Xsight! Performance Group

at MoMing Dance & Arts Center

March 9-11 and 17-19

“All You Can Eat and Other Human Weaknesses,” the Chicago premiere of Xsight! Performance Group, is quite simply the most electric debut concert I’ve ever seen. A one-time-only, whacked-out performance event created by Brian Jeffery, Timothy O’Slynne, and Mary Ward, “All You Can Eat” comprises dances and comic sketches within the framework of a 60s spy-show parody. Yes, the concept is as hokey as it sounds, but it enables the trio to produce a performance that is consistently unpretentious, entertaining, and accessible, and often intelligent, thought-provoking, and resonant.

The dances aren’t necessarily new: as members of the Chicago Repertory Dance Ensemble, Jeffery, O’Slynne, and Ward performed Ward’s Fallen Angels just two weeks ago at the Civic Center; Chris Clarke’s Small Craft Warnings was danced several years ago at Columbia College. Both of these intricate, interesting dances bear repeated viewing.

A ballet of dreams, Fallen Angels is–like many of Ward’s works–just a trifle mad. Each pajamaed performer dances the central character in a different dream drama; in the coda, the images from the three dreams, suggesting Catholicism, fundamentalism, and sex, mingle and merge. O’Slynne flaps and wheels before two tempting, larger-than-life immortals. Jeffery writhes, leaps, and struggles, constrained equally by his bedclothes and his fears. Ward pounces on Jeffery and O’Slynne, yanking and dragging them until they do the same to her. Self-mocking, serious, and gleeful by turns, Fallen Angels is both straightforward and sophisticated. A great part of the pleasure of seeing the dance again in a smaller theater was that its wealth of detail–the nuances of gesture and expression, the subtle. play of light on billowing fabric–“read” better.

Xsight’s Small Craft Warnings, danced by Jeffery and O’Slynne, looks little like the dance I remember. When I first saw it, the dance left a strong and lasting impression of subtlety and delicacy, and of an exacting, carefully crafted tension between the movement and its music, an electronic wonder composed by Paul Solberg. Xsight’s performance still embodies that teasing tension–especially in the syncopated, hovering jumps that counterpoint the music’s rhythmic ground–but emphasizes the dance’s different qualities of movement, its angularity and release.

In the beginning of Small Craft Warnings, the dancers’ limbs are fully extended yet relaxed; their jumps are small, soft. They stand and spin, angled arms suggesting an Egyptian frieze. Torsos angle to one side, legs swing like slow pendulums. They pause, arms and legs bent and angled in postures reminiscent of Indian temple dancers. The movement is all clear, clean, controlled.

Jeffery and O’Slynne dance Small Craft Warnings simply. And this kind of simplicity is inevitably moving. Their performance calls attention to the dance itself, to the act of dancing, but never to themselves as dancers; their dancing is depersonalized yet not impersonal. Clarke’s choreography offers no easy hiding places behind cheap stereotypes, just the occasion for honest, unmannered dancing. What a rare pleasure it is to see two strong male dancers in choreography that doesn’t trivialize sexuality, glorify the gymnasium, or worship war.

But then it’s always a pleasure to see strong and honest dancing. In Smoke, Ward and Jeffery dance with characteristic strength and smoothness and atypical restraint. Jeffery’s style tends to the lyrical, Ward’s is almost steely. Stylistically, Smoke is equal measures of both.

Smoke creates unexpected contrasts by juxtaposing its small gestural movements–performed within a surprisingly limited portion of the performance space–with an exotic pool of warm, golden light, a bit of literal smoke, and a wonderfully florid score. (The program notes are suggestive rather than definitive: the exotic-sounding score for Smoke may have been composed and recorded by Lalo Schifrin, Chaba Zahouania, and/or Cheb Khaled; the exquisite lighting throughout is by Ken Bowen.)

Wearing tank tops and desert khaki, Jeffery and Ward emerge slowly from the dissipating haze, then seem ready to slip back into it with every new phrase and change of position. The dance has an odd inwardness, a nearly contemplative quality, as Ward holds her wrist, her hand palm up and bouncing lightly, and Jeffery focuses on his slowly moving hand. They echo one another’s movement in turn: languorous hips sway side to side, the torso swings and melts; a deep plie is followed by small, quick steps. Music and movement coincide only occasionally; the dancers move in unison only now and then. Smoke is a matter of elusive resonances–shapes, phrases, and paths reappearing, the line of one torso echoing the line of the other, the motif of a cupped hand. Though highly abstract, the gestural motifs suggest begging, drinking, gasping, flinching from a hot surface. Smoke is eerie, exotic, and never abstruse.

All of Xsight’s dances–even those made of the plainest or most deliberately restricted movement material–are frankly communicative. In Figure Heads a giant black box traps the three performers; the dance allows only the occasional head, arm, or leg to pop out of the top and dance to Mike Kirkpatrick’s score. Still, the dance conveys immediately accessible images–snakes, giants, plant forms–and emotional states–anger, annoyance, bemusement, amusement, among others.

Reduced to its essential elements, Boy in a Baggie consists only of two male voices speaking on tape, a shaft of white light, and O’Slynne, wearing an oversize clear plastic bag, walking slowly backward and lowering his arms. Scant material indeed, but it says plenty about the death around us.

It’s tempting to hold that the obverse is also true: that Xsight communicates less effectively the more they use recognizable dance material in a familiar dance context. In Get Happy, Ward wears a luscious, glossy prewar gown and O’Slynne a natty white suit as they wheel about the space in a dance drawn from both social and theatrical dance forms; when they pause at the elaborate buffet table upstage, we notice Jeffery slowly crumpling behind the scrim. When I finally managed to wrench my attention from the lyrics (Was it Joni Mitchell? Judy Collins? Something softly sad, anyway), I found the dance relatively interesting, as attentively staged and beautifully danced as the rest of the program. Interesting? Yes. Communicative? Not very.

And then, of course, there’s the innocuous diversion of Xsight’s spy story. An intrigue involving a briefcase, a cryptic message, and three guns. A mysterious stranger in white. A flight to Turkey and a flying turkey. As many puns as the group’s name suggests. Not to mention a steamy, mordant encore straight out of a leather bar. It’s all good fun.

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