Chicago’s Next Dance Festival

at the Athenaeum Theatre, through February 5

By Terry Brennan

One of my friends, an officer in the army, told me about how different branches of the services promote officers, and why the air force reformed its approach. Under the old system, if two officers were otherwise equally qualified but the first had a one-star general’s recommendation while the second had a two-star general’s recommendation, the second officer was automatically promoted. So a rational officer learned to curry favor with generals, and the higher the general’s ranking, the better. Naturally a general could count on his subordinates to support any pet projects, even if they had to lie. My friend’s point was that the method used to select military leaders has a critical impact on their character; he called it the “social reproduction of leaders.”

For the last 15 years or so, Chicago’s modern dance community has had its own means of social reproduction. A series of programs at the MoMing Dance & Arts Center, starting with the “Dance for $1.98” series, gave brand-new choreographers the opportunity to show their work. When MoMing folded in 1989, Jan Bartoszek of Hedwig Dances took on the task of incubating modern dance talent, producing a series of choreographers’ showcases. And six years ago Winifred Haun started the Next Dance Festival. That continuity in nurturing modern choreographers is rather extraordinary given dance’s perpetual funding crisis; the difficulty of maintaining such a tradition is shown by the number of times the baton has been passed. But the continuity has often paid off in the fine character of the choreographers produced. In the first weekend of three in the Next Dance Festival, all the choreographers offered solid work, pursuing specific visions with inventiveness and discipline; but most appealing was their generosity of spirit and lack of ego.

The dances fell roughly into two types: extroverted comic works and introverted abstract works. The wonder of the concert was Jsun Ohlberg’s The Needy & Nasty for his company, Same Planet Different World. In this hysterically funny quintet, an affectionate send-up of traditional dancing, a dancer presents a single rose to another dancer, presumably as an emblem of love. That dancer presents the rose to someone else, and before long the dancers are stealing the rose from one another. The plot is lifted from David Parsons’s The Envelope, performed here often by Hubbard Street Dance Chicago. And indeed the piece also recalls Jiri Kylian’s Sechs Tanze–also performed by Hubbard Street–both in its Mozart score and in its approach. But instead of powder flying from wigs, Ohlberg has the dancers scatter rose petals, a cliched but seldom seen image in dance that he spoofs. Here dancers cross the floor dozens of times streaming petals; the effect is generous, ridiculously funny excess. The dancing is classical but with modern subversions–women lift men; women descend from a lift with a slinky, slithering movement; torsos twist in ways that ballet would never permit. This is astonishing if somewhat derivative work that effortlessly melds many styles.

Another extroverted piece is Paula Frasz’s American Girls. Frasz has developed a style of quick-sketch portraiture well used here in four solos. The uptown girl is all black leather-clad pretense; the downtown girl is high-heeled and frenetic; the suburban girl is a ditsy brunet in a magenta wig and black lipstick; the country girl takes off her cowboy boots as if taking off chains to dance in sweeping movements before a starry backdrop. The best solo is the downtown career girl, danced well by Tarah Brown, who blasts through her busy, obsessive movement at top speed; this is an especially well observed comic portrait.

Breakbone DanceCo. presents two multimedia pieces, one extroverted and one introverted. The extroverted piece, A Day in the Life of Gauche MŠnn, Belgian Cartoon Solo-Artist, starts as a video of someone playing the cartoon character the Tick, dressed in bright yellow stretch polyester with a stocking covering his face. The Tick gets up to a breakfast of Trix, his bowl surrounded by cartoon action figures that he clearly adores; he spends the rest of the morning watching cartoons and playing with his dolls. The Tick then shows up live, entering through the audience with a videographer in tow: we see the Tick and his video image simultaneously–a clever but shallow gimmick. The Tick ends up onstage performing halfhearted dance parodies before he slips off.

The introverted piece, Woe, is a solo choreographed and performed by Sheldon B. Smith. A lonesome figure at first anchored in the middle of a dark stage, he’s circled by the same videographer. His costume, designed by Atalee Judy, is a wild black wig, a golden tunic with a hoop bottom, and four-foot extensions on his arms something like stilts; gold stars in his wig hint at a crown of thorns. The score, also by Smith, features an a cappella male chorus singing in the style of Gregorian chant over a synthesized rhythm track. Brief and undeveloped, Woe is mainly a startling visual and aural image–Gethsemane covered by paparazzi.

Two pieces by the Dance COLEctive were both introverted. Ann Boyd’s solo for Margi Cole, …Through Night as Long as Rain…, is set in a blank space that seems to represent a midnight of the soul. Cole often stands wordlessly and motionlessly as a voice babbles incoherently in a sound collage. Then she bursts into powerful, feral movement, sweeping across the stage for a few moments. Cole’s quintet, Trembling in the Balance, is more abstract and musical. Although the music is driving pop, the dancers move to their own shared rhythm. Though abstract, the piece has something of a plot: two pairs of dancers work with and against each other and with an independent agent (Cole). The rhythms of these different groups form a whole, and a precise performance enables us to hear and see the rhythms.

Jennifer Grisham’s abstract trio Alucy Glimce focuses on creating a sensual, self-absorbed mood. In the first half of the piece slow, chewy movement is set to languorous music by Tortoise. As the tempo picks up, Grisham’s dancers perform the same sequence double-time–which changes the tone substantially, though the earlier sensual quality lingers. Unfortunately, Grisham can’t figure out what to do with the faster music, and the dance loses direction.

Most impressive about this concert, considering that it featured such a large and varied group, is that, though many dances could have been improved, there were no failures. (I’d say that in most showcases 30 percent of the pieces have serious flaws.) It appears that the long-term commitment of the modern dance community to training artists is paying off.

One person who had a hand in that tradition of molding and supporting artists was David K. Smith, who helped raise funds for the Next Dance Festival and served on its board of directors from the fest’s inception until his death earlier this month of complications from the flu: this series is dedicated to his memory. In the patchwork fashion of many artists and arts administrators, David also worked with Muntu Dance Theatre of Chicago, Winifred Haun & Dancers, the Chicago Dance Coalition, the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs, the Dance Center of Columbia College, the Chicago Actors Ensemble (he was instrumental in transforming what was the Preston Bradley Community Center at Lawrence and Sheridan into a performing space), and at Chocolate Chips Theatre Company as an actor. An enthusiastic, gentle man too young to die, David worked tirelessly behind the scenes to make shows like this one happen; he will be missed.

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