By Kerry Reid
Interdisciplinary performance venues in Chicago have taken some hits in the last decade. The list of the dead--among them Randolph Street Gallery, N.A.M.E. Gallery, Blue Rider, MoMing--represents lost opportunities for performers to work in a public forum. Since January, though, two new monthly sessions have been helping to fill the gap.
On the last Tuesday of every month, Chicago Moving Company opens its space in the Hamlin Park field house to dancers, musicians, writers, singers, circus artists, and just about anybody else who is willing to spend $3 to participate. (It's free to watch, and refreshments are served.)
At the March CMC improv jam, over 20 performers sway, jump, sing, and dance, accompanied by a trumpet player, a pianist, and two congas. Cindy Brandle, CMC's coartistic director (with Nana Shineflug), starts an impromptu game of crack the whip with two high-spirited young boys. The dancers quickly pick up on subtle shifts in tempo. When the musicians break into a samba-
inflected beat, a conga line develops; other participants show off capoeira moves, clap hands, or pass around a tambourine. A tall, rail-thin man wearing a hot pink tank top stops and stands still as a rock, legs apart, with a very somber countenance. Several others start crawling through his legs, as if enacting a strange creation myth.
A shorter man in a blue T-shirt stops abruptly. "I took a picture of you the other day," he announces to no one in particular. "I don't think it's developed yet, but when it is, I'll give you a call." Atalee Judy, the artistic director of Breakbone Dance Company, stands in the back, her blond, close-cropped head bobbing in rhythm with her incantatory vocalizing.
The action on the floor slows after about half an hour, and then stops for a minute. "Is the jam over?" a tall young woman asks anxiously. "No, we're continuing," says Brandle. The young woman smiles and executes a series of leaps across the floor, happily declaiming in faux operatic trills, "The improv is continuing! The improv is continuing!" The band downshifts into after-hours mode with a bebop tempo. A white plastic bucket somehow ends up onstage and the man in the blue T-shirt begins twirling it with his feet. Next, he lies facedown on top of it, making swimming motions with his arms. Finally, he stands on it, miming ballroom dance moves with his partner, the man in the tank top. The pianist begins playing a rag. The trumpeter stops to read a quirky prose piece about fast food, while a woman with a microphone wanders through the audience, pretending to interview the spectators.
The man in blue stops, looks confused, and begins telling a goofy story about a trampoline, all the while bouncing like a kangaroo. Others follow suit and start hopping around. "Oh, the bounciness of it all!" he exclaims. Meanwhile, the man in pink and a young woman imitate school yard double Dutch maneuvers and a clump of women collapses to the floor and begins rolling around as a unit.
To an observer, this odd, compelling scene avoids lapsing into self-indulgence through its palpable sense of fun. And there's also something entrancing--almost hypnotic--in watching the quicksilver transformations of the performers and their openness to each other.
Brandle first started thinking about developing the series on the company's September 2000 tour of Brazil. "We were in Salvador," she says, "and we hooked up with this theater where we'd done our concert and some workshops with community people. They told us that on one Tuesday every month, they hosted an improv jam. So we performed at the end of a jam, presenting work we'd been doing with people in the community. The theater was packed, and it was very colorful. And we realized there really wasn't anything like that in Chicago."
Over at Link's Hall, Selene Carter curates "Poonie's Cabaret" one Sunday a month (the next is April 29). Named in honor of Poonie Dodson, a dancer and Link's regular who died from AIDS-related complications in the early 90s, the event brings together interdisciplinary artists interested in either collaborating or flying solo. (This event charges audience members $5.)
The cabaret grew out of a residency that Dodson's friend Patrick Scully had at Link's in 1999. Scully hosts his own "Patrick's Cabaret" in Minneapolis; inspired and as a tribute to Dodson, Carter started bringing in artists of all backgrounds and experience--the next cabaret features Xposition, a student improv group from the Dance Center of Columbia College; sound artist John Fishback; and special guests Black and Beyond, among others. Carter notes that part of the impetus for the cabaret was the drain of alternative performance venues from the city. "We've lost so many spaces," she says. "Link's is about it as far as a place that regularly provides this kind of programming."
The second half of the CMC improv sessions is a showcase for works in progress by CMC choreographers and invited guest artists. In March, Brandle presented an excerpt from Regret, set to mournful cello music and dirgelike drumbeats, while choreographer Judy of Breakbone offered up segments of her hard-driving Logotype 02. (Both pieces will run--along with Love Songs, a new piece by Shineflug based on Stephin Merritt's 1999 Magnetic Fields opus--in "Places of Meeting" on April 27 and 28 at the Harold Washington Library Center.)
Brandle says, "I really want to give younger companies and artists a chance to present their work and get more visible. We don't pay them anything [at the jam]. But it gives them an opportunity to hone in on what they're doing, and it lets other audience members who might not know them get the opportunity to see something new." The April jam, which benefits Gilda's Club, will feature members of the Dance COLEctive, and Brandle plans to invite students from the Dance Center of Columbia College in May. But amateurs shouldn't let the presence of professionals and professionals-in-training deter them. Says Brandle, "We are absolutely geared to people of any disciplines, any level of ability, any age.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Robert Drea.