Venetia Stifler & Concert Dance, Inc. with AM/FM

at Mundelein College Auditorium

March 31 and April 1, 7, and 8

“The Chicago Project,” performed by Concert Dance, Inc., is meant to celebrate Chicago architecture. The choreography is by a Chicago dancer, Venetia Stifler; the set, made up of architectural photos, is by a Chicago teacher, Frank Vodvarka; and the music is by Chicago composers Paul Solberg and Rick Snyder.

Quite a coup, if you can pull it off. Here’s how the company’s brochure describes the project’s method: “The use of space and materials, light and texture, design and dynamics are fused photographically and kinesthetically to develop an awareness for the unique scenes and flavor of this landmark midwestern metropolis.”

Unfortunately the confusions and loose ends evident in this sentence also pervade the work. How exactly are these elements to be fused, and by whom? What’s the awareness being developed, and in whom? And what is the unique flavor of our city?

Stifler divides “The Chicago Project” into three parts, performed in the following order: Magic Spaces (1985), Private Places (1988), and Corporate Cases (1989). Each of these sections is further divided into four or five parts. When a thing is divided, one naturally suspects a principle of organization. I tried several. The first was that Magic Spaces saw Chicago architecture objectively, Private Places (which the program said exhibited “conditions in the heart and mind”) subjectively. This left Corporate Cases out on a limb, and anyway when I started to think about how dance might interpret architecture “objectively” the idea didn’t make much sense. The dancers would simulate an arch? Or a spiral staircase? They’d still be performing the choreographer’s idea of the architectural object.

So I tried another one. The projected photographs in Magic Spaces are all of Chicago landmarks designed by the likes of Sullivan, Burnham and Root, and Holabird and Root. In Private Places, the architecture is mainly residential. Corporate Cases has a lot of photos of more recent public architecture, a lot of skyscraper glass. But Private Places is not exclusively residential–the Lincoln Park Conservatory is part of the section called “Windows,” and one whole section, “Light Walls,” is devoted to Navy Pier. Moreover, Corporate Cases opens with a section, “Morning Light,” that appears to evoke a domestic scene.

But what really made it hard to find an organizing principle in “The Chicago Project” was the fact that the choreography in all three sections looks the same. True, slight differences emerge–Magic Spaces is the most laudatory in its approach to the architecture, Private Places the most earnest, and Corporate Cases the most ironic–but the same movements appear throughout, and many of those are drawn from a familiar vocabulary. Too often I looked at the dance, looked at the architecture (beautifully photographed by Vodvarka), and asked myself: what’s the connection? (Later it occurred to me that none was ever intended, that the architecture was merely a classy setting for Stifler’s choreography. But for her to be so self-centered seems unlikely.)

The music was no help at all, partly because it was insufficiently mysterious. In Private Places, Snyder’s music for “Light Walls” is expectedly eerie, and for “Threshold” expectedly tentative. In “Under the Big Top,” which closes Corporate Cases, Snyder uses a familiar circus-organ ditty. The dancers are already in clown and ringmaster costumes, so what’s the point? Snyder also tends to open his pieces with a bang that makes them sound fresh at first, but they quickly degenerate into monotony. (Solberg composed the generally more imaginative music for Magic Spaces.)

Perhaps it’s the choreography that makes the music seem to wind down so inevitably. Stifler has a certain expertness–this is clearly not the work of an amateur–but it doesn’t add up to anything. As music visualization it’s rather ordinary, perhaps partly because the music is unremarkable. As a comment on Chicago architecture it’s either unintelligible or boring. Why, for example, in the “City Hall” section of Magic Spaces do the three women dancers behave so solemnly? They’re like vestal virgins depositing and then picking up and releasing a sacred item–but what is it? On the other hand, in “The Rookery,” danced by Stifler herself, the soloist’s “dignified” arms are such a perfect match with the architecture’s serenity that the piece is dead, tells us nothing.

Perhaps the choreography has so little impact because it’s impersonal. I never got the sense that the dancers were really dancing with each other, or that Stifler was aware of her dancers’ different physiques and styles or attempted to play off them. You see Tari Gallagher, who’s tremendously strong, almost masculine, next to Rachel Burton, who’s tiny and childlike, and although the interactive possibilities are striking, they’re never explored.

The one section to come alive was the duet “Board of Trade” in Magic Spaces. For once a dance had some human and choreographic texture: Lane Alexander does a tap dance, limited and vertical, while Kelly Michaels sweeps in modern-dance circles all over the stage behind him. Here there is something playful, and the unnamed section that follows (to Sarah Vaughan’s “Dancing in the Dark”) is also whimsical: Michaels dances tenderly and affectingly with a chair.

Special guest AM/FM, which stands for “Alexander, Michaels/Future Movement,” opened the program with two dances. This men’s duet company, formed by and composed of the two male CDI dancers, has nothing futuristic about it. But its very lack of pretension, juxtaposed as it was with “The Chicago Project,” was a relief.

There’s something unexpectedly gentle about the choreography of Kelly Michaels’s Shamrocks. Using music by James Galway and the Chieftains, Michaels manages to evoke the Irishman’s reputed belligerence and tenderness in three short pieces dedicated, apparently, to members of his family. A cradling gesture that appears in the first section, “For Grandpa,” recurs in the last, “Pat’s Favorite.” Michaels’s choreography is filled with circles, and his dancing has the quality of a rubber band stretched and released, over and over, but never snapped.

Lane Alexander choreographed Ragtime, which is exclusively tap. I found these three pieces pleasant. Alexander, dancing “Dill Pickles,” is appropriately sour, grim, and ramrod straight from the waist up. My favorite was “Jovial Jasper,” in which Alexander and Michaels sport identical cheesy grins but different personas, which are most evident in their musically adept exit. In “Log Cabin Blues” the choreography’s nonchalance crept into Michaels’s insouciant gesture when he inadvertently lost a spat: he just tossed it offstage. Here were men at work, shirtsleeves rolled up, but at least they were having a little fun too.