Hedwig Dances Performance Company

at the Dance Center of Columbia College, April 21-23

Another critic once said to me that she thought dance was deeply conservative. I think I know what she meant–that dance doesn’t challenge cultural expectations. And it also sometimes simply looks stodgy. After all, unlike rock ‘n’ roll and performance, dance has been around for a while, and it doesn’t attack the culture verbally the way those forms often do.

Choreographers just don’t come across as the bad boys and girls of the arts, but though what dance says may not be revolutionary, its way of saying things is often radical. Just as abstract artists challenge our culture by producing works that are nonliteral and nonrepresentational, choreographers and dancers challenge our heavily verbal culture by making art that’s nonverbal. Dance takes circuitous, underground routes; it uses a rhetoric barely worthy of the name, creating impressions as fleeting as wind on water. Then someone like me comes along, analyzes the rhetoric, and makes dance look stodgy again. Maybe I should retire.

Hedwig Dances artistic director Jan Bartoszek and new artistic associate Sheldon B. Smith both work in this underground way. In Bartoszek’s Sweet Baby, Baby Suite the least underground sections are the humorous ones using props: dozens of dolls help us visualize Bartoszek’s ideas about being a young mother (her daughter was one year old when this dance was made, about a year ago). As bits of grandmotherly, motherly, doctorly, and neighborly advice are doled out in voice-over, dancers take turns balancing a doll on some part of the body, and often the image is quite literal: when the doctor advises “sleepy” nighttime feedings, the dancer’s head falls forward onto her own chest. And when dolls drop from above into the dancers’ arms, the point couldn’t be clearer: babies are mysterious objects that come out of nowhere and must be cared for, though their care is as mysterious as their origins.

The opening section of Sweet Baby also uses a doll, but here the point is more obscure. Ann Boyd focuses on and manipulates her particular bit of molded plastic so intently as to make it seem almost a real baby: she cradles it, holds it at arm’s length adoringly, gives it a ride on her shoulders as she crawls. The circle of light created by a lantern, the enclosed space created by a canopy, and the air of fascination, even enchantment that surrounds Boyd’s encircling movements all reproduce the kind of feeling I had when my own daughter was born: that I had to create a kind of fortress of light and warmth around her.

The doll in this scene closely approximates the little slab of adorable flesh a baby can seem, but even then it remains an object. Only in the next-to-last section, when the dolls are relegated to the background, does a genuine relationship between mother and child emerge. In two duets women lift each other, first formally and slowly, then with greater passion–and it’s impossible to tell who’s the mother and who’s the child. Instead the parity of their movements expresses their spiritual equality. All we see, looking into this spirit world, is intense involvement between two souls–an unusual view of motherhood communicated in an oblique way.

Even more underground is Bartoszek’s premiere, Clearing, Made of Dream. With the help of several talented collaborators she sketches a primeval outdoor space: Cheryl Anne Levin’s set consists of branches drawn into sheaves, tissuey fabric suspended like ragged clouds or old spiderwebs, and a circular room of similar fabric hanging in strips; Christy Munch’s rough, layered, homely costumes make the five figures in the dance look like medieval peasants; Ken Bowen’s warm lighting makes them seem carved and solid as hewn wood; and Lynn Book’s wonderful music, full of human sounds (breathing, humming, singing) and aural odds and ends (water gurgling, perhaps an old typewriter clacking, cloth ripping), seems the script for a story too mysterious for words.

The action is mysterious too, the pace deliberate and meditative. Two women emerge from beneath an ancient-looking patchwork quilt and slowly progress to a downstage corner (the “room” of shredded cloth). There one of them is left to spread out the crumpled quilt, pull down the walls of her dwelling, bundle them up in the quilt, and haul the whole parcel back to center stage, sometimes singing to herself. Meanwhile the other four dancers emerge from the wings to progress–often slowly–across the stage. Bartoszek’s careful, small motions for hands and feet reveal her faith in the modest gesture: the arm held high and hand opened slowly, as if dropping seeds; the patting motions for palms and fingers, as if tamping down dirt; the toes exploring the floor, like little independent creatures feeling for what’s ahead. In Bartoszek’s work the soft, lively, rhythmic motions of the hands often seem a dance in themselves. Later the dancers’ movements get bigger and faster–circling falls and leaps into a crouch–but the piece subsides quickly and abruptly into a mysterious coda, ending almost like a dream: that is, with no ending at all. It says something both good and bad about a work when it leaves you puzzled and provoked and wishing for more.

Smith’s 5-Line Sheave is much more kinetic than Bartoszek’s work, but just as provocative and mysterious. I saw a version of this piece in January, and it’s come a long way since then. Full of fast, furious movement and startling lifts and carries, it has a strong emotional pull. Part of that comes from the sense of community Smith creates: these six dancers–notably Meredith Bristol, Tatiana Sanchez, and Smith himself–have a gift for comedy. Four of them cluster around Bristol in what looks at first like a claustrophobic game of trust but quickly turns into a Rube Goldberg machine of quirky, half- aggressive perpetual motion as Bristol pushes someone’s shoulder, that person’s hand flies out and bops her back, and so on until all five dancers are passing energy from one to the other.

Despite the humor there’s something austere about Smith’s work, apparent here mainly in the high-tech score (by “Radon Daughters”–really Smith himself). Yet the music also has a subtle emotional texture: at times we hear a faint, pretty piano, not quite drowned out by heavy static; and some sections percolate excitedly, while others have the deep, reverent buzz of organ or bagpipe music. That emotional texture bolsters the theme of the choreography: taking risks, being suspended and falling. Male-female duets take many forms here, from stately revolutions around each other, arms raised as in a minuet, to sudden, ferocious leaps into unsuspecting arms. But Smith builds a strong sense of the value of relationship, so strong that any dancer who looks alone or separate at the end is an object of compassion. 5-Line Sheave is a funny, boisterous, tender meditation on romance, but a meditation as slippery as it is affecting.

This concert made me happy in part because it reveals the health of the local dance community. Jan Bartoszek, who’s been making dances here for almost 20 years, could easily have slipped from the scene when her daughter was born. Instead she solidified her place in the community by making Hedwig Dances the resident company at the Chicago Cultural Center and bringing in all kinds of other companies and choreographers to give classes and concerts. Among them was Sheldon Smith, and now she’s offered this talented newcomer a more permanent place, a niche. Because the sad and scary thing about this shadowy, radical, elusive form is that it needs a place to grow.

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