at the Athenaeum Theatre

November 13 and 14

Making art is not hard–an artist at work often feels as if she’s just playing–but its long history can make an artist nervous, as if Shakespeare or Beethoven were looking over her shoulder at every moment. The more intelligent she is, and the more she becomes aware of history, the more difficult her task becomes.

The composer hero in Herman Hesse’s novel Beneath the Wheel complains that history is like a brick wall: everything has been done before. The odd thing about this wall is that as you approach it, it disappears. When an artist really grapples with the history of her art, she can suddenly see many avenues to explore: the wall has holes big enough to dance through.

The wall that Winifred Haun has been facing is the jazz-modern dance idiom in which she was trained as a dancer for the Joseph Holmes Chicago Dance Theatre. The conflicting demands of jazz and modern dance–jazz dance drives toward popular acceptance, while modern retreats from it, orienting itself toward history instead–have pulled Haun in opposite directions.

She both expresses and makes light of these conflicts in her solo Offer Void, which starts with austere modern dance set to abstruse electronic music by Elliott Carter. Haun makes shapes that look painful and disturbing, such as one in which her arms are crossed and the back of each hand is placed against the opposite ear. Later she steps through a circle made by her clasped hands, then turns in attitude arabesque with her hands still loosely clasped between her legs. Suddenly a red backlight comes up, the music switches to Joe Cocker singing the Beatles song “She Came in Through the Bathroom Window,” and Haun struts toward the audience, her shoulders rolling and torso undulating in a fine parody of MTV style. After a few jetes, she lands in a squat with her head propped up by both hands, as if to say “What do I do now?” She tries twirling on her head, but ends slouched over while kneeling. When the tape suddenly cuts back to the electronic music, Haun’s kneeling shape looks vulnerable instead of dejected. Haun parodies her previous modern dance style, but even the parody breaks down into a sequence in which Haun slashes at the space with her clasped hands, as if using a sword to cut her way through the ghostly strands that bind her. When Joe Cocker starts to sing again, Haun switches back to a jazz style but then starts the same clasped-hands sequence. The dance ends with Haun grimacing at the audience as if to say “I give up.” She could not have drawn a more succinct portrait of a dancer trying to burst through the walls that history and theory have constructed around her.

The dead genius who looks most often over Haun’s shoulder is Martha Graham; Haun was trained in Graham technique with the Joseph Holmes company. Her piece for three women (Zineb Chraibi, Heather Girvan, and Lara Tinari), Trials, is an homage to Graham in mood, technique, and content. The dance develops as a sequence of still poses rather than as sequences of movement: Webern’s music, with its discrete sounds, has the same quality. Like Graham, Haun makes shapes that are evocative and inventive, and like Graham, Haun shades the shapes toward angst. The dance moves from supplication–movements of the hands reaching to the sky or dipping water from a pool–to violation, as Girvan pushes Tinari to the ground and forces her legs open. The dance resolves visually in a final shape that unifies many of the individual shapes but does not unify the dance emotionally.

To begin her fusion of jazz and modern dance Haun has first approached both idioms separately. Like many jazz dances that tell stories about the social world, Close My Eyes tells a story about drunkenness and debauchery–though it’s set to inward, dreamy music by John Zorn and the Kronos Quartet. Three women (Chraibi, Haun, and Tinari) and a man (Cuitlahuac Suarez) drink, flirt, force each other to dance and to sit in each other’s laps, hide the bottle, and pose for pictures. The strong technique Haun demands of her dancers shows clearly here–drunken runs are punctuated with stag leaps; flirting during a conversation is expressed in astonishing leg extensions; waltz steps evolve into lifts. Jazz dance’s cheery humor and sense of fun provide the overall mood, highlighted when Haun–a tall, strong woman–lifts Suarez as easily as he lifts tiny Tinari and Chraibi.

The modern dances Next and Other Sides are more like choreographic exercises than fully felt dances. In Next Haun explores a technique that fills the stage with movement: the dancers sometimes dance in unison and sometimes a dancer performs a solo. Unlike ballet, where the corps always frame the soloist, in the modern Next the dancers emerge from the group for their solos before blending back in. The interesting music has the Uptown String Quartet playing a blues tune, complete with strummed violin. In Other Sides (of which only the second section was performed), Haun uses the folding chairs that seem to be obligatory for all modern choreographers. This is an amusing duet for an arguing couple, but otherwise it doesn’t add anything new. In both these dances the history of modern dance overwhelms Haun’s intentions.

In her premiere, East 90/94, Haun starts to pull together the threads in the previous dances and build her own synthesis of jazz and modern. The dance covers everything that happens to a person in a single day–a hoary topic in modern dance, an assignment I got in my beginning choreography class. But Haun throws herself into this work, basing it on the life of a Chicago commuter; it’s a topic close enough to the lives of her audience to find wide appeal and also rich enough for reflection. Haun captures the nuances of different moods throughout the day–the high-energy morning rush hour and the dragging, endless evening rush hour, the sudden sexual reveries that seem to hit in mid-afternoon, the quiet time with yourself just before sleeping. Haun’s commuter is constantly in motion: on the freeway, negotiating demands at work, and negotiating relationships at home. The dancers (Tammy Cheney, Chraibi, Cora Donaldson, Girvan, Haun, Malcolm Low, and Tinari) more than meet the demands of Haun’s nonstop choreography.

The world of East 90/94 is a hostile one in which every public space is overcrowded, work is meaningless, and sexual relationships are predatory. When the commuter arrives home and slams the door on the outside world, the dance suddenly shifts into a nurturing familial world in which the dancers literally support each other in lifts and falls. The clearest image is the first, where two dancers crawl onto the stage on their hands and knees, both with other dancers on their backs–on their hands and knees. Haun’s portrait of a supportive private world against the background of a hostile public world is a little cliched–it’s the worldview of my Depression-era parents–but she bursts the cliche by the force of her emotion. For me, the dance shows the emotional depths where sex, intimacy, and love merge.

Haun’s synthesis of jazz and modern dance requires her to reconcile pop music and contemporary classical music–to connect Karlheinz Stockhausen with Peter Gabriel, as she does in East 90/94. She has set many dances to crossover music, from the blues performed by a string quartet in Next to the Kronos Quartet’s version of Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Haze” in Haze, but the dances have not succeeded because their music attempts only a shallow formal synthesis of styles. Peter Gabriel’s “Red Rain” in the supportive section of East 90/94 comes much closer to the depth of feeling that is classical music’s achievement.

Like Hesse’s hero in Beneath the Wheel, Haun is looking for a chink in the wall–a small area not already occupied by other dancers–that she can claim as her own. But another of Hesse’s protagonists might be a better model: in Steppenwolf the hero walks through the looking glass of the magic theater and hears the laughter of Goethe and Mozart. The laughter of the Immortals mocks all of the petty distinctions we make between Jazz Dance and Modern Dance, between Pop Culture and Fine Art. I heard the beginnings of that laughter in East 90/94.