

In contrast to this impersonal corporate family Macklin creates a “real” family–father (Dan Prindle), mother (Macklin), daughter (Jenna Weglarz), and son (Thiago Lima)–dressed “casually” and behaving in a purely playful manner. They are full of spontaneity, although it’s rather forced between the adults, as they simply fool around together, playing tag or doing silly dances. Once the father finds himself forced into the corporate environment–he’s stuffed into a charcoal suit by two “corporate” dancers–the family unit falls apart. Mother and father can no longer talk to one another, and the children can’t get father off the top of a ladder to play with their balloons.

All of these ideas are ripe for theatrical exploration, but what’s missing is specificity. The corporate people are depicted as interchangeable, which seems right, but they’re not really people to begin with. They exist simply as symbols of the corporate mentality, so I’m denied access to them as individuals with whom I might share something. Similarly, the “real” family seems rather superficially drawn. They’re so generalized, without any particular strengths that might make them more human than the corporate family, that their violation by the corporate family–the central tension in the piece–lacks authenticity.

In general, Macklin’s images remain curiously one-dimensional, lacking the kind of opposition that has been the hallmark of her choreography. For instance, the corporate people remain disappointingly static. I didn’t discover anything about them beyond their wholesale belief in the corporate system, a belief that the piece clearly holds in contempt. The corporate people are simply equated with their roles. I longed to find the things that put them at odds with their corporate roles. I wanted them to seduce me into understanding their faith in corporate America.

The one moment that breaks through this barrier occurs late in the piece. All of the corporate dancers have performed a long sequence in which they incessantly repeat an “office pattern”–going through file cabinets, putting flowers on a desk, crumpling up pieces of paper. Once this extensive routine has produced a beautiful accumulation of crumpled paper at the front of the stage, all of the dancers begin to sing a haunting chant in lovely four-part harmony. They sing with their backs to us, slowly congregating in the pile of papers, and then begin spinning, faster and faster, as they sing. For the first time these performers seem human, connected, and endowed with emotion. Seeing them spin amid the garbage is powerfully sad. Because this image is so specific, without being limited in metaphorical associations (like the father’s ladder, which was the “corporate ladder” and nothing else), it opens up possibilities, introduces ambiguities, that give it complexity and truth.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Robert C.V. Liberman.