at Link’s Hall, September 24-26

I started to wonder about the cliche “the language of dance” as I watched an Asian family in front of me at Daniel Lepkoff’s postmodern dance concert at Link’s Hall. If I went to a concert of South Asian dance I’m sure I’d be mystified, but I might be struck by its sensual details–stamping feet, intricate costumes, interlocking drums and bells. The Asian family might not have known what Lepkoff’s dance meant, but here there were few sensual details–the costumes were simple, there was no music, and the atmosphere was both serious and silly. Then I realized that a WASP family from Arlington Heights might be just as mystified.

Sometimes dance is almost a language in which certain movements mean certain things–as in Balinese dance, where a hand gesture might communicate that “the man crossed the river” or “he met a tiger.” Modern dancers tend to use a movement to indicate a specific emotion, such as a soaring leap to represent sexual passion, and the viewer must know or be able to intuit its language. But postmodern dance represents certain social and political ideas not so much through individual movements as through its approach. Postmodern dance refuses to use dance’s traditional tools, a “back to the earth” approach that’s meant as a critique of our consumer society, among many other things. So the key to understanding postmodern dance is realizing what is not allowed.

Lepkoff’s brand of postmodern dance does not allow planning: most of the dances in this concert were partially or completely improvised. In You’re Down There With This Incredible Blue Fish and . . ., seven participants from Lepkoff’s workshop–Ron Bieganski, Bob Eisen, Kay Wendt LaSota, Kathleen Maltese, Donna Mandel, Cynthia Reid, and Michele Marie White–created “real-time compositions” with Lepkoff himself. The intent was to discover choreographic elements while improvising and build a dance from them. For example, White hid behind a pillar that protruded slightly into the room, then Mandel hid on the other side of the pillar; White stretched into an arabesque to touch Mandel, who supported herself on a silver-painted radiator. This image lasted a few moments until Mandel, then White, melted to the ground. Such moments seemed almost Japanese in their emphasis on the fleeting nature of things.

But most of the movement was busy and naive rather than delicate. A dancer would try out a movement, discard it a few moments later, and go on to another movement. Lepkoff might shuffle quickly across the floor, muttering to himself, then stop suddenly and twist into a mock-heroic pose. Meanwhile another dancer might be crouched in a corner with two other dancers hovering over her. Such overstuffed dances create a bright, gaudy effect, reminding me of the outsider art of the Reverend Howard Finster and of decorations at the Nightcrawler Cafe and Cafe Voltaire, in which raw colors and busy patterns cover every available inch of the tables and chairs. This kind of outsider art, which includes Lepkoff’s, celebrates raw materials: color, shape, movement. Yet it’s not always sensually pleasing, because the profusion of material may or may not jell into a single aesthetic statement. Outsider art can be in refreshingly bad taste, particularly in its refusal to adopt a unifying theme, exhibiting a charming naivete. But when it fails, it’s as irritating and jarring as Tijuana at night.

The twin themes of naivete and ephemerality come together in Lepkoff’s solo The Sadness of the Lightning Bugs. As the stage lights blink quickly on and off, Lepkoff darts around the stage like a child trying to capture them. His frantic falling off his center, then catching himself again does in the end create a sense of sadness that lightning bugs, summer, and lives are all ephemeral.

Postmodern dance also discourages conventional uses of the stage space. Since the time of Greek drama the stage has been a sacred space: whatever happens onstage exists on a different level than everyday life. Onstage, movement must be pure, and emotions must be deep and powerful. But postmodern dance, like performance art, tries to defuse the stage’s power; it puts mundane movement onstage, in part to show the sacred side of everyday things. A classic postmodern moment occurs in You’re Down There: Mandel braids her hair, and the movement of her hands performing a long-practiced action is perfect–agile, efficient, yet somehow vulnerable.

Lepkoff’s second solo, Look at Me, and I Am Here, came down more on the crass Tijuana side. Lepkoff enters wearing a dark suit and holding a cup. He narrates what he’s doing: “I am holding a cup, looking at the shadows that fall across it.” He imagines a whole world inside it, with skyscrapers and people. Then he metamorphoses into a street-corner bum, holding out the cup for change. He leaves the stage and reenters wearing a flowered kimono over black pants and a gold shirt. He cries until he laughs, then laughs hysterically while curled in a fetal position. He takes off the kimono and dances like a burly overgrown boy to Beethoven, as if the music were kitsch. The connecting thread between all these parts seems to be only inside his head.

The Friday night concert I saw was an “off” night: the dances had many long, dull passages, and the Asian family left at intermission. By all reports the Saturday night concert was an “on” night; yet I wonder if a couple from Arlington Heights would have understood and appreciated Lepkoff’s language. What he values–spontaneity, childlike innocence, and rebellion–might be too countercultural for them. And for me, an odor of mustiness clings to those 60s values.

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