at the Dance Center of Columbia College

June 25-27

Though they’re often perceived as a dance troupe, the Sock Monkeys–with their weird little songs, playful aggression, and constant tweaks at technique and convention–seem a lot more like performance artists. And though their use of many media, and of both text and movement, would put them squarely in the category of traditional performance, by local standards they’re an anomaly.

Unlike most Chicago performance artists, the Sock Monkeys develop their pieces from a movement base. As a result the work tends to be more intuitive, less intellectual, than most of what’s found on the local performance scene. This has its charms, but it can also be frustrating. The group’s often startling images may seem too abstract or esoteric. Sometimes the only way to accept the work is to believe that it has its own internal logic.

The Sock Monkeys’ most recent performances, at the Dance Center of Columbia College, featured four pieces that underscore the group’s strengths and weaknesses, its diversity, talent, and ambitions. The performances also showcased an admirable collaborative spirit. Besides the group’s members–Lydia Charaf, Bryan Saner, Kay Wendt LaSota, and Jeanette Welp–the program featured various other artists, including the remarkable Winston Damon. A musician with a predilection for odd instruments–and noninstruments–Damon is inventive, funny, and wonderfully understated.

Beginning the program was a mostly silent movement piece, 6 Men, choreographed in a very dancelike way but said in the program to have been “created” by LaSota, with input from the men themselves (most of whom are not dancers). 6 Men seems to simultaneously embrace and poke fun at the current men’s movement. It allows the men to display affection, confusion, eroticism, sensitivity, violence, loss, dependence, and even a certain mischief. They strut, drum on their chests, fall all over each other, play games, run, and finish by recognizing a basic humanity in their intertwined existences.

This complex group piece was followed by Charaf’s deceptively simple “The Day After the Next Night,” an a cappella tune she wrote and performs on a bare stage. Sung in French, the tune works romantic cliches into an apocalyptic love song in which both the sun and moon–those totems of sentimentality–explode.

Charaf’s second song, “Antchant,” is presented more elaborately but has much less weight. A children’s song about an encounter with an ant (again in French), the piece is presented in a kind of surreal living-room setting. Charaf and Damon roll out an Oriental rug, a strange combination lamp/mike stand, and a stereo system, then go about singing and playing the little ditty over and over again.

Eventually it becomes apparent that Charaf and Damon are recording the piece with each repetition, layering one version over another to create a dense, scratchy final product. Although the aim may have been to demystify the creative process, the presentation seems a tad self-conscious. It amuses, but nothing more, and that’s a shame–it came right smack in the middle of the evening, when the program should have been at its strongest.

Welp’s Gravity was presented between Charaf’s songs. Beautifully performed and filled with evocative images, this piece works mostly on a visual level. Although Welp has a way with words, particularly language that echoes the visual text in original and unexpected ways, the feminist message here is perhaps too obvious, too simple. The point of view is also a problem. Welp is the narrator, and we’re supposed to believe her, but then she goes and says something like “I know the cameras and spotlights don’t lie, but I do.” If this is meant to be ironic, it misses by a mile. If it’s meant more straightforwardly, it undermines the credibility of her otherwise sincere voice.

The Changing Room made up the full second half of the show. It is, in many ways, a quintessential Sock Monkeys piece: instinctive, introspective, and of course esoteric. The movements are decidedly everyday on first glance: common, only occasionally athletic or dancelike, filled with small subtleties and grace, rarely large or flashy.

A haunting, lyrical piece, The Changing Room seeks to tell the story, in stages, of a human life–in some ways, it was the most linear piece on the program. The stages are clearly defined, with pauses, beginnings, middles, and ends. But it isn’t always clear how they build on each other–if they do–or what their relationships are. In fact, on an individual level, the stages are often nothing more than suggestions. They’re so abstract it’s nearly impossible to tell what’s going on. Still, they resonate with such honesty, such beauty, we can’t help but go along with the group, trusting.