Non-Dances for Dancers

and Dances for Non-Dancers

at Link’s Hall, February 16 and 17

Nana Shineflug has been many things in her life: math teacher, bodybuilder, choreographer, alcoholic, mother, dancer, religious seeker, artistic director of the Chicago Moving Company. When she had her 60th birthday party, a big bash at Link’s Hall, she scheduled it for the night of the winter solstice: a tip-off. I figured she was planning to enter her “crone” phase and was determined to go into it fully armed.

We don’t need flak jackets, however: Shineflug seems to have decided that in her crone phase she’s just going to be herself, only more. But “being herself” for Shineflug is not like “being yourself” for most of us. During a tour of southern Illinois, for example, after she’d cautioned her dancers to be careful of what they said to people, she went ahead and told the president of a board of education that she’s a Sufi (she’s not).

When Link’s Hall asked Shineflug to do a joint performance with Jeff Abell as part of its “Strange Bedfellows” series, they decided to take some risks. Abell would write monologues for dancers in which they would talk but not move, and Shineflug would create dances for people who weren’t normally dancers; their friends and colleagues would perform. The result was an evening filled with inside jokes and affectionate portraits, but filled especially with Shineflug’s newfound “herselfness”–madcap, even silly spoofs with intelligent moments sprinkled throughout like punch lines.

For example, Abell and Shineflug created solos for each other. In Pulaski Day Dance (all of Shineflug’s pieces were linked to Chicago holidays), Abell comes onstage wearing a woman’s ballet costume: tutu, turquoise leotard with crisscross straps over the back, and a 40-foot swatch of tulle. It clashes perfectly with his Marxist intellectual look: tiny wire-rimmed glasses and shaggy black beard and hair. The music is a Tchaikovsky ballet played by the Portsmouth Sinfonia, a group of conservatory musicians organized by Brian Eno who play instruments that are the opposites of what they play professionally. The music has a hurdy-gurdy burping quality reminiscent of a lurching drunk who by the grace of God will find his way home. The able Abell expertly mimics a klutz attempting Petipa’s choreography, and the dance lasts just the right amount of time for its one joke.

Abell’s solo for Shineflug, Night Music, wittily sends up some of her spiritual preoccupations. Clasping a baritone horn to her breast, Shineflug talks about first hearing the horn during the introductory passage of Mahler’s Song of the Night Symphony, his Seventh. The woman becomes hooked on the horn, saves her pennies to buy one, then communes with it every night, waiting for the moment when the spirits will enter her and magically direct her fingers in a perfect expression of night’s voice. (She tells us seriously that she got her idea of “thinking the music” from The Music Man.) Shineflug captures this fanatic’s wide-eyed gleam perfectly.

The silliest of the Chicago holiday dances is Venetian Night Dance, performed by Shineflug and dance photographer William Frederking. Abell as the emcee informs us that because of budget cuts Venetian Night will have just three floats, each of which will feature a famous photographer. The float honoring Ansell Adams reveals Frederking and Shineflug in tacky costumes of construction-paper leaves and nylon bark riding on a skateboard; we can hear her whispering “now!” to him. The float honoring Victor Skrebneski has Frederking dressed as Bette Davis and Shineflug as Orson Welles, moving to a strobe light that repeatedly catches them in interesting poses. My favorite section was the last, when Shineflug throws tennis balls at Frederking and he dodges them by leaping in the air, recapturing in dance his own astonishing dance photos.

Shineflug’s other two dances are not as loopy. The Day After Valentine’s Day Dance, performed by Tribune staffer Achy Obejas, includes a story told mainly in Spanish (written by Obejas); an audience member who speaks Spanish told me afterward that it was a moving story with lovely imagery. I had to rely on what I saw, however: a woman in bright red lingerie clinging to the walls as she talks. When she occasionally ventured into the middle of the stage, my eyes focused on her writhing hands. But the movement seemed incomplete without the story. Teacher’s Institute Day Dance is a group work that focuses on athletic and martial-arts movement. It’s much like several other dances I’ve seen for nondancers (in fact, some of the same nondancers), except that these performers are full of personality and recite telling anecdotes from their own lives.

Abell’s monologues for dancers aren’t loopy at all–they’re subtle, original texts, perhaps the kind the dancers would create for themselves if they had Abell’s skill with words. But Abell does cheat a little–he’s selected dancers who are comfortable speaking onstage. And the dancers cheat a lot: though they remain rooted to a single spot, movement is a big part of their presence. Timothy Buckley’s monologue, Remember the Red River Valley, is a memory piece about a boy finding his sister’s discarded accordion in the closet and picking out on it the only song his sister learned. In the monologue Buckley notes that the song is about departure and memory–and much of his own work is about departure, about spending your entire life waving good-bye. Shirley Mordine’s persona in the monologue Elegy is a violist who discovers that “muscles have memory” when she resumes practicing after a loved one’s death. And in Peter Carpenter’s poignant, blisteringly funny monologue Hymn, a gay man learns to bear his cross.

It was an evening of dancers having a good time–making fun of ballet and of dance photographers, teasing each other, cracking inside jokes. I just hope they don’t decide to poke fun at critics next.

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