at Link’s Hall

April 3-5

Chicago’s many showcases for new choreographers often carefully state that they show “emerging” artists. “The Next Generation Project,” sponsored by Jan Bartoszek’s Hedwig Dances, also carefully states its purpose: to present the best choreographers to emerge from the other showcases–the promising choreographers who may form the next generation of Chicago modern dance. Bartoszek does not include every new choreographer who matters, but her choices are wise: this is an interesting group.

And it’s a young group. Their dances are filled with fears and obsessions that they can’t always overcome. They contemplate adolescence, relive bits of childhood, and look inside themselves. They are very much caught up in the storm of early adulthood, with its attempts to find and live by values that will last longer than the next fashion trend.

Rebecca Rossen and Vicki Walden’s Eating Your Heart Out feels as if it were composed as an anguished confession but is surprisingly lighthearted in performance. Women’s obsessions with food are examined from the point of view of the obsessed. Rossen starts the dance with an open-eyed look at the audience as if she were looking into a mirror; when she starts jiggling her buttock with her hand, to see how fat she is today, her absorption is so ridiculous that we laugh.

Rossen and Walden’s movement centers on obsessive rituals involving food: smashing rice cakes to bits or carefully stacking them; carrying armfuls of marshmallows or standing under showers of them. When the dance is over the stage is littered with rice-cake chunks, marshmallows, discarded clothing, and shredded lettuce and cabbage.

The dance’s voice-over and food props make clear connections between food and sexuality–the narrator says, “She does not masturbate. She eats instead. It is her one passion. It makes her feel guilty.” Later a woman (Atalee Judy) stuffs stale marshmallows into her brassiere and tights to create lumpy falsies: food as a literal sexual attractor. Perfectionism can also encourage food obsessions: in the narration a woman talks about her compulsion to live by outlines and lists, and about the time she tried to vomit–to vomit up the tentacles of obsession she felt growing in her belly–but could not even vomit the food she’d eaten. Rossen and Walden find that food affects a woman’s ability to form relationships with other women; in the voice-over two women speak, echoing each other, saying “I had the perfect body; you had the perfect face. I told you which boys I liked; you got them.” The way that fear, neurosis, and innocence settle around issues of food for many women reminds us that food is tied to love, sex, confidence, and the sense of self.

Of course obsessions can be pretty boring to everyone but the obsessed, but Rossen and Walden get around that problem by fanatical, almost obsessive devotion to their subject. It’s stirring to see them escape a neurotic obsession through an obsession with a higher ideal.

In her solo Door Julia Mayer McCarthy also seems to be haunted–by something that floats above her, out of our sight. With great absorption she wipes her face, rubs her hands, rocks, pets the sole of her foot, and drags herself across the floor. After collapsing and lying motionless, she pulls herself to a sitting position and draws the outline of a door with her finger. A program note, taken from James Baldwin, tells us that “one does many things, turns the key in the lock over and over again, hoping to be locked out.” McCarthy seems to embody that repetitious turning of the key, the obsessive repetition of a significant act. In her last gestures McCarthy seems to back away from the locked door.

The small, formal beauties of McCarthy’s duet with Hollis M. Johnson, called Heading, might easily be overshadowed by the other dances on the program. This duet about friendship communicates through small changes in the structure of the dance: Johnson and McCarthy start at opposite corners of the stage, but each ends up in the other’s corner. By the end they perform fluidly in unison the sequence of movements that McCarthy performed fitfully at the start–the dancers seem to be teaching each other a movement language. The Radon Daughters’ original score, which sounds in sections like an electronic accordion, matches the slowly rising warmth of the dance. Carla Jean Mayer made body casts that are hung by metal chains from the ceiling, creating an eerie environment.

McCarthy’s delicate feminine energy could not be further from the raucous, boyish energy of Bill Dietz and Jeff Levy’s Emotional Pollution. Dietz and Levy use loud nouveau-punk music from the Pixies and Primus and set the stage with gorgeous but uncredited screens that seem to be made of tanned animal skins. Dietz jumps from behind a screen and dances wildly. Then Levy comes onstage to set doll furniture and Ken dolls on a table while he talks about living on Pleasant Avenue and waiting for Ken to knock at the door. Levy starts to take the dolls’ clothes off and asks Dietz, “Do Ken dolls have penises?” They tussle, and the tussling turns into a dance with lifting and falling, then into a game of tag. Levy goes back to the table and re-creates their lifting and falling duet with the Ken dolls, while Dietz tries to re- create the duet dancing alone. Their clear identification with the dolls makes their question “Do Ken dolls have penises?” seem a way of asking about their own sexuality. Much of the rest of the dance seems to be about intimacy between men: the rough affection they show each other and the intimacy they avoid at the last second.

The children’s games that appear in Sheldon B. Smith’s Zharmon–hopscotch and chicken fights–are set against the most accomplished movement on the program. In a small grid taped on the floor, five dancers from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (Christian Biel, Kathleen Fisher, Juli Hallihan-Campbell, Julie Hammond, and Ming-Lung Yang) move in precise patterns. At first they simply walk, but turn and duck at just the right moments to avoid the other dancers. It reminded me of the restless movement of boiling water. In a later section the dancers make arm gestures while facing the audience–simple gestures that anyone can do, but their precise and rhythmic performance and the tiny grid in which the dance occurs give the gestures a clarity that rivals more technical steps. This is pure technical dance, and a fine dance despite–and because of–its limited palette.

Smith’s Lark is also pure technical dance, but it does not have the lightness of touch that makes Zharmon so enjoyable. Lark’s score, created by Smith, splices many sounds together: a bird whistling (perhaps a lark); the words “scratch, scratch, scratch, click, click, click” and “I auditioned for a cruise ship”; mambo and big-band music; silence. Smith clearly does not intend the sounds to make any logical sense, but since he gives them no aesthetic shape they sound like impulsive dabs. I was more interested in the argument in the alley below Link’s Hall, which made more sense.

Lark’s three women (Lauren Helfand, Christy Munch, and Heather Solz), wearing short black dresses, sometimes move quickly through the space and sometimes freeze. A curious lunge with the arms held in front like a statue of Buddha for some reason made me think of stewardesses. Most of the movement has potential–it’s loose but it has a speed and precision that suggests Tim Buckley crossed with Merce Cunningham.

Smith is clearly developing an aesthetic that banishes everything but pure movement values; the other choreographers in “The Next Generation Project” use movement to express ideas or feelings, so that the movement is always subordinate to something else. But Lark seems to me student work, dominated by intellect and rather cold. Perhaps intellectualism is as common a youthful problem for men as bulimia and anorexia are for women. The difference is that Smith seems to be in full thrall of his obsession.