Bob Eisen and Sheldon B. Smith

at Link’s Hall, February 23-25

By Terry Brennan

I have a love/hate relationship with the dances of both Bob Eisen and Sheldon B. Smith. The parts I love seem to be inextricably linked with the parts I don’t. In this concert, each choreographer presented two works, one of which I liked–with reservations–and one of which I disliked despite its bright spots.

Eisen has a physical presence onstage, a sheer emotional intensity that pushes you into the back of your seat. But it doesn’t lead to an emotional connection with the audience. Onstage Eisen simply does what he does, like a force of nature or the physical manifestation of his own extraordinary will. His dances and his presence remind us again and again that he’s alone.

Niat-pac starts with Eisen by himself standing and looking at a corner of the room. He twists one shoulder in toward his chest, then leans that entire side forward slightly. He returns to standing, then begins to move his arms and torso straight up, forward, or to the side. Each move is deliberate, separated from the others by small pauses. He continues to move through a series of poses until he’s lying on his back on the floor. Alone. Lying like a corpse. Then the dance part begins. Three female dancers enter and stand looking at the same corner he was looking at. They start to move, using the same movement that he introduced though they don’t repeat his style of moving.

Eisen’s unaccompanied theme-and-variation dance reveals an extraordinary choreographic craft: repetitions come unexpectedly but in natural places. The dance ends with Eisen lying on his back and the three women looking in the corner again; then he gets up and leaves. The moment echoes the women’s arrival and seems at first like a simple repetition; but then one remembers that the movements being repeated are lying like a corpse and leaving. Niat-pac left an ashen taste in my mouth: it struck me as a despairing work made by a person who refuses to despair. Yet the dance portions are rich and full. Amy Alt, Felicia Ballos, and Julie Hopkins move very well, and Eisen incorporates movement at which each excels. It’s this kind of contradiction that drives me into paroxysms of love/hate.

Eisen’s other dance, Event # 3, is an improvisation whose structure, or melody, is a series of commands played on three tape players during the performance. Unfortunately, the dancers improvised very badly, though it wasn’t their fault. One of the chief pleasures of improvisation is spontaneity, as the dancers discover something that brings them together, then follow it through until it ends or dissolves. But Eisen’s taped commands interrupt that process of discovery, replacing it with the deadening hand of authority. Following the letter of the commands, the dancers never try to find other, wittier interpretations or oppose the commands to create dramatic tension. One of the few bright spots of spontaneity is Ballos’s wondering smile as she sits against the wall with her arm around Hopkins, after the two of them have wrestled playfully.

Smith is, in a way, the mirror image of Eisen. He doesn’t deny an emotional connection with the audience, but he seeks it in sometimes ingratiating ways, then suddenly breaks the connection as if the pretense were too much to bear. Smith recognizes and parodies his own sensibility in the solo Ladies and Gentlemen,…Radon Daughters, a piece that also delivers some winsome playfulness and a few power chords. As the lights come up Smith walks out with an acoustic guitar under his arm, dressed like a rockabilly musician in a crumpled blue suit, dirty white shirt, stringy tie, and tennis shoes; he also wears a shaggy Beatles wig. Diffidently he strikes various rock-star poses, as if being a rock star required too much effort. He walks to a microphone, hooks his guitar to a string suspended from the ceiling, mumbles, “I’m ready,” launches into a cry that sounds like “Hoo-ah,” then runs into the corner as his guitar swings gently in front of the microphone. (A lawyer friend in the audience said that she feels just like that when she’s working on a legal brief; just as she’s about to marshal a serious argument she suddenly thinks, “This isn’t me,” and wants to dance around the room. But she goes back to her legal brief, just as Smith’s character returns to the microphone.)

The music Smith creates is generic rock and roll, but somehow it sounds different; his wordless wail is somewhere between a Led Zeppelin falsetto scream and a sliding bolero singer’s voice. Eventually the singer mumbles some lyrics: “Hey, Radon man, why are you so nervous? What are those shades, covering what kind of insecurity? Show me some of those killer chords you know” and “Where’s this leading? The girls want to know.” Then he does some straightforward guitar playing with satisfying chord changes. It’s uncertain whether the inside jokes in this parody filled with self-deprecating humor are accessible to a general audience. But I enjoyed it.

Smith’s larger piece, a work in progress called Schubert Dances I-VI, falls short of humor. The point of these six parodic dances, set to Schubert lieder, seems to be that Schubert’s music is stuffy. The strangest is a solo set to “Gretchen at the Spinning Wheel” in which Smith turns Christine Bornarth into a rodeo gal who ropes steers and rides horses. Her bravura dancing in the middle has a dramatic impact that matches the music’s drama. Most of the other five dances are corny; in the first, Smith mimics a chicken flapping its wings, making his hands into a beak that opens and closes. The silliness of these six dances can be wearing.

Still caught in the love/hate relationship I have with Eisen’s and Smith’s work, I can only say this: Eisen seems to evolve slowly, as if mastering a craft, becoming more himself, and becoming more separate. Smith seems to be trying to figure out the world and his place in it, and luckily he finds the image of himself searching quite comical.

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