Winifred Haun and Dancers

at Links Hall, April 4-6

By Joseph Houseal

Movement for movement’s sake, if it exists at all, is a self-annihilating idea. Motion devoid of any intellectual, emotional, or spiritual implication can only be superficial at best, purposeless at worst–what you see is all you get. Yet it’s Merce Cunningham’s ideal of pure movement that inspires Winifred Haun’s new premiere, Bound, Part One. She describes her approach in a press release as “letting the movement be the primary defining feature of a work.” Though her tactic isn’t strictly movement for movement’s sake, this provocative approach appears to have freed up Haun, producing the most sophisticated piece in her most recent performance. To judge by other earlier works in the concert, Haun’s taken a clear and quantum step in the evolution of her art.

Movement for movement’s sake finds its roots in the art-for-art’s-sake argument of the early modern era. It also shares the same philosophical problems. All art is presentational by nature–it’s made by human beings for human engagement–and movement for its own sake would not require an audience. Why have one if the artist’s search is for movement’s sake and nothing else? But humans are complex. We have minds and souls and ears and inner rhythms that can’t be shut off. How can a single element of art separate itself from the experience of being human? It is the pretension of pretensions.

What is movement’s own sake? Even unchoreographed movement is determined by one’s physique and training, and only the wholly untrained can move for a “sake” undictated by technique. Haun’s troupe has wildly diverse body types: big-breasted women, thick-waisted men, the very short, and the pale and frail. Personalities jump out at the audience. Yet they perform the same movement. Whose movement? And for whose sake?

For the last century, choreographers have been searching for a purity of movement as a way to liberate the art form from traditional conventions. In the early 20th century, Ballet Russe choreographer Mikhail Fokine sought freedom from overly decorative narrative after meeting Isadora Duncan, who was espousing “pure expression.” Other searches for freedom took different routes. Martha Graham believed dance could explore the inner workings of the mind, and Lester Horton and Alvin Ailey maintained that dancing naturally evoked passion. Purity’s early hero was George Balanchine, who created abstract formalism. He said his dancing served no agenda except choreography. Though his goal lifted the level of abstract composition to unparalleled heights, he betrayed himself in his alliance to great Western music. The dancing was irresistibly musical, and he remained the most romantic of choreographers. He once said, “If a man and a woman are onstage, you have drama.”

In his lifetime of work, Cunningham–Haun’s current inspiration–has created his own way of moving and explored chance choreographic techniques as an outgrowth of his practicing Taoism. He is perhaps the only true genius choreographer alive today because he has pursued his ideas completely, honing his forms to near perfection. His work is like a waterfall, a mesmerizing coming to be and passing away, as transient and beautiful as the dreams that are our lives. With consummate skill, he has created movement that embodies and imitates nature. He virtually eschews music; sounds occur simultaneously, though they’re interchangeable and often expendable. Like the I Ching, the dances can be performed in different combinations.

In Bound, Part One Haun effectively creates patterns running parallel across the stage, lapping and pulsing like the ebb and flow of waves, a slow progression over time. Tableaux appear as crystallizations of an earlier wave. Whatever Haun’s motivations, her intelligence and craftsmanship produce highly evocative images: spiraling body throws fall into safe catches; abstract patterns emphasizing wrists and elbows are executed to taped Arabic dialogue about the Middle East peace process; huffing-and-puffing boot camp sequences are performed in silence; interpenetrating patterns are set to grunge and thrash music. These images speak, whether they’re joined to or juxtaposed against the aural environment. The result is something much richer than movement for movement’s sake. Haun should look for inspiration beyond the phantom idea that human movement exists in a vacuum. We’re at the turn of our century, inundated with ideas and messages from mass communications. It’s the time to connect, integrate, and uplift. We can still learn from whatever the abstract explorations of the past have brought back alive. But to attempt to pursue these dead-end and already perfected roads is to go backward.

Drawing from a number of sources for the five years’ worth of work presented this evening, Haun’s dances reveal both artistic wanderlust and genuine integrity and growth. What she needs now is a balance–something that will align her choreographic strengths in creating shapes and patterns with some other aesthetic partner, one that won’t suffocate freedom and abstract power. Bound, Part One comes closer than anything else to achieving this balance. Her work gains depth and relevance through her use of sound, music, and strategic silence. She obviously has some ideas. If these were formulated as well as the movements, her work could become truly great. She needs guts. Haun is comfortably situated in Chicago’s dance scene. She can take risks without damaging her reputation, or, unlike a bomb at the Joffrey, without fear of institutional collapse if the experiment fails. It was the artistic perfection in claiming extremes that brought Balanchine and Cunningham to their destiny as creators of “pure dance.” Haun needs to move from the middle of the road. Destiny awaits.

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