at the Weinstein Center for the Performing Arts

May 1 and 2

Winifred Haun is someone to watch. Though this young Chicago choreographer has been making dances only for the last two or three years, the eight short works in her recent concert at the Weinstein Center for the Performing Arts revealed a gathering strength and sureness.

The two earliest, from 1990 (wisely, the dances were not chronologically arranged on the program), experiment with formal qualities and abstraction. Next opens with a line of seven dancers (Sue Collins, Heather Girvan, Haun, Mary Heller, Sarah McAfee, DeShona Pepper, and Lara Tinari) who peel off one by one; it’s like people leaving a bank line for the teller, but the dancing is angular, balletic, not at all naturalistic. More than once Haun juxtaposes a dancer standing with a dancer kneeling but arranges their limbs as much alike as possible. In Trials (Collins, Girvan, and Heller) she experiments again with lines of dancers and with placing dancers at different levels, and she adds some sharply defined details: two dancers stand with their arms shooting up but hold their hands differently–one cups hers and the other, her arms twined, puts palms together and makes a serpent’s head–while the third dancer, on the floor, raises a leg and offers a pointed foot.

Among Chicago choreographers Haun seems unusually exacting about details. In Next a leg kicked forward with a flexed foot is swung back into a classic arabesque. We sense–though we couldn’t always see in the dancing–that such details are meant to be performed just so. Haun’s ballet training may be an influence, as well as her experience dancing with the Joseph Holmes Chicago Dance Theatre, a troupe that demands a high level of technical accomplishment. But for whatever reason, in Haun’s choreography limbs are often stretched and every position is well defined, and the dancers should make such details clearly visible. Line is important, whether the movement is classical or some oddment Haun has made up. And she’s no easier on herself and her audience than she is on her dancers: she consistently chooses difficult music, the Uptown String Quartet playing jazz in Next, Anton Webern for Trials.

The three dances made in 1991 move away from pure form into drama and emotion. Close My Eyes is the clearest case: this dance for three women and a man (McAfee, Pepper, Tinari, and David Fernandez) uses props–a table, some chairs, wine bottles and glasses–and naturalistic movement to damn drinking and drunks. The performers crawl across the floor, tango, slap at each other, clink their glasses, yet Haun never abandons dancing or the classical vocabulary, which she splices into the drama in surreal but evocative ways: suddenly a dancer’s standing on the table with her leg in a high extension, or the three women stand and turn in arabesque. In this work Haun adopts a clear rhetoric to make a clear point: the dancer rolling on the floor in a fetal curl clutching a bottle is far from glamorous.

Remember is also a drama of sorts, though the context and meaning are less clear. The five women (Girvan, Heller, McAfee, Pepper, and Tinari) start out in a close, symbiotic arrangement, but eventually one is isolated from the others. This dance is filled with impatient, anxious movement–pacing, jiggling, twitching–that together with the women’s apparent hostility and indifference to each other make the piece almost painful to watch. Press materials say this work was choreographed during the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings and that it “explores feminine problem solving approaches,” but I found it both more emotionally charged and less explicit politically than this description implies.

Deep Breath, the third work from 1991, is more abstract. Here the occasionally muddy performances and large ensemble–eight women–made the dance difficult to see and even harder to appreciate. The pieces from 1992 are smaller and were much better performed. Haun herself danced Offer Void, and it was a great pleasure to find oneself in the hands of a real artist, someone whose every look was under control, who sustained or lost her balance at her own discretion.

Like Offer Void, the duet Other Sides (Section II) surprises us with its humor. As the lights come up, we see a man and woman (Malcolm Low and Pepper) seated on folding chairs hand in hand, their forearms raised in a sort of “shall we dance?” pose. When he leans away, she leans with him, then sprawls across his lap; once they’re sitting again he flips her hand away. The work’s mercurial shifts in feeling and the constantly shifting balance of power in this relationship are what hold our attention. This lighthearted lovers’ quarrel has a naturalistic side–the dancers often put their heads in their hands, for instance, suggesting boredom or hostility–but overall the work is less heavy-handed than Close My Eyes, and the dancing is better integrated with the drama. Other Sides is also unusually fluid; in other works the dancers are apt to move from one held position to another with the phrasing if not the vocabulary of classical ballet.

In the one premiere, Callate (“Quiet!” in Spanish), Haun broaches the political overtly. This solo opens with a man (Fernandez, who danced with considerable presence and control) standing bent over with his hands on his knees; when he stands we see he’s shirtless. Then he whips his torso forward again, with a big breath out, almost as if he were being whipped. He walks in a circle, holding his upper arm in a defensive posture; turns to look at us over his shoulder as if in arrested flight, his hand over his mouth.

So far, no music. When it does begin (Indonesian music by the Gebluk Ensemble), Fernandez’s movements become more puppetlike: he simultaneously pulls up an arm and the opposite leg; stands upright, then falls out of kilter; raises his arms and quickly drops and raises one, then the other, with little arches to the side. Movements from the opening section–runs, drops forward, hands covering the mouth–are repeated, but the defensiveness is extended and exaggerated: at one point the dancer even wraps both arms around his head. The suggestions in Callate of torture and repression are just that–suggestions only–but they have an authority and sculpted drama that create genuine sympathy. Haun seems a woman of passion who’s nevertheless capable of an almost astringent self-assessment and control. And anyone who can both branch out and edit like this is soon going to have a thing or two to show us.

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