at Link’s Hall

June 5 and 6

A man appeared in only one of the six dances featured in Zephyr Dance Ensemble’s Link’s Hall showcase–and he was the choreographer. Paul Cipponeri, of Chi-Town Jazz Dance, almost seemed out of place in this evening of works danced mainly by women, though he had also choreographed one of the other dances, Quieter and Deeper Than. This work offers such a powerful, positive image of women that I was startled to see it had been choreographed by a man. The four Zephyr women who performed it–Tammy Cheney, Michelle Kranicke, Margaret Reynolds, and Caroline Walsh–cut across the floor in powerful diagonals at the beginning, then pose in place monolithically. They hold out their palms at angles upside down, looking characteristically Oriental as well as southeast Indian.

When the four women in a line lean back at an angle and shimmy their shoulders, there’s nothing sexy or seductive or sleazy about it; instead it’s a motion of power. The backward movement of their shoulders carries through to their heads, and then they bring one shoulder forward. They look as rooted as rocks–unflappably strong women, seeming to sit into their movements as if they were statues accustomed to living wholly inside themselves. Strangely, this powerful rootedness is achieved through the dance’s constant flowing quality, one movement seemingly pouring into another. Cipponeri must be a very sensitive and secure man to choreograph this strongly for women.

Richard Arve’s quartet for women, Gertrude, Hessie, Thelma, and Ruth (danced by Leisa Beemer, Margaret Lynne DiCianni, Elizabeth Selz, and Stacey Victor), offers an equally strong picture of women, with an even more emphatic constant flow of energy (characteristic of Arve’s choreography and the dance technique he developed). But this is a sweet, lyric picture of womanhood. The flowing movements briefly become poses, then flow again–it’s like seeing the fluid motions between consecutive photographs. The “preparation” for the photos/poses somehow becomes the frame, too. Standing on half-toe, swaying their torsos, the dancers suggest flowers–bending to the wind but never uprooted, always gently and solidly there. The dancers’ long, lovely dresses (like Doris Humphrey’s, but with decolletage) add to the movement’s gracefulness, which has all the poignancy of a deep sigh.

Michelle Kranicke’s Men Don’t Have Hips, danced by Zephyr, gives us another strong dance for women–but this one’s hard and harsh. In bright red unitards, the three women burst out of the doors on one wall of the studio, ready for action. Standing in a line they apply lipstick, using the audience as mirror. This is no ordinary makeup application, however, but a cruel, hard-as-nails gesture: makeup as weapon. When the women speak, their stories are hard, too, though they have a soft inner core–these women have been hurt and have steeled themselves against ever getting hurt again. The dancers’ voices are actually a tad too soft for their bodies’ hard postures (maybe mikes would help). Fortunately, the text is interesting enough that the weak voices don’t completely destroy the dance’s mood. Telling stories about the denial of love, these women speak in the universal “I,” as one. One woman’s story is everywoman’s story. It only serves to make the dance more hard-hitting, more moving.

To illustrate Men Don’t Have Hips, the women do slow graded splits into the floor (love tearing them apart), looking out at the audience accusingly, rising up still looking at the audience. Later two of the women standing in one corner of the room lean into bridgelike back bends while a third runs from the other corner in between them. The hostile, violent gesture turns into one of sister solidarity, however, when she takes a hand from each and helps them rise to a standing position. Soon they all fall to the floor, arms out, palms up, appealing–but when they come up, their moment of weakness has disappeared. They’re strong now, all signs and gestures of beseeching gone. They’re recovered and they’re angry. And probably ready to deal with a new round of hard knocks. On the other hand, they just might say no to everything. Because they’re wiping the lipstick off their mouths pointedly.

Leigh Richey’s Definite Deficit is also a dance about survival, but it has a distinctive comic flair. When I saw it a few weeks ago at Dancespace, it opened with the three dancers draped dejectedly over the ballet bars that line the walls there. Link’s Hall doesn’t have bars, so the three dancers are unhappily “fastened” to the back wall–crammed against it, their backs on the floor, legs and hands up against the wall as if they were hugging it. In this almost desperate gesture, they look as if they’re trying to escape the wall’s confinement. Their black-and-white polka-dotted outfits offer a stark contrast to the solid white wall.

They rise up to comically tell their tales of woe about unpaid bills–lots of them–and how they dealt with them. First, their phone is cut off–no picnic for three young bachelorettes (if not a fate worse than death). A fourth dancer points accusingly at the three others, and later stands off to one side facing the audience and delivers a monologue about liking to be in control. She’s the one who solves the biggest bill problem–20 parking tickets the city won’t let her pay off on the installment plan. The dancers all answer in chorus behind her “Absolutely not!” in one of the dance’s funniest moments. Much of the movement is pedestrian–the dancers walking in circles, occasionally interacting, as they deliver the text–but it suits the urban grittiness of the theme. And it’s a short enough dance that the limited movement vocabulary doesn’t become a problem.

Winifred Haun’s Haze, on the other hand, also danced by Zephyr, is an interestingly complex dance set to the Kronos Quartet’s version of Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Haze.” The dancers begin with an imitation of monks in prayer, wearing hooded robes and moving always hunched over, their heads down so their faces can’t be seen. Hands clasped, they half-shuffle in lines or circles. They look most unholy–like little scampering animals instead of monks. And their robes are slit up the sides to expose white unitards, making them look nude underneath. Gradually the tone of the dance changes with the music. The dancers become distinguishable individuals instead of a herd. They loosen their rope belts, shed their robes–and they’re real, even sensual people beneath them. No longer constrained, the dancers leap elatedly in wide circles. It’s a wild ecstasy. Three dancers sit on the floor; the fourth in the center does wide pelvic circles. The women sitting on the floor shoot their legs out, their arms straight up, looking out at the audience.

These are, once again, strong women–aware of themselves, their bodies, and the power they have to use them. When they rise in a leaping circle dance in Haze, it’s a rite of passage, the dance empowering them. Just as all the images of strong women throughout the evening have empowered the audience.

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