Jump Giant Project

at the Athenaeum Theatre,

February 17 and 18

Dance Theatre of Harlem

at the Auditorium Theatre,

February 14-19

Good things come in small packages–or at least they did at the Jump Giant concert at the Athenaeum, put on by seven local choreographers at their own expense. Here the cunning and clever won out over the large and splashy: the gems were the little dances, the solos and duets and trios. In a child’s fresh vision, a puddle is a world.

Perhaps by coincidence, the best work was by choreographers who’d collaborated with others. Rebecca Rossen and Anthony Gongora created a solo that she dances first as One Bird’s Wing Flapping and he dances next as Oil Spill. Rossen is a gorgeous dancer with a striking body: taller than Gongora, she’s lanky and knobby and slender as a whisper, with long skinny arms and legs, big hands, and a big head of wild curly hair. A bit of a scarecrow, she moves with complete grace and control. Running about in her long, split tunic top and bell-bottoms, she’s a clown from the 60s, yet in an instant she can become a ship under full sail. When she eats her own fingers or lifts a foot heavily as if pulling it out of the muck, then drops it several feet in front of her, she makes us laugh.

When Gongora performs the same gestures they’re tragic or horrifying. Where Rossen’s dancing makes Bustan’s Gypsy-ish music lugubrious, Gongora’s makes it sad. This classically proportioned dancer doesn’t have the height or the limbs to go to the extremes Rossen does; his gift is his body’s integration–he moves so fluidly yet complexly he can’t help but be lyrical. With his exotic looks, in his tunic and full pants he seems some figure out of ancient mythology. Only once, running and flapping his top like wings, did he draw laughs. And he was trying really hard to get them. This is beautiful choreography breathtakingly performed, though there may be a little too much of a good thing.

Sabine Fabie and Mark Schulze collaborated on Moonbathers, which they first performed last year. Inspired by the writings of four of their favorite authors, it has a literary feel: each of the four sections is marked by its own simple but clever costumes, music, and style of movement. Clearly it’s an exercise, but these sketches are evocative and often funny. Here the two choreographers show the talents realized more fully in their individual pieces on the program.

Fabie’s duet Together as To, danced by Schulze and Jenny Stang, is subtly erotic, with a small, insinuating, feminine sensuality revealed, for example, in the way Stang’s full, loose dress flows up over her hips at times to reveal her thighs and buttocks. The dance tells the story of a relationship in movements that are hardly ever mimetic yet capture feelings and personality easily. At first the two dancers are oblivious to each other, Schulze seated hunched over, Stang stooped and stepping backward as if sowing seeds. When Schulze lies on his back, arms curved in the air above him, then drops one hand curled on his chest, we see an odd loneliness and despair in the gesture. When Schulze first spies Stang and sidles over stiffly, hauling one leg along like a piece of lumber, we see his awkward, imperative desire. When Stang steps away from him to manipulate her own head and leg in fluid yet mechanical motions, we see her out-of-control need to be in control and the way it interferes with intimacy. Danced in silence or to Christopher Fabie’s music, the piece alternates bursts of rapid movement with more sustained phrases; the rhythm is a quick rising and leisurely subsiding, like a wave cresting and ebbing, expressing passion as well as restraint.

Schulze’s trio Third Step in, Dip is one of the wittiest dances I’ve seen. There’s no obvious gimmick, just a comic approach to the dead seriousness of couples dancing–the title, a phrase taken from a how-to-tango book, says it all. From the moment Schulze steers his perilously dipped partner, Felicia Ballos, offstage in a swift backward run to the moment when Ballos is snatched into the wings like a disappearing doodle, this clever dance finds the gentle humor in pure movement, without any resort to mugging or mime. Schulze’s playful musical sense and canny use of exits and entrances recall Twyla Tharp in the days before she took herself seriously, the days of Baker’s Dozen. Richard Robbins’s music, in a sound design by Scott Silberstein, has a light, clockwork quality that’s also reflected in the intentionally mechanical dancing–no small part of the dance’s humor. Ballos, Fabie, and Schulze perform with a deadpan grace and wit, and the piece really clicks on a proscenium stage–it’ll be interesting to see how it looks in the black box of the Dance Center, where it’ll be performed as part of Jan Erkert’s concert this spring.

Melissa Thodos’s two pieces, a duet and a quartet, aren’t technically bigger than these, but her imposing props and rather grand themes add a level of pretension. A marvelously athletic dancer herself, Thodos creates surprisingly prim choreography. And there’s little dialogue between the dancers because she replicates her own movement style in them: dressed like her in both pieces, they seem merely stronger or weaker copies–Jennifer Lande as Artemis offers a particularly faithful copy in How the Planets Were Placed. But the balls tossed in this dance and the gymnastics apparatus in Spires come across as gimmicks, perhaps in part because Thodos’s phrasing is too pat: she tends to end phrases prettily and neatly with the music.

The ensemble pieces were the most limited, though Tracy VonKaenel’s It Figures was a lot of fun. Its nine dancers, all members of the Dance Theatre of Elgin Performing Company, went through their cartoonish paces with great relish, if not always in perfect unison. The piece opens with several mimed scenes revealing the frustrations of everyday life, including a battle with a too-tight pair of jeans that had me laughing out loud. For the second section the dancers don short black unitards and hoods and dance to RJ’s Rule, which produces party-radio pop music, propulsive but otherwise unremarkable. The costumes and martial/humorous style of dance are familiar, recalling such MTV wannabes as Daniel Ezralow; but some of the moves are original, and they’re danced quick as a blink. VonKaenel doesn’t aim high, but she hits her mark.

Not so Ruth Klotzer in Highlighters: A Kinetic Puzzle. This piece for seven dancers and two artists–they paint on easels upstage, then paint two of the dancers–aims for high art (evoking Kandinsky) but remains gimmicky and uninspired. It doesn’t help that the choreographer, after pretending to be a musical conductor in the “pit,” leaps onstage in a nude body stocking and cutaway coat to cavort with her dancers–they even carry her overhead like a sacrificial goddess. Scott Silberstein’s score is uncharacteristically dull. But the dancers did a fine job, especially Michael McStraw and Brian Zacker.

Overall the intrepid Jump Giants can take pride in what they’ve done: produced a disciplined, thoughtful concert that was well worth their time and effort and ours. It just shows what you can do when you stop crying in your beer and think big in terms of venue, small and focused in terms of choreography.

When it comes to big venues in Chicago the Auditorium is the grandmama of them all, putting the quaint little Athenaeum to shame. And the Dance Theatre of Harlem put on a really big show, filled with slides and scrims and gaudy costumes and rainbow lighting. But the wrongheadedness of bigness for its own sake holds true no matter what the size of the venue.

Michael Smuin’s A Song for Dead Warriors is gargantuan, a one-act story ballet about Native Americans that has it all: political correctness, a tragic love story, scenes from the afterlife and the urban underworld, giant buffalo (I’m not kidding). It’s also extremely silly. I know, I know–privileged white men have raped women of color and emasculated their men. I don’t quarrel with the truth of the scenes depicted, but with Smuin’s lurid, overblown rhetoric. Every plot turn is predictable, every image comes right out of the Hallmark Greeting Card Gallery of the Noble Indian. Smuin includes a little bit of authentic Native American dancing, but most of the choreography is straight ballet. He doesn’t even genuinely honor the culture.

At least Geoffrey Holder in Dougla, which re-creates a Trinidadian wedding ceremony, has the grace to make it look like Afro-Caribbean dance. This piece is a little dull, partly because Holder’s recorded score is more repetitive and less nuanced than most such authentic music played live, but the limpid, flowing choreography shows off the dancers’ skills in an idiom quite different from stiff-backed ballet. Yet their performances in John Taras’s Firebird, and especially Charmaine Hunter’s as the steely, feathery creature itself, illustrated how very well they can perform classical dance. For that matter, they performed exquisitely in A Song for Dead Warriors, which is filled with intricate, technically difficult, often soaring movement. But what a waste the piece is: big sets, great dancers, no brain or heart.

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