Hedwig Dances

Performance Company

at the Chicago Cultural Center, through May 20

Zephyr Dance Ensemble

at the Harold Washington Library, May 12 and 13

The dances in Hedwig Dances Performance Company’s tenth-anniversary concert are good, and some are very good, but the dancing outshines them. And artistic director Jan Bartoszek has assembled not only a talented group of dancers but good composers, choreographers, and designers; when these talents come together right, the result has the warmth of fire without the danger.

Bartoszek’s Clearing, Made of Dream is a lovely, gentle dance, simpler than the premiere version shown at the Dance Center of Columbia College last year. A description of the coming of spring, it begins with Ann Boyd crossing the back of the stage, planting seeds in slow motion by digging a hole in the ground with her heel, and ends with four women making their way offstage as Amy Alt quietly whistles birdcalls. Between these two points, battles seem to erupt as Meredith Bristol and Chia-Yu Chang face off; their battles resolve in a series of inventive, supportive lifts among all the women. Lynn Book’s vocal music, haunting chants in the first, wintery sections, evolves into a harsh grinding sound in the battle section. Throughout, Bartoszek’s attention to specific odd shapes (some resembling icicles) yields a good deal of pleasure.

Sheldon B. Smith often gives his dances inscrutable titles; his newest piece is called Dog-Leg, Drag-Line (Drum Groove Tolerance). The press release says that it’s “a physical exploration of inhibition/introversion and exhibition/extroversion,” but I see it mainly as a wonderful series of physical jokes. The best joke is Smith’s cornucopia of inventive movements, which start out being one thing but take sharp turns into something different. Smith is at center stage, for example, staggering a little between episodes of tiny convulsions rippling through his body, and Alt is behind him arranging the dancers one by one into an artful group; then she tunnels up from inside the arranged group to hang from it like a kid on a jungle gym, diverting attention from Smith and changing “art” to play. The whole group shuffles to the side, dragging a disheveled Alt as they go, while Smith is finishing his convulsions as he walks offstage. Armed with the press release, I could see the contrast between Smith’s inhibitions and Alt’s flamboyance; the theme is repeated later as Bristol does gymnastic tricks, smiling proudly at the audience after each one, in front of a line of dancers who push each other in sequence endlessly. David Pavkovic’s 20-minute drum score helps build to a crescendo the panic of the introverts and the competitiveness of the extroverts. In an appropriate climax, David Kanouse manipulates Smith’s body into a gargoyle shape, creating a portrait of an introvert tortured by insensitive extroverts. It’s a funny shape, too.

Bartoszek’s new dance–Viva, about responding to midlife–is a lot of fun, filled with good jazz dancing by the modern dancers of the Hedwig company. But it’s both shallow and puzzling. It starts with gently waving arms set to repetitive bell-like sounds in Chris Salter’s music; then the cha-cha forces its way onto the sound track and the dancing. The bells and the cha-cha have a small battle, but the cha-cha quickly wins and controls the rest of the dance. What happened to the beginning gentleness? Where was it going? The dance doesn’t give us a clue.

Flight/Fight Dance has a great design by Wilhelm Hahn. The stage is set with a projection of a ticky-tacky suburb and three sets of curtains, each imprinted with hands. The curtains pull open to reveal a mother, father, and daughter, their faces covered with cardboard masks–flat cutouts of faces from a 50s family sitcom like My Little Margie. Each dancer is covered from head to toe by his or her clothes, completely isolated from touch. The dance evolves slowly: each character has a solo with many repeated movements, and eventually the repetitions become hypnotic and a recurrent movement brings surprise, recognition, and emotion.

All of the dancers were excellent, but worth noting individually are Amy Alt, Meredith Bristol, and Julie Hopkins.

The Zephyr Dance Ensemble also has several good dancers looking for good dances. Their best come from Michelle Kranicke, the troupe’s artistic director, who continues to shape the company’s identity as an all-female group.

Kranicke’s Crossed Signals benefits from a sound design by Scott Silberstein that knits together Renaissance music, songs from 60s girl groups, and surf rock. The touchstone images are women putting on and taking off their womanly costumes–applying eye makeup, removing high heels. These vulnerable moments, when a woman enters or leaves a state when she is more than herself, are made to seem more acutely vulnerable with the Shirelles’ refrain “Will you still love me tomorrow?” Kranicke’s resolution–a hill of bodies that the women climb with the help of other women–suggests that women can support each other and leave men pretty much out of it. But the dance has the same problem as Winifred Haun’s East 90/94; both pieces suggest that you can slam the door on the outside world, but neither shows how to do it. Unfortunately, the dance did not have many of the lighting effects that designer Charlotte Rathke intended because the Harold Washington Library staff was so uncooperative.

Caroline Walsh’s Storm is a gothic rock fantasy, with dreamy poetry from the Dead Milkmen about shattered glass and shattered people on the mean streets. Mike Biddle designed a splendid ballet bar that looks as if it had been bent out of shape in a fierce fire. Amanda McCann’s solo has abrupt, percussive movement that is a welcome change from the more lyrical movement of most of the other pieces. Walsh conveys well the imagination and sensuality beneath the morbid accoutrements of gothic rock.

McCann also dances a solo called Finding, choreographed by Emily Stein. McCann is a great performer who draws us in and makes us care about her character even when the dance is too abstract to communicate the character’s conflicts. A sextet by Stein called Songs for My Sister starts promisingly with a line of women silhouetted in red who twist and jump while holding hands, never letting go. But the dance doesn’t develop the specific emotions that would flesh out the initial image.

Christy Munch’s commissioned dance, What Have You, unfortunately fails almost completely. It tries to be jokey but instead noodles along like the Al Di Meola music Munch uses. Punch lines are set up and not delivered, then return inexplicably.

The most substantial dances are Kranicke’s 1994 Des Femmes and The State of the Art; they best show the woman-centered identity Zephyr is developing. Yet overall the performance relies too often on the image of women as yielding and accepting. The movements are usually soft and rounded, and the dances circle around an idea instead of exploring it. A broader conception of womanhood may add a new spark.

In my May 5 review of Robynne Gravenhorst’s Blood on the Moon, I made references to past work experience of the dancers that Gravenhorst tells me were incorrect. She has informed me that all three women in question have had extensive training in forms such as ballet and modern and ethnic dance, and that the dancers were not portraying autobiographical characters in her piece.

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