Jan Bartoszek/Hedwig Dances and Amy Osgood

at the Dance Center of Columbia College

March 14-16

Jan Bartoszek and Amy Osgood make fine dances–musical, well crafted, and thoughtfully produced. Both choreographers choose interesting scores and create shifting, complex relationships between the images, phrases, and structures of the movement and those of the music. Both acknowledge that choreography is a craft–acknowledge the nuts and bolts of making movement phrases, revising and repeating them, splintering and reshaping them–but do not exhibit that craftsmanship as an end in itself. Both present their dances with a sense of proportion: the movement, performance style, lighting, costuming, and score (whatever the particular combination of music, silence, sound, and spoken or taped text) all contribute to the work. No single aspect of performance overwhelms the others, nor does any aspect suffer neglect.

There the similarities end. Bartoszek’s Flight/Fight Dance and Fever Tales are centripetal, traversing rocky interior landscapes. Osgood’s Venus Trilogy is centrifugal–spinning outward, siting the dance in society.

Fever Tales suggests three manifestations of the same persona by setting the characteristic movements of an ailing dreamer-soloist on each of three dancers in turn: Rebecca Rossen, Maria Dicintio, and Shannon Raglin. The opening solo introduces the movement motifs in their starkest, most literal form: Rossen grabs her head and rolls, clutches at her contracted torso and rolls again; lying on her side, she folds herself over and slaps her thigh, then stands limp, her hand on her forehead, her forearm over her face. The coughs, sighs, and labored breathing of Michael Zerang’s score alternately initiate and interrupt the movement.

Dicintio and Raglin enter wearing white lab coats. They aren’t soothing caretakers; they’re unacknowledged participants directing the dream. The pajamaed Rossen seems only dimly aware of them, her gaze unfocused as they push, lift, and catch her.

The three performers stop, face the audience, and remove the outer layer of their costumes. These movements are strictly business–not choreographic phrases abstracted from the motions of unbuttoning buttons and removing shirts but just the simple, uninflected acts themselves. The sudden shift from theatricality to practicality parallels the moments of lucidity that punctuate a day spent sleeping off a bad flu; the unexpected energy with which the dancers bundle up their costumes and toss them to the floor recalls those times you find yourself scrubbing out the sink when you really should be sleeping.

Another dream emerges, more enigmatic than the first. Small, gestural movements–fingertips drumming repeatedly on a palm, spread fingers cupping and lifting a breast–are juxtaposed with earlier movement motifs. The choreography strands first one dancer, then another: the lone dancer stands still and watchful at the edge of an eddy of movement, then she is swept away. Each dancer is participant and observer, dreamer and dream figure at once.

They dress again, as simply as before, and the opening solo is reshaped: Dicintio wears the pajamas this time, and Rossen, the first dreamer, propels Dicintio through the phrases that were her own in the opening. The dreamer is cradled and manipulated as a rag doll might be by a careless child; she doesn’t have the dream so much as it has her. This time, when the dreamer is carried off by one dream figure, the other figure doesn’t watch; instead she falls into the dreamer’s characteristic movement and the other two recede into the background.

Fever Tales moves in a spiral: every repetition is altered in one way or another. When the dancers stop to remove their coats and pajamas again, they stand in a different part of the performance space. When the trio begins again, the watcher is no longer still–she performs the same broken arabesque as the others but faces in a different direction. When Dicintio manipulates Raglin through a third variation of the images of falling, rolling, and contracting, the movement is restrained; the doll is handled gently. When Raglin performs the images’ final iteration, the movement feels different in spite of the familiarity produced by the repetition: it’s a solo again, and performed by a different dancer.

Osgood’s Venus Trilogy explores familiar images of women in three sections. The first two–“Rogue” and “Mother: Lust for Sleep”–like Fever Tales are set on three women: Marlene Dankworth, Kay Wendt LaSota, and Osgood. In “Rogue,” the effect is of one persona trebled; in “Mother,” of a single persona split into three aspects, or the various roles a woman might play in life.

Osgood’s score begins with the sound of a uterine heartbeat; only the dancers’ bare backs are visible–pulsing, rising and falling in unison. The image lasts longer than the viewer needs to mark the display of glowing skin over rippling muscles and shifting bones. The dancers wet their long, blond hair in three old-fashioned washtubs; they whip their heads back suddenly and the water flies across the stage in three golden arcs, pattering and shining on the black floor (the lighting for both dances was designed by Daedalus). Osgood baits the viewer: these images are simultaneously sensual, physical, and abstract; willingly or not, we are seduced. But when each dancer tilts her head and places one hand between her breasts and the other over her genitalia in the posture of Sandro Botticelli’s Venus, the image is irrevocably cliched: we start to wonder just what it is we’ve fallen for.

By the end of “Rogue,” Venus has grown self-conscious, no longer capable of believing her own platitudes about spring, beauty, a vision, no longer accepting what “Sandy” says. The trio’s movement echoes Venus’s changed consciousness: contractions initiated by the Botticelli hands; a hand stroking the opposite arm with the calculated deliberateness of a stripper; a frenzied, hunched tiptoeing. Movement and text both suggest ways of dealing with cultural expectations of women. Stereotypes can be internalized: Osgood shrinks, saying doubtfully, “Sandy says I am.” They can be accepted and exploited: Dankworth confronts the audience, standing with her hip cocked: “How d’ya think I got this job?” Or they can be overwhelming: LaSota folds into herself screaming “Vision! Vision!”

“Mother: Lust for Sleep” is an altogether simpler, more dancey work. In “Rogue,” the performers wear backless cutout black unitards; in “Mother,” fluid white trousers and layers of oversized white tops trimmed in black. In “Rogue” the performers’ energy is bound and their limbs are placed; “Mother” is characterized by flow and release. “Rogue” suggests that the dancers are compelled, “Mother” that they are impelled.

In “Mother,” the performers try to resolve the tension between two recurrent movement motifs: one is a series of swaying arm movements that suggest rocking a baby to sleep; the other, collapsing and rising from the floor. Clearly the floor and sleep are powerfully attractive here: a dancer half rises, only to sag back onto one elbow; her chest eases back toward the floor as her legs lift, turn, and start to pull her over, as if out of bed. The dancers rise to their hands and knees and stare half focused into the darkness as if trying to decide whether they really did hear something, whether they really do have to get up.

Ultimately the three dancers can’t get up. One refuses even to try, refuses to cooperate with the others’ attempts to lift her and set her in motion again: this is no beatific Madonna, but a woman beyond exhaustion. They walk offstage into the light, leaving her lying there. That final image suggests that however much one of a woman’s roles may buttress another, if there is a conflict between her needs and others’, it is her self that’s left behind.

The final section, “And Child: A Fire to Be Lit,” begins with a taped reading of a young woman’s letter to her mother, the model for Botticelli’s Venus. The words of the letter recur throughout the dance, a solo set on Shannon Raglin; the words are chopped and recombined in a way that parallels the repetition and reiteration of movement. The movement itself is vintage Osgood–a circling, extended leg that pulls the body into suspension and off its axis; dynamic rolls to, from, and across the stage; stops and starts–punctuated with poses that evoke both “Rogue” and “Mother.” Venus’s open hands covered her body; this child’s bent wrists and curled fingers call attention to hers. The mother sagged onto her elbow to rest; the child leans on hers for a boudoir photograph. Raglin wears a black-and-white polka-dot peplum and capri pants: she’s coquettish, self-aware, and naive all at once. “Child” is as open-ended as youth itself: after Raglin has folded her letter and walked offstage with it, the music continues to play and the stage remains lit, waiting for the next act.

The Dance Center is a beautiful setting for dances like Bartoszek’s and Osgood’s–the lighting and sound systems are more sophisticated and versatile than anything available elsewhere–but seeing their dances there reminds us of what Chicago has lost. The thriving community of independent choreographers who worked here in the early 80s–a community that included Bartoszek and Osgood–has dissipated like mist on the lake. Some choreographers have moved to other cities, some to other careers. We should recognize that Chicago has nonetheless a handful of choreographers making dances at least as interesting as their more noted national counterparts’.