at the Dancespace Performance Center

March 29 and 30 and April 5

Americans like their dance athletic and musical. Perhaps because sports are so popular in America, dance must be as visceral as gymnastics to succeed, and the steps in a dance are expected to follow the music like a shadow. MTV and the New York City Ballet are both subject to the same pressures from their audiences. But reaching for the inner meaning of a piece of music requires a subtle approach beyond many American dance audiences.

Take last fall’s White Oak Dance Project, with Mikhail Baryshnikov, among others, in Mark Morris’s choreography. Although Morris is known for the musicality of his dances, the White Oak concert showed that his choreography obsessively follows the music, with a step for each note. Dances that are visual illustrations of the music do not allow the dance to make its own separate statement.

Morris’s dances also make questionable class assumptions: a dance set to country-western music featured lewd, cartoonish characters, while dances set to classical music had refined, spiritual characters who would have been at home in a WASP novel. Morris’s unthinking acceptance of stereotypes betrayed a lack of imagination also shown in his cookie-cutter approach to the music.

More fruitful approaches to music were shown in works by Tim Buckley, Bob Eisen, and a Lincoln Park High School troupe in the “Spring Ahead” showcase, presented by the Chicago Dance Medium. Gravity Made Me Do It, Buckley’s dance for six women (Lauren Helfand, Abbey Kantor, Linda Lenart, Christy Munch, Rebecca Rossen, and Kathy Smith), is set to a Bartok sonata famous for using pianos as percussion instruments; the sonata has inspired many choreographers. Buckley tries to illustrate the music with dance, capturing its rapid shifts in rhythm and dynamics. A sudden accented chord in the music is accompanied by a sudden flip onto the arms. The opening measures of the music, which have a chord for every beat, are illustrated by slow walking patterns with one step per beat; the rhythm is like a prison that the dancers want to escape. Like Morris’s dances, much of this work seems imprisoned by the music. The dance longs to follow its own logic rather than Bartok’s logic. In the end, the piece is carried by the dancers’ dedication, by their strenuous fight against gravity, rather than by the ironclad choreography.

Buckley can be the most musical of choreographers–a fact shown much better in his Lost in the Translation than in the consciously “musical” Gravity Made Me Do it. Set to klezmer music, Lost in the Translation is as exuberant and light as Gravity Made Me Do It is weighted and operatic. Klezmer music, a Jewish folk music that originated in medieval Europe, absorbed so many different influences that it often seems a little dotty; we might hear a flamenco rhythm punctuate an Eastern European accordion tune. The music provides Buckley with a metaphor and a wide-open structure in which to play games with the logic of the dance. And Buckley plays these games with a vengeance. In the final section we see three duets: two women are at the back of the stage, draped over the ballet bars mounted on the wall; a man and woman are downstage rolling on the floor; and another man and woman are between the other two couples, midstage, doing what looks like a traditional partnering dance with the man lifting the woman. When the duets are performed simultaneously, we suddenly realize that all the couples are doing the same dance. The duets only look different because one is being done on the floor, another at the ballet bars, the third in a traditional partnering mode. This translation of a dance into different forms is both a lovely response to the polyglot origins of klezmer music and the stockin-trade of such postmodern choreographers as Twyla Tharp and Trisha Brown.

Buckley’s concept for Lost in the Translation gives him room to play and his fertile imagination fills in the rest. Buckley’s trademark movements–loosely flinging arms and rubber-legged falls–gain shading from the music; I started to imagine the dancers as characters from Fiddler on the Roof. Flights of imagination, seeing dolphins or peasants in a dancing body, are a kind of magic dance can evoke.

Buckley’s dancers here (Chicago Dance Medium members Julie Brodie, Balinda Craig-Quijada, Hector Cruz, Dawn Herron, Debra Janes, and Louis Miller) did a great job of helping to evoke that magic. Chicago Dance Medium under the direction of Rosemary Doolas is known for ballet-inspired modern dance; it’s a pleasure to see the company expand its range.

Sometimes dance and music together can reveal a kinship that is normally hidden. Though tap dance and rap music are both black art forms, we don’t ordinarily think of them as related. But when the Lincoln Park High School troupe danced It’s Time!!! the rhythms of tap and rap seemed half-brothers. Rap has a staccato, start/stop rhythm that differs from the gliding, melodic rhythms of tap, but both rely on great rhythmic density: many sounds within a short time. When Ramarcus Franklin started to dance in tap shoes in the M.C. Hammer style, the rap rhythms coming from tap shoes made me suddenly realize that tap and rap are two expressions of a cohesive African American culture.

Many choreographers use music as they might costumes or lights, to add dramatic flavor. In Serene Buick, Eisen uses music only during the last section; most of this dance for three women (Lydia Charaf, Kay Wendt LaSota, and Jeanette Welp) is performed in silence, each woman leaving her place at the back of the stage to fall or stagger across the space. For his choreography Eisen employs the chance methods pioneered by Merce Cunningham: he composes a few short phrases, each about 20 seconds long, then tosses coins or pulls numbers out of a hat (literally!) to determine which dancer will perform a phrase and when. Out of the random unconnected movements that chance methods of choreography elicit there sometimes arises a poetic sense of purpose. At other times such dances can seem pointless. What makes the difference between a beautiful and a stupid performance is often subtle: the performance space, the attitude of the dancers, even the weather outside. In this performance, the dancers’ commitment, a favorable performance space, and sufficient rehearsal time combined to make the dance memorable. To Winston Damon’s blatting trombone, which barely sounds like music, the three women engage in separate and unrelated tasks, carry a weight of exhaustion and dissolution. They resemble the three Fates at the finish of a world that ends with a whimper.

Even though most Americans think of dance as athletics set to music, many modern-dance choreographers continue to experiment with different relationships between rhythm and movement. Eisen uses music to create an atmosphere. Buckley uses music as part of his structure, constantly fighting to find a balance between his vivid imagination and his musical instincts. The Lincoln Park High School dancers, though they perform in conventional ways, have stumbled onto a wonderful correspondence between tap dancing and rap music, a connection I would love to see expanded.

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