at the Harold Washington Library Auditorium, November 11 and 13

Lovers of dance like to watch: there’s something deeply voyeuristic about watching dance onstage, something that goes beyond the attraction of ogling nearly naked bodies. Wallflowers at a social dance can jump up and join in, but viewers of concert dance are stuck in their seats. And what are they doing while stuck there? Most likely imagining, as all voyeurs do, themselves in the bodies of the young, graceful, often sexy performers. And that’s the bottom line when it comes to watching dance. It’s not a particularly pretty line. It’s just a fact. A fact MTV uses to sell a lot of music.

Sherry Zunker Dow, artistic director of the River North Dance Company, formed in 1989, understands these impulses well. She has a background in jazz dance and has done mostly commercial work (television, movies, music videos) and musical theater, and it shows. Her appealingly extroverted dancers are clearly there to entertain, not to indulge themselves or the choreographer. It’s no coincidence that the company was the subject of a recent TV documentary (made by HMS Video) and that its performances at the Harold Washington Library Center sold out. Zunker Dow opened these concerts with a shortened, remixed version of that video. This is a woman who knows about liking to watch.

Zunker Dow consciously apes music videos in her Reality of a Dreamer, set to the Eurythmics song “Sweet Dreams,” enhanced by Doug Johnson’s live amplified bass fiddle. The piece is lit (by Todd Clark) to look smoky and grainy, and the often slow, sinuous choreography has the same allure and drama of slow-motion video. At one point the dancers even lip-synch the song.

Reality is a big piece, danced by the entire company of 13, seemingly made to be taped: most of the women wear black bras and thongs barely covered by some filmy black stuff, the men tight black bodysuits with a huge zipper running from neck to groin. The yawning dissonance in the music comes through in the dancers’ big swings of the hips, in the shivery convulsions that suck pelvises in and throw the arms out. Performed mostly in unison, this piece oozes sexual yearning. Near the end the dancers bob in place, pulling their arms into their bodies like pistons moving almost faster than the eye can see, heads bowed: engines idling way too high. Audiences may have been lured here by television’s slickness, but what they got was dance that’s hotter onstage than on-screen.

River North’s hot, hip dances also do some discreet gender bending. Unisex choreography in Reality of a Dreamer features the androgynous Wilfredo Rivera. Jeffrey Hancock dancing Derrick Evans’s A House Is Not a Home is languid and vulnerable, while Stephanie Martinez in Ginger Farley’s Space Witch is all itchy energy; it’s refreshing to see a man so voluptuously self-involved and a woman so tough and driven. Company member Harrison McEldowney’s two dances on this program highlight his cartoon style: he sticks close to male-female stereotypes, but he tells a tale exceptionally well in Woman Trouble (A Story of Sex and Scandal in Jazz). And the humor in Perfidia redeems the piece–a woman cheats on her man, with two men no less, literally right behind his back, but he doesn’t know it till the shell game takes a sudden, disastrous turn.

The first half of Frank Chaves’s Thief suggests a conventional approach to male-female roles: it opens with four women in slinky black gowns languidly strutting downstage, eyeing the audience, then meeting their four male partners upstage. But in the second half Chaves pulls a brilliant trick: he repeats the same choreography almost step for step, but the men and women switch parts. Thief made me see that the “sexism” I find in some dances in fact lies in me: given the least opportunity, we read conventional sex roles into the choreography. When the men dipped the women back in Thief, I saw it as the men’s choice; and when the women dipped the men back, I still saw it as the men’s decision

Chaves’s Passion, a dance for two men (Hancock and McEldowney) and one woman (Sara Ayers), also provides a subtly different take on male-female relations. Watching Ayers dance with McEldowney, one realizes how often duets resemble apache dance, the man a ruffian, the woman his victim. McEldowney’s hand placed suddenly on Ayers’s stomach expresses his proprietary right to her; the way he holds her by the wrists, the upper arms, or the back of the neck is menacing, almost sadistic. Usually in such dances the woman is given no choice: she and the man are alone onstage. But in Passion the woman has a choice, and she rejects the first man in favor of the second, whose partnering is gentler. Chaves seems alert to nuances in the quality of movement, the difference, say, between a tense and a relaxed limb, and he uses that sensitivity here to draw a subtle distinction.

Tony Savino’s Swing Partners (A World War II Jitterbug Suite) would be pretty ordinary if it weren’t for its same-sex partnering. In a remarkable barracks scene two men ogle a pinup calendar, dance with it, then with each other, then pull down the pants of a third. With the entrance of a fourth man they form two couples and swing their partners all over the stage, occasionally exchanging them. The clear effort to establish a heterosexual identity for the two men, their lingering, embracing dance together, then the near-rape of another man sit together very oddly. But the chemistry and energy of the men’s final jitterbugging with each other is undeniable, and it carries over into the last scene, in which men and women, women and women, men and men whirl together and apart so quickly and exuberantly the viewer no longer cares whose legs are flying into the air or how they got there.