at the Dance Center of Columbia College, February 4-6

At first glance, the last two concerts at the Dance Center of Columbia College could not seem more different. Joseph Holmes Chicago Dance Theatre, under the artistic direction of Randy Duncan, is struggling to become a commercially successful and nationally known company. Bob Eisen is probably the most noncommercial choreographer in Chicago; his dances are routinely described as “challenging” and “idiosyncratic.” The Joseph Holmes company, which regularly performs in large theaters, packed the Dance Center’s small space at ticket prices of $20; Eisen’s pickup company half filled the theater at ticket prices of $12.

Yet Duncan and Eisen are working in remarkably similar ways. Both use accomplished dancers, though the athleticism of the Joseph Holmes dancers is more obviously virtuosic. Both respond strongly to the music they choose, though the free jazz that Eisen uses makes the musical motivation of his dances harder to see. Both are intuitive, sensitive men whose dances are often about the task of being men. In short, both are working at the limits of their craft–a fact that leads to unexpected convergences.

The Joseph Holmes company presented Medley, Keith Lee’s suite of seven dances set to music of Marvin Gaye, and several dances by the late Joseph Holmes: The Long Road, He & She, and Oh, Mary Don’t You Weep. Like the pop songs to which they’re set, these dances have a simple, clear hook: if the hook works, you love the dance; if it doesn’t, the dance looks as shallow as a bad pop song.

None of the hooks worked for me. Because I grew up in a small town, Marvin Gaye’s music was not part of my life; as a result Medley meant almost nothing to me except some dance pyrotechnics. Holmes’s dances seemed dated. The Long Road, for instance, uses a heroin addict, a middle-aged woman abandoned by her lover, and a woman in poverty to illustrate the range of women’s grief; this prefeminist piece offers a remarkably stereotyped vision of women.

Duncan’s dances are several steps beyond Holmes’s. The music for his Unarmed is a Sinead O’Connor song that sounds like a combined military march and funeral procession. While O’Connor clearly intends a comment on Northern Ireland’s continuing disturbances, Duncan uses the music to present a single, unarmed man alone in a spotlight. The company’s press release explains that the dance “explores the fears, loneliness and bravery of soldiers” on the eve of battle; the dance itself does not tell this story but communicates well the feeling of a man alone and afraid but resolute. The dance demands great strength from dancer Arturo Alvarez; his performance contributes to the sense of resoluteness.

Duncan’s newest dance, Initiation, is again about men; it uses the company’s five other male dancers: Keith Elliott, Eddy Jackson, Cuitlahuac Suarez, Roger Turner, and Rodni Williams. The commissioned score, by Tom Kast, employs drums and a wooden flute to evoke a primitive world; the loinclothlike costumes and the half-light created by designer Catherine Young enhance the sense that the setting is an Indian camp fire. The men clamber on top of one another or twist themselves into pretzels while being held by another man–movement that requires immense strength in the arms and shoulders, which only men have. The physical contact and the strength, the holding and lifting, recall the intimacy of boyhood, when wrestling and fighting were forms of bonding. The music, costumes, and lighting create the primitive atmosphere of a men’s-movement retreat, while the dance re-creates a “primitive” time in a man’s life. Duncan captures well a retreat’s creative regression to childhood; it reminds me that boyhood may have been the last time many men felt an uncomplicated love for another person.


at the Dance Center of Columbia College, February 11-13

Duncan’s Initiation is an intricate, ingenious machine, carefully constructed to achieve a purpose and hide that purpose: it almost begs to be deconstructed. Most of Bob Eisen’s dances cannot be deconstructed because they’re made out of unrelated bits and pieces, like Duchamp’s assemblages. The set for his Event #2 (by Tom Melvin) is a perfect representation of Eisen’s aesthetic–it’s made up of rusting screens and old doors, salvaged from Melvin’s basement, hung from the ceiling so as to suggest the outlines of a stage, complete with proscenium arch. The whole space is a lovely contradiction: Eisen exposes the Dance Center’s lighting instruments and other stagecraft machinery, then creates a new stage space out of the hovering rusted screens. The set has a message–dance always takes place in a stage space, but the machinery of theatrical illusion doesn’t create an honest space–that’s like a manifesto.

Eisen’s Event #2 is modeled on Merce Cunningham’s happenings in the 1960s. Each dancer dances the same set phrase and then improvises; the order in which the dancers appear and of their other phrases is determined by chance just before each performance. This is the polar opposite of Holmes’s work. Holmes’s hooks are narrow but can be powerful–the dance grabs at your heart, and you either love it or hate it. Eisen’s happening has a broad, diffuse quality that never grabs your attention or your heart but slowly penetrates your mind with large questions. Why do I expect reason and order in a dance? Why do I expect reason and order at any time?

I’ve seen this work three times before in smaller spaces; this version is bigger, longer, and more open-ended. The images, which have always seemed accidental, seem eloquent now. The image of dancer Dan Prindle hanging from a trapeze bar for several minutes while dancers below him wrestle playfully suggests separation, isolation, and endurance; dancers walking with glacial slowness as they carry suitcases seem to be leaving the world behind as they walk into darkness.

Eisen favors strongly physical movement: he will simply fling himself onto the floor, then get up, and repeat that movement 20 times until he’s exhausted. The Joseph Holmes dancers are also physical, though “athletic” describes them better–they leap high and fling themselves to the floor to roll to their feet miraculously unhurt. The Joseph Holmes dancers are superhuman; Eisen is all too human. He also favors “found” movement: bits of ballet, aikido, contact improvisation, and modern dance. No movement has any intrinsic meaning or feeling: Eisen’s skill comes in fitting these rummage-sale leftovers into intricate group movement.

His premiere, Group Piece, seems as inspired by its music as Holmes’s dances. The score, written by Michael Zerang and performed by him and the Vandermark Quartet, is a dissonant work of free jazz mixing textures and voices; it sounds like a collaboration between Schoenberg and Sun Ra. Although Zerang and Eisen worked completely independently, bringing the dance and music together only the day before the first performance, the dance mirrors the score startlingly well. Each dancer’s unpredictable, headlong movement seems to embody one of the voices that appear and disappear in Zerang’s score; Eisen’s idiosyncratic movement seems to have found a home in Zerang’s careful chaos.

Group Piece is not as physical as Eisen’s other dances; its wild, almost out-of-control movement is always centered and seems to twine around itself. The dance and music focus momentarily on a specific image and feeling, then it’s on to the next moment. At one point three of the six dancers fall to the floor while Eisen and Sheldon B. Smith carry Scott Putman by his stiffened arms; after they lay Putman down, Eisen and Smith dance a short duet among the prone bodies. The image is of friendship among the corpses, and its feeling is surprisingly delicate.

Eisen is aided by his excellent dancers: Juli Hallihan-Campbell, Carl Jeffries, Shannon Raglin, Julie Worden, Prindle, Putman, and Smith. Their precise control embodies Isadora Duncan’s precept: “Strength at the center; freedom at the surface.” Even when performing wild, odd movement, these dancers are always in control and shift easily into the next movement. The Joseph Holmes dancers stun us with their strength and flexibility, but the subtler craft of these dancers is no less stunning.

Eisen’s images seem to be autobiographical. In Event #2 the man suspended above the fray and holding on for his life and the person slowly traveling into darkness seem bleak depictions of an exhausted man facing the end of his career. Duncan’s images are more apt to depict social life than individual life–a man caught up in war or trying to find that inner child. Duncan’s dances reach out, speaking about the problems that preoccupy people. Eisen’s dances reach inward, and their howl of pain makes them endure in memory.

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